INTERNATIONAL - The fighting spirit of James Bond is still alive at Aston Martin, even if the company’s freshly minted public shares are doing horribly.
Earlier this month, the 105-year-old British automaker made its stock market debut at the bottom of its initial public offering range with a £4.2 billion ($5.5 billion) opening valuation. That value assumes a 30 percent discount compared to Ferrari’s, which Aston had recently aimed to surpass with a requested valuation of £5.07 billion.
To reach a valuation as high as Ferrari’s, experts say, Aston will have to flawlessly execute the DBX SUV, which is slated for 2020. In the meantime, there’s the 2019 Vantage. In this car, at least, if not in the company’s market performance, the rougish personality and devastating charm of Mr. Bond remain. This is the $150,000 coupe that sold out within days last year after going on sale, the one with a predatory stance inspired by the brand’s Vulcan race car. I love its mean, gaping front grille, its angular sides, and its hood shaped like Venus’s shell. It’s arguably the best-looking sportscar on the market.
More importantly, along with that Vulcan and the upcoming SUV line, Vantage completes the three pillars that Aston Chief Executive Officer Andy Palmer says will bring the company back into glory.
If the $172,841 China gray Vantage that I drove is any indication, Palmer will be right.
Here’s one thing to know: At a special Bloomberg driving event in New York City last weekend, among 15 luxury sportscars—including the usual suspects from Lamborghini, Porsche, Bentley, BMW, and Maserati—the Vantage was the No. 2 most popular car for the 60 men and women who drove the models. (We had a whole voting system set up for fun; the Lamborghini Huracan Performante won the driver’s choice vote, which I don’t want to say I told you so, but ahem.)
The Lamborghini costs gobs more than the Vantage (an additional $150,000 or so), and it isn’t a direct competitor, but this was as unscientific a poll as you can get. My point is that Aston Martin’s darling punches way above its weight.
If you order one now you’ll have to be patient: You’re looking at a “late summer delivery, most likely,” a spokesman from Aston Martin told me. Meanwhile, know that the Vantage is a few inches longer and wider than its predecessor, with smaller headlights and a more curvaceous hood. A few other updates—new dials, touch-screen internal controls sourced by Mercedes (thank god), and the new Mercedes AMG-sourced engine chief among them—offer significant advantages over previous Aston Martins.
That engine—a twin-turbocharged midmounted V-8 with 503-horsepower and 505 pound-feet of torque—complements the attributes that made the Vantage so desirable in the first place. It goes zero to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds. Top speed is 195 mph.
The eight-speed automatic transmission is augmented by a hyper-tightly tuned rear-wheel drive and long paddle shifters on the wheels that push the car to high speeds in what amounts to a simultaneously smooth but raw visceral experience. The paddle shifters remain stationary as you turn the wheel, which I prefer to the others that move with the wheel as you turn it. As one Ferrari instructor told me, if you’re shifting so deep into a turn that you can’t reach the paddle shifter, you’re probably doing it wrong. In the rain, in unexperienced hands, or at the mercy of someone who is impatient and rough, the car can go sideways very, very quickly.
Driving the Vantage feels like dancing on a razors’ edge. The steering responds like a hair-trigger. The brakes bite like a viper. Getting inside and closing the door requires a statement of intent: Remember, you own this car. Don’t let it own you.
The driving experience in the Vantage is made all the more intense because the car has an exceptionally low seating position. At 5-foot-11 (taller when I’m in my driving shoes), I typically position sportscar seats as low as they can go; with the firm, speed-racer seats of the Vantage, I raised myself higher with the touch of a button. This is great news if you’re long-legged or like to wear hats while behind the wheel. Otherwise, you may think you need a booster. The sensation is not exactly like how a child might feel sitting behind the wheel of a race car, but it’s close.
In keeping with the spaciousness of the seats (there only two of them), the rest of the cabin is roomy, with ample head- and legroom if you don’t need to carry any bags or luggage there. An 8-inch LED screen sits as the focal point in the center of the dashboard. Creature comforts include heated seats and an auto-heated rear screen to help avoid foggy windows.
A carbon-fiber sport steering wheel, full leather interior, chrome or carbon tread plates, embroidery and leather perforation, and interior “jewelry” in lime, red, or white are all optional. I wouldn’t get any of them—Aston Martin has been producing some extremely questionable interior combinations lately, and I can’t figure out why, other than the old adage “There’s no accounting for taste.” The cars are born strikingly handsome; additional efforts to doll them up only obscure their beautiful bones, and they make me question the general self-confidence of the owner.
On the outside, maybe alternative brake caliper colors would be nice on those 20-inch Y-spoke wheels. They come in black, red, gray, yellow, satin silver, orange, vivid red, blue, and Madagascar orange. Carbon-fiber roof and mirror cases, among other things swathed in that weave, are optional though unnecessary to achieve visual distinction among your peers.
Focus on the Product
All this you already know if you’re at all interested in the status and life cycles of Bond’s car of choice. The real question is whether the dismal state of the shares will affect your purchase. My colleague Kevin Tynan, senior automotive analyst at Bloomberg, says the stock’s performance probably won't harm what you buy in the showroom.
“It’s not that the product is bad,” he says. “The problem with Aston Martin Lagonda is that they don’t produce enough and they are not Ferrari, although there are similarities. I would still put this in ‘great car, bad stock’ position.”
And will it affect how exceptional—I mean truly exceptional—you’ll feel driving this car? I can answer this one: not a wit.