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A Ride with (The Spirit of) James Bond
The Spectator
founded 2004 by ron cruger
A place for intelligent writers
A place for intelligent readers
 by Josh Lee
Your comments about this column are welcome ~ e-mail Josh at
joshlee008@gmail.com
        It was the car of choice for a certain MI6 agent, codenamed ď007Ē, James Bond, of course. Itís the car of choice for the privileged few in society today. And itís the car of choice for this driver to want to smash into a million pieces. Read on and see why as we take the 2012 Aston Martin V8 Vantage out onto the fierce streets of Los Angeles.
        Itís the 2012 Aston Martin V8 Vantage, the very bottom of Aston Martinís complex lineup of models. If you visit Aston Martinís website and navigate to ďAll ModelsĒ, youíll be presented with a five-by-three grid of models. Donít be mistaken, though, although they display fifteen different models, there are really only seven different models. At the top of the stack is the famed One-77, followed by the Vanquish DBS, Rapide, Virage, DB9, Vantage, and the Cygnet (which is actually just a gussied up Toyota/Scion IQ with AM badging, so it doesnít count in my book).
        The Vantage comes in a handful of body styles with a handful of options. Weíre in the base model car, the V8 coupe. Make no mistake, though, although this is the ďbaseĒ, or bottom of the Vantage line, youíre still looking at a $XXX,XXX car. Whether or not your well-earned money is worth that, however, weíll have to see.
        Stepping into the cabin is, well, a bit of a letdown. If this was a BMW 3-series or Mercedes C-Class, it might be acceptable, but in a car of this class with that aforementioned sticker price, they could do a lot better. The interior of our car was finished in an ostentatious black leather and paneling accented by polished chrome (they call the palette ďPiano Black Facia Trim and Graphite Centre Console FinishĒ). Itís a beautiful dash-scape, but one that Iíd rather see in a beige or pewter. Thereís something about sitting down in any luxury car finished in black that makes the whole cabin seem claustrophobic. Even in the largest and most spacious BMW 7-series or Mercedes Benz S-Class, thereís a tremendous difference between a dark interior and a light interior.
        Getting past the supple, butt-loving, hand stitched leather and the fact that thereís an Aston Martin emblem in front of you, you begin to notice that the cabin has much to be desired. Starting on the left, front and center is the Vantageís instrument cluster. Itís not ugly, by any means, but itís not beautiful either. Look at the gauges in any run-of-the-mill European import and youíll see real beauty in design.
        Here, however, things are different. For starters, markers on the gauges are white illuminated lines on a silver face. At night, Iím sure that looks incredibly cool and high-tech or whatever they were going for, but during the day, presumably when youíll be doing at least half of your driving, theyíre impossible to see. For the fuel gauge, thatís not a huge deal, the needle indicates where you are between full and empty. But the speedometer is a different story. Perhaps Aston Martin was trying to slip the driver subliminal messages by marking the spedo all the way from zero to 200. But unless youíre taking your Vantage to a track, youíre not going to be doing anything near that and from what I understand, this car is only capable of hitting 180 anyway. The problem in the design on the speedometer is that because Aston Martin decided to go all the way to 200, everything else below it got scrunched up to make room for the extra digits. And that means that the region youíre likely to stay in (zero to one hundred) is squeezed into the bottom quarter of the dial. And because the indicator lines are white on silver, youíre going to have one heck of a time trying to figure out where between forty and sixty you are. Be ready to get pulled over by a cop and attempt to explain to him that your $150,000 car has an unreadable speedometer. And believe me, when youíre driving this bad boy, cops look your way.
        Just right of the speedometer we find the tachometer. Ironically, just like the fuel gauge, itís less vital and yet more decipherable. And thereís one more quirk here: the gauge moves counter-clockwise. Is there any other car that does that in this hemisphere? Iíve never seen that before.
        Moving over to the center stack, we find a mess of what looks like a dashboard from the late 1990ís to the early 2000ís. I have no doubt in my mind that every other car in this price class, every other car above $40,000 for that matter, has a better user interface than this Vantage. Like all luxury cars, thereís a navigation unit onboard, but it comes up on this screen that looks like it was ripped out of an old Boeing 757. The resolution is terribly low for this day and age (of iPhone retina-displays, HDTVís, etc.). The graphics look like something that a kid would do in Microsoft Paint (does that even still exist?). The colors are overly saturated, the street lines are these thick grey strokes that all get lost on top of each other, and the interface is slow to respond. Again, if this was in a Hyundai, Kia, Ford, or Honda, it would be totally acceptable. But weíre talking cars that cost less than one sixth what this one does.
        Things only get worse as you move down the dashboard. Just under that navigation screen (which is actually an option that adds about $2,700 to the price of the vehicle) is the worldís strangest transmission and ignition. From left to right are circular buttons that start with park, then reverse, and then in the center is the ignition. Itís an oddball. Itís a mix between Nissanís fully wireless key and Hondaís old school turn-to-start key. You insert the keyfob into the slot and then hold the key in (not a button, the edge of the key) to start the car. I donít even want to know what happens if you pull that thing out while youíre driving. On the right side of the ignition are your other two gears: neutral and drive. I have three words: that is weird. Jaguar broke the trend when it introduced its push-and-turn dial for selecting a gear. Itís an elegant solution to what is usually an unsightly joystick (BMW and Prius). I think I get what Aston Martin was trying to do but they just didnít get it. 
        Audio, entertainment, and climate controls are all down south. Here, again, controls are poorly designed for a driver who has his eyes and attention on the road. In the center of the audio/climate panel is a totally unnecessary analog clock. Címon, these men and women have Rolex and Tag Hauer watches to glance at. That clock is neither pretty nor necessary. And on top of that, it takes up valuable space. Space that made buttons like Menu, AM/FM, Back, Mode, and most of your climate controls tiny little lines that are almost flush with the panel. Thatís not a good thing. Not only should they be higher up on the dashboard, they should be bigger and easier to read and reach. Generally, people who are able to afford this car are getting older. Generally, older people start to develop a decline in their visual performance. And thatís not to insult anyone. Even while I was behind the wheel, I couldnít just glance down and see what button my finger needed to hit.

        Small, unreadable, and unusable continue on the display that reads out all these functions. The screen itself is tiny. Itís a small monochrome display that lives noticeably higher than the controls themselves. If you drove any General Motors vehicle manufactured between 2003 and 2007 that featured the standard GM audio unit, think of that. And on this screen, Aston Martin crams in everything from interior climate, exterior climate, audio source, audio playing, volume, etc. And being able to display all of that on a tiny screen means that everything has to be tiny. And at a low resolution like that, tiny means pixelated and hard to read. And the final insult, to keep with that ďpiano blackĒ theme, they covered that screen with a shiny piece of plastic that reflected glare like a mirror. Here in Los Angeles, our sun is pretty bright. When that light came through the windshield, that little display was completely unreadable. Again, even I had trouble seeing things. Their buyers must too.
        Iím excited to find that the Vantage features a DSG, or a dual-clutch automated manual transmission. That means that unlike a standard automatic where you leave choosing the gear up to the car, and unlike a manual where you do everything yourself, you have the option to throw the transmission into sport mode and shift yourself using the paddle shifters just behind the wheel. In most cars, paddle shifters are there more for the bragging rights than any actual functionality. But here, they may actually do the job.
        Under the hood is one hell of an engine. Unlike those cheap little dime-a-dozen cars that have their engines sitting side-saddle, the Aston Martin goes with a traditional motor. The Vantage can be had with a twelve cylinder engine, but in our model we have the standard eight. And for the most part, this is the engine people are going to get. Maybe you donít live in California and wonít get slapped with an exorbitant gas-guzzler tax (the V8 still gets hit with a gas guzzler tax, only lower), maybe you want better (relatively) fuel economy, and maybe youíre just being practical (is that even possible with this car?) and know that youíll never need the power of a twelve cylinder engine.
        The base Vantage coupeís engine is an all-alloy 32-valve, 4.7 liter V8 which puts out 420 horsepower and 346 pound feet of torque, feeding power to the six-speed automated manual transmission. That, like I said, is one hell of an engine. All Aston Martins feature handmade engines made with only the best. Magnesium, alloy, and titanium all contribute to the quality of this block and also the overall weight of the car itself. EPA rated fuel economy is 14 city/20 highway, not surprising given the nature of this car and that it weighs a good 3,595 pounds.
        Thereís something about the feeling of starting up an Aston Martin and pulling out onto the street. Itís a mix of giddy excitement and tremendous fear. I mean, imagine the body shop bill if anything was to even just scratch the paint on this lux-o-coupe. But itís a thrill that, sadly, Iím sure I wonít have again for many, many years to come. My dream car has always been a Lexus RX which almost seems cheap in comparison.
        Pulling out onto to the road, the Aston Martin roars in an impressive way that sneers ďyouíll never drive anything like meĒ to the other drivers on the road. Teenagers in their ďsouped upĒ Honda Civic Siís and the twenty-something year old in his new Hyundai Tiburon all look your way longingly. Thatís really what this car is all about. Envy. Itís not about usability, itís not about tech, itís not about functionality, itís about sending a message to everyone around you. This car, the same way any Bentley, Maserati, Lamborghini, or Ferrari does, shouts to the world that youíre even better than them working folk who drive their Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Jaguars, Range Rovers, and what have you.
        But thatís just the thing, itís not about the actual usability or drivability of this car, because this car has none. Pulling out onto the road and quickly downshifting to pass and to get up to speed, through every shift the car seemed to get confused. Thatís not a good thing, because automated manuals are usually fun transmissions to drive because you have the option of sitting back and letting the car take charge, or dropping into manual mode and taking control yourself. Even models with a full automatic supplemented by a sport mode and paddles are fun to drive. The Chevy Corvette and Acura models equipped with their SH-AWD (Super Handling All Wheel Drive) are good, recent examples of that. Lock out of top gear and shift your way through the streets with the paddles. It works.
        The Aston Martin, however, seems to want to punish the driver for not getting the (likely much better) six-speed manual, and thereby refuses to drive nicely. And itís not just my driving. After returning home I looked it up. Other reviewers and enthusiasts have noted the same thing. Itís not that the engine isnít good, the engine is probably incredible. I say incredible because with this transmission itís impossible to really tell.
        Driving north on Los Angelesí I405, the car didnít like getting locked out of top gear and shifted through traffic. Every downshift to draw more power, every upshift to lighten up seemed like a chore and in some places the car just seemed to run out of breath. Again, not good for a car thatís $150,000. Sunset Boulevard in west LA heading from Brentwood to the Pacific Palisades was better done in my Honda. The posted speed limit around the twists and turns is actually 35, but when the traffic is light, everyone is zipping along at fifty or fifty five. Thatís a real test, because of the constant slowing required to vector into tight turns. Maybe this is a car you drive in one gear on a straight road at a constant speed. I donít know, but variable gears, variable speeds, and constant braking did not make this car happy.
        So finally I threw the car back into automatic and puttered on back to the dealership. If youíre considering the Vantage, Iíd highly suggest the six-speed manual. Test drive them both first, but Iím pretty sure youíll get better performance out of the manual.
        The sad part about this car is that it is a beautiful piece of engineering, it really is. Itís an art piece reserved for the privileged few who can afford it. Not only does Aston Martin have the prestige of being in the elite club of $100,000 cars, it has the design language that presents a god of the road, all the things that buyers of this class are looking for. It just needs an interior refresh. If Dodge could pull it off on the Journey, Aston Martin can sure as hell pull it off on the Vantage. Itís only a question of when. If youíre in the market for a car in this class, take a look at the Vantage and form your own opinion. But while youíre around town, do yourself a favor and take a few hours to drive the Bentley Continental GT. Thatís a car thatís got the tech, the ergonomics, the panache, and the presence to smash the Vantage ó so I wonít have to.