I drove a new Volkswagen Eos the other day. It was a sparky little number in a happy shade of blue with a delightfully smooth gearbox and a racy impatience at the lights. It did not, however, turn a lot of heads. At no point did the Eos and I cause a grown man to drop his shopping and punch the air. At no point did someone just march up to the car as I was parking it and brazenly take photos. And at no point did the occupants of an entire curry house freeze in mid-chew and stare out of the window as I gunned its engine and idled past.
Yet all of these things — and many more — happened when I drove the Aston Martin V8 Vantage. Part car, part public service, it's a vehicle that makes its driver feel if not actually famous, then at least enormously privileged, and quite possibly in need of a pair of waterproof pants. This sleek piece of motoring mayhem does 0-100kph in under five seconds (except when I'm driving), has a top speed of 280kph (ditto), and — much more importantly — is capable of generating an effervescent mixture of envy and elation in every middle-aged man in earshot, which is a sizeable area.
Aston Martin has just celebrated the building of its 30,000th production car and the V8 Vantage is what you might call the poor man's Aston, costing tens of thousands of pounds and sporting an eight-cylinder engine, rather than the usual one hundred thousand pounds-plus with accompanying 12-cylinder beast. Let's call it an entry-level Aston, an attempt by the British carmaker to rectify the fact that its marque is exclusive but not particularly visible.
Weighing in at a mere £82,800 (US$156,000) (that's the 2007 price, the waiting list being nine to 12 months), the V8 Vantage is within the range of, say, potential Porsche-buyers who might fancy trading up to something a bit more special but for whom the jump to the £100,000 Aston Martin DB9 is just too ruinous. So they get a more compact package in the Vantage and, instead of the DB9's relatively useless back seat, they get the Vantage's relatively useless luggage ledge.
What else do you get for that knockdown price? Quite simply, the ride of your life. I took my handcrafted model, which came in thrilling “tora red,” down to the south Kent coast in south-east England. I tapped the accelerator somewhere on the edge of London and didn't really have to touch it again until we hit the beach, the 10-way adjustable leather seat cocooning me like a favorite old armchair all the way, as drivers of Mercs and BMWs looked on in wonder. (Actually, they were probably wondering why a 380bhp car capable of leaving them for dust was pootering down the slow lane.
Well, I was scared. My other car is a pushbike.)
The Vantage has one of those chunky gearboxes typical of the elite sports car. You don't so much change the gears as manhandle them. But it's still a dream to drive. And a dream to look at, too: its seven-spoke alloy wheels are thrust right out to the corners, giving it a poised, pugnacious yet elegant appearance, while the bodywork's sculpted curves bend light so aggressively the car seems to be moving even when standing still.
Inside, the dashboard is clad in more black leather than a chubby biker, stitched with an angry red thread and boasting, among other delights, a satnav console that swings up out of the dash with the sort of studied hi-tech slowness only large quantities of money can buy. The roof is finished in what may be suede but feels like velvet, and, in a nifty touch, there's a little camera tucked away inside the passenger door. It's for gathering evidence after an accident, apparently, but you do have to fight the urge to rip off its casing and get a few snaps of yourself salivating behind the wheel.