Aston Martin is hoping to strike gold with the V8 Vantage, its new rival to the popular Porsche 911. John Simister is smitten by its mix of pace, crisp handling and gorgeous acoustics

Britain has the perfect brand to rival the 911. Jaguar? Not quite... a bit too soft, a bit to wedded to automatic transmissions, a bit too mainstream. The new XK comes close, but it's too big. Think Aston Martin, then. A "junior" Aston, cheaper than the lovely but pricey DB9, and much cheaper than the flawed but scintillating Vanquish S.

There's been room for such a product for ages. The wonder is that one didn't materialise, even while Aston Martin lurched from owner to owner. Ford has owned Aston for over a decade, but only now are the pieces in place for the car everyone wants.

That is the new V8 Vantage. At £79,995 it's almost a bargain in Aston terms, being just £6,000 or so more than a typical 911. It's a delicate balance of economics, because the Vantage isn't much cheaper to make than the DB9 given that it shares the same basic under-structure. But a smaller car with four fewer cylinders ought to cost less, and that means Aston Martin will sell more. The Vantage makes Aston Martin a 5,000 cars-a-year company, a far cry from the 42 it produced at its nadir.

Your first sight of the Vantage has you bowled over with its beauty. Cars can be striking, shocking, mind-opening, but a truly gorgeous car is rare. It's ultra-modern yet classically lovely, a lithe, taut, compact two-seater coupé. The larger DB9, too, is beautiful, the Vanquish more butch, and all three are sufficiently similar that they could be confused as one might a C, E or S-class Mercedes-Benz. But delve more deeply and you'll see that they all have their own characters, and the Vantage is the most instantly lovable.

Lovable? Beautiful? He's eulogising and he hasn't even driven it yet. So let's do just that, on the bendy roads around Siena where Aston is introducing the production V8 to the world.

Neatness abounds. The bonnet sits snugly between the front wings, seals all round keeping the airflow smooth. The air vent behind the front wheels, an Aston signature, leads into a crease-line along the doors in a way which hasn't happened before. And at the back, the rear window opens as a hatchback, something last seen on the DB2/4 of the 1950s.

As with the DB9, there's an eclectic mix of materials in the Vantage. The roof, doors and bonnet are made from aluminium. The front wings and tailgate are stamped from moulded plastic. The rest of the bodywork is steel, but underneath is a chassis built mainly from extruded or cast aluminium. The pieces fit together in the same way as a DB9's, but their sizes are altered to suit. Aston Martin calls it VH (vertical-horizontal) architecture, because it's easy to alter the Vs and Hs to make a different car.

The Vantage is as small and low as the VH architecture can go, and has its engine set particularly far back. Its 4.3 litres release 380bhp at 7,300rpm, which suggests an engine keen to rev freely. That the maximum pulling ability of 302lb ft doesn't arrive until 5,000rpm adds to that impression, although much of that torque is available from lower speeds.

Crucial to an intimate, driver-pleasing coupé is a proper manual gearbox, which the Vantage has: a six-speeder from Italian company Graziano.

The driver's door opens up as well as out, with a hint of "gullwing" exoticism. Ignition on, I watch the large glass starter button change from blue to red. The V8 fires with a confrontational woof, and settles to a burbly idle. The handsome dashboard is broadly that of the DB9 but without the wood, yet in this smaller space it looms larger. Add the raked-back, shallow windscreen and it's clear that a panoramic view out is not on the agenda. A 911 is better here.

The door mirrors sit on a pair of low stalks, moved out from the bodywork to improve visibility. You soon adapt to the field of view, which does not hinder the Vantage in traffic - vital to the useability that Aston craves.

I've just hit 7,300rpm. The engine whipped up to these dizzy heights with ease; it's the maximum engine speed in all gears except third, in which 7,500rpm is allowed to so the Vantage can reach 100mph. It's good for the on-paper credentials, saving milliseconds otherwise wasted during a gearshift in pursuit of the hottest acceleration time. From a standstill to 60mph takes 4.9 seconds, and the maximum is 175mph.

Back at the hotel, I go to bed with mixed feelings. The V8 sounds fabulous, kind of cultured Chevrolet Corvette but surprisingly loud from the outside. Its agility is undeniable - it flicks into corners and nails itself to the road, flinging this way and that with minimal inertia. It's much handier than a DB9, and it rides bumps better. But I haven't bonded with it. I'm interfacing with a collection of systems, not talking to a metal soul. It's not instant harmony as it is with a new 911.

Next morning I'm ready to assess the Aston afresh. There will be faster, more open roads on part of today's route, which will help. I realise, as I aim for the first bends, that I've been over-driving the Aston. Yes, the engine revs to the heavens but it pulls powerfully from lower speeds, too. I've also got the hang of the accelerator, and the Vantage is flowing beautifully as I smooth out the gearshifts.

Flow. That's what we've got now, and it's a joy to feel the nose point into a bend and the tail edge out to aim the whole car towards the exit.The gearbox is not only pleasing to use, it also emits some whines and the occasional distant clonk. I don't mind these, because they are the sounds of machinery at work and they suit the Vantage's vibe as a car intended to draw the driver into its machinations.

This is the most completely exhilarating and satisfying Aston Martin for years. Not only is it terrific fun to drive, it also oozes "authenticity". By that I mean it's entirely an Aston Martin, with nothing visible taken from any other brand whether in the Ford empire or not. It's likely to be dependable, too, judging by the behaviour of the cars on the launch. That's good news given the problems experienced with early DB9s, and an important point given the Vantage's 911-rivalling ambitions.

The Aston Martin V8 Vantage. The waiting list is already two years long, but it will be worth the wait.

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