The Hero's Return
I'm no James Bond, but the key to the new V8 Vantage-an elegant slug of crystal, stainless steel, and polycarbonate, what Aston Martin calls the ECU-is surely as potent an instrument as any weapon or gadget 007 himself employed.

Simply hold it, feel its cool heft in the palm of your hand. Slide into a snug, full-grain leather bucket seat and insert the key into the ignition slot, top center on the dash; push it in and the engine sparks with a snarl, then quiets to a near-silent pulse that's more felt than heard. It's a scenario you'll find yourself playing out again and again, even in your sleep.

Since its introduction in 2005, the V8 Vantage has become the most popular Aston Martin of all time. You wouldn't have called the first one slow, but it's returning for 2009 with a heroic new powerplant and other well-placed modifications to push it ever higher into sports car strata.

Looking at the car won't really clue you into the differences-you need to look under the skin. Chief among them is a newly revised engine. Cylinder bore and stroke dimensions of 91mm (compared to 89mm x 86mm, respectively) push overall displacement from 4.3 to 4.7 liters. The new forged steel crankshaft features hollow sections in its counterweights for less rotating mass and better inter-bay circulation. Efficiency improvements have been made to the dry-sump lubrication system, and the cylinder heads have been modified with enlarged inlet valves (35.9mm versus 34.9mm), new intake ports, and a new intake manifold. The improvements are sufficient to bring output to new peak levels of 420 hp and 346 lb-ft of torque-increases of 11 and 15 percent over the previous V8.

The Vantage transmissions have been overhauled to improve performance and to properly harness the increased power output. Both the standard manually operated gearbox and Sportshift automated manual incorporate a modified clutch and flywheel, reducing rotational mass within the powertrain to improve engine response.

Sportshift, in particular, has been subject to a few further improvements to "offer customers enhanced comfort and convenience with sporting capabilities." Changes include a new-and-improved control strategy that supposedly allows the transmission itself, rather than the engine, to dictate how to deploy engine torque for a smoother, more consistent delivery. As with other single-clutch automated systems, however, full automatic mode is typically clunky in its actuation. It's much more effective when you're hard in the throttle and pulling the steering column mounted shift levers yourself.

Sportshift also features a "dual throttle map" software upgrade that allows two modes of operation: Comfort, wherein the drivetrain reacts more progressively to throttle input, and Sport, where throttle is more direct and aggressive. Sportshift also features improved hill-descent detection that allows lower gears to be held for maximized engine braking.

Some of the suspension improvements introduced in the Vantage Roadster have now been carried over to the Coupe, like revised upper damper mountings and bump stops, along with stiffer spring rates both front and rear. Both models benefit from new steering geometry and stiffer lower suspension arm bushings for more direct input, and low-friction Bilstein dampers for both improved ride quality and dynamic capability. In addition, a new Sports Pack has been made available, which comprises lightweight forged alloy wheels, retuned dampers, uprated springs, and a revised rear antiroll bar.

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