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2012 Aston Martin V8 Vantage Roadster, and how to spend that Facebook IPO: Motoramic Drives

June 8, 2012

Car critics seem to live the life of Riley. Exotic machines dropped off at the curb daily and so forth. Truth is, most of time it's straight-forward people movers, frugal, well-built machines that rock neither the pocket book nor the soul. But not today.

When the black on black Aston Martin rolls up, a spawn of James Bond and Catwoman, you know what it feels like to be a new Facebook bazillionaire, suddenly rich enough to on a whim buy a small Caribbean island or a new 2012 Aston Martin V8 Vantage.

But then I look up the model's base price: $118,000? OK, not chump change, but a price that's less than half of Aston's road-rocking DBS. Sure, you're missing four cylinders in the V8 Vantage, but you've got the same rakish looks, snarling exhaust note and valet cache that says "I'm not following the herd."

And what a herd it is. With the 2012 V8 Vantage Roadster, Aston has deliberately jumped into a snarling pit of sub-$200,000 exotic convertibles, which includes the likes of the Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet ($149,000), Mercedes SL65 AMG Roadster ($150,000), Maserati Gran Turismo Convertible ($136,000) and Audi R8 Spyder ($171,800). Our test car slotted right into that crowd at $148,395, thanks to that rag top and options such as a paddle-shift transmission, premium audio and the like, presenting a pampering if not overly luxe package that returns respectable EPA scores of 14mpg city and 21 mpg highway.

"The V8 Vantage is deliberately the most accessible of all our models, designed to appeal to someone who might have a full garage of high-end cars but wants a nice daily driver," says Matthew Clarke, brand communications manager for Aston Martin, which since 2007 has been run by a consortium of British and Kuwaiti investors.

The typical Aston buyer? "Self-made for starters, and the Aston is their reward," says Clarke. "Our buyers wear their designer labels on the inside."

Really now? Push the elegant black and crystal matchbox-size "key" into its designated dash slot and the V8 fires to life with a rumble that causes heads to whip around. And they tend to stay swiveled once they catch a glimpse of the Vantage body. At this point, those Aston styling cues are familiar: a gaping mouth of a grill, a long snout of a nose creased by two deft folds and a rear end that is impossibly wide without feeling chunky.

But the best news is that the Roadster loses nothing to the coupe in the looks department. If anything, with its seriously raked windshield arguments can be made that 007 shouldn't have bothered with a coupe in the first place. This car has serious sex appeal.

With a comparatively modest 420 hp on tap from a V8 that can push the car to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, this Vantage lacks the sheer brute force of its more expensive siblings. But in the class of entry-level exotics, it easily holds its own in the twisties with cars such as SL65 and Maserati. Whatever it gives up to the sports-minded Porsche and Audi in sheer pace and racing acumen, the Aston makes up for with road manners that make jaunts along a country road enjoyable rather than exhausting.

The rest of the car's hardware advertises its competience. Braking is handled by ventilated, grooved discs, while bumps are easily absorbed by the independent wishbone suspension without a hint of cowl shake. Refinement is the watchword inside the cockpit, with its supple leather, piano-black trim pieces and analog instruments. Some critics have faulted Aston Martin for not being quite up to speed with the high-tech age, but between an iPod dock, Bluetooth and a new Garmin-based navigation system that proved far less confused than some German counterparts, there's little to complain about here.

There's one big exception to the above kudos. Clarke advised keeping the V8 Vantage -- which for 2012 features the Sportshift II 7-speed "automated manual" transmission from the Vantage S -- in Sport mode and using the paddles to shift through the gearbox, as opposed to dawdling in Drive.

No kidding.

In the latter guise, the transmission rushes through four or five gears before you've hit 40 miles an hour, a lurch-filled ride that is completely at odds with what is otherwise a razor-sharp shifting experience at the touch of your fingers. Those fuel economy numbers don't come easy.

And the window sticker hides a few other unpleasant surprises. For a car pushing $150,000, it's simply annoying to see items such as heated front seats ($750), fine stitching ($295) and a simple wind deflector ($750) as options.

But these are relatively small quibbles for such an exclusive car. In our Bay Area testing zone, Porsches and even Ferraris make almost as frequent appearances are Prii and Teslas. And after Facebook's recent IPO, there will likely be even more of those familiar exotic nameplates clogging area highways. By seeking out a car like the Aston Martin V8 Vantage Roadster, there's at least chance to say, I'm rich, but I'm original.