Business, Finance & Economics

Wheels: Royal Ford plays James Bond

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MARIN COUNTY, California — Shaken or stirred?

Your choice, just as it was for the slick spy who demanded his martinis in a particular fashion. I've always ordered Texas Lone Star longneck beers by saying, "Neither shaken nor stirred, sir,'' but from Amarillo to Houston, not a bartender ever got it.

But your choice is not for a gullet-warming drink. Instead, it's an option between the evil twin versions of the 2009 Aston Martin V8 Vantage.

The James Bond movies and books were trailblazers in the world of automotive product placement. Aston Martin. James Bond. Forever linked. Back when England used to build cars.

Yet Bond obviously had an expense account — gambling, drinks and travel covered. Ditto, technological gimmicks courtesy of gadgeteer R&D man "Q." And if Bond wrecked one, he'd just get another.

So for those who have at least some limits in life, Aston Martin has moved to distance itself from the high prices of Lamborghini and Ferrari. Now it wants to contend with Porsche 911s, the Jaguar XKR, and the Audi R8.

Of course, limits is a relative term. While the new Vantage is, indeed, powerful with 420 horsepower, a larger figure still looms: To compete in this world, you still need $100,000 to $150,000 to park most of any of the above in your six-car garage.

What is interesting about the Vantage is that the company does not deluge prospective buyers with options that can drive prices higher into the sky. The Vantage is available as a hard top or convertible, with a manual or automatic transmission, and with sport packages that focus mainly on shifting and suspension that run about $4,000 each.

But if you are a potential buyer, be sure to try them out: Shaken or stirred, particularly when we are talking about suspension.

The Sport trim would be my choice for amateur racetrack games on weekends, or if you live in a country with incredibly smooth roads. But choose it for rougher terrain and you will feel every accent of every road, from bridge expansion joints to poured-in segments of cement to simple undulations of pavement.

Note that with either choice, you will be driving an elegantly designed car, easily recognized by not only wealthy enthusiasts, but also the hoi polloi who have seen it only on the big screen or television reruns.

The increase in horsepower in the 4.7-liter engine — up about 40 ponies from the last iteration — and a 15 percent hike in reach-down-deep torque band make it a veritable monster car. Add the burbling exhaust note, with elevating basso as the rpms climb, and you'd wish you could make that sound the ring tone on your cell phone, so that when curious folks around you stare when the phone burbles you can say, "That's my car calling.''

But truly, while driving, there is a purposely engineered difference in feel, in response, in tactile from-the-butt feedback as you slap each model around.

Should the non-Sport model be your thing — a proper British sports car — grab it for sure. You will ride in the accustomed softness and comfort that draws many buyers to Aston Martin. But if you want to ride hard, very hard is what you get with the Sport suspension package. Shaken or stirred: the smooth, fast, and undulating track or the plush, rolling ride that many, particularly in the U.S., seem to prefer.

We drove the regular suspension last, and it was noticeably softer on the twists and climbs over hills and through valleys in Marin County in California. While the kickback of road feel with the Sport suspension could be felt in the wheel and the seat of the pants, the regular suspension had a stable yet softer sense. There was, of course, a bit more body roll in the softer setup, but I suspect that folks who want the gentler ride will not be pushing the car hard enough for body roll to be a consideration.

Other than suspension feedback to the wheel, steering in either model was concise, with higher speeds in particular requiring little work of the wheel — even when pushed intentionally to a bad line on a corner, it was a gentle fix, not a rapid sawing affair.

With its 420 horsepower launching you — and torque that begins to add to the effect at about 1,500 rpms — you could tow a small boat or push a snowplow with this power (we'd like to see the pictures of that!).

The transmission offerings are also an interesting duality in driver choice and operation. We'd take the more visceral manual six-speed stick in a heartbeat over the optional Sportshift transmission simply for the direct driver input it allows. The Sportshift does have one nice advantage — comfort or sport modes to map shift patterns depending on driver desire.

The manual is crisp, will not contradict intent (so be careful), and clicks like dice running down the felt in Vegas. But in this case, you always win.

Inside, there is a button between the front seats that allows you to eject anyone nagging you from the passenger seat beside you. Just kidding. Options include the Coupe and Roadster variants and then a choice of the Sports Pack, which lowers unsprung mass, adds forged lightweight alloy wheels and specially tuned Bilstein dampers and upgrades spring rates along with a tougher rear anti-roll bar for the Coupe.

And not to be overlooked, depending on customer choice between the tactile and the electronically nimble, are the manual and Sportshift options for transmissions. The automatic gets a dual throttle map with selectable Comfort and Sport modes, which adjust to driver intent and tendencies, and can be manually shifted via paddles on the wheel.

Taut, double-stitched leathers are found throughout, even up the sides of the futuristic center control pod. A funky interior descended from the Aston Martin DBS, with a flowing control stack from center dash to shift panel, adds elegance, imbuing the V8 Vantage with upper-crust feel.

But damn, combining luxury with performance can sometimes be a hard task.

Consider that the elegant center armrest blocks the elbow on hard, sudden shifts in the manual. But this, too, is part of the duality. And it is why anyone thinking about this new V8 Vantage will have to think carefully about what kind of ad-Vantage they seek.

Shaken? Stirred?

 

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