Aston Martin Virage / Aston Martin Vantage S
The Ascari Race Resort circuit in Southern Spain is a fine place to launch a car. Built by the elusive supercar makers Ascari, owned by Klaas Zwart, the 5.4km track weaves its way through the scrubby contours of a sprawling site a few kilometres north-east of Ronda. Opened in 2002, the track is a cut-and-paste design, a full size collage of the 'best bits' from circuits from around the world. As a result it's a popular place to develop and test cars, as well as play host to track days for wealthy enthusiasts.
Aston Martin chose the resort to reveal their two newest cars to the world's media. For such a comparatively small manufacturer, Aston Martin produces a remarkable number of products. Ever since the launch of the DB9 in 2004, AM has played an evolutionist strategy. Underpinning the DB9, and the V8 Vantage that followed in 2005, was a clever chassis formed from bonded aluminium, a flexible building block from which cars could be made larger (the Rapide 4-door) and smaller (V8 Vantage), as well as in coupe and convertible variants.
This fine piece of product planning has seen the original DB9 evolve gracefully, constantly being refined and enhanced while at the same time more powerful and luxurious variants have emerged to fill the various slots in the still buoyant £100K+ car market.
Which brings us to the current launch. Aston Martin's new cars are the V8 Vantage S, a hardcore, more driver-focused version of the original V8 Vantage, itself a formidable piece of automotive dynamism that already forms the basis of several racing cars and a ferocious V12-engined version. Alongside the Vantage S is the new Virage, a name that is much a strategic departure as the car itself is a clear evolutionary development of the original DB9.
Virage shares the rakish profile, muscular flanks and classic proportions of its siblings, but there are some substantial changes that justify the new car's position as the supreme GT of the family. Stylistically, there is a general fleshing out of the sinuously curved bodywork, starting with the revised front grille and carbon splitter, then drawn back along the flanks to anchor the car to the ground. The longer headlights, with LED inserts, mirror the units used in the larger Rapide, while the rest of the body is alive with little details where chrome and carbon are integrated with the bodywork.
The most obvious interior upgrade is a long-overdue satnav system, finally putting AM back on the technological track in this increasingly competitive part of the cabin. Otherwise it's business as usual, with the glass buttons, hand-stitched leather and excellent driving position all contributing to the Virage's feeling a complete package. Both coupe and Volante (convertible) variants were on hand, with the latter giving more opportunity to enjoy the rasping exhaust. But driving at full tilt all the time is exhausting. As far as its big 2+2s go, AM has bowed out of the numbers game, preferring to emphasise quality, experience and emotional engagement over sprint times and high end speed.
That's not to say the Virage is slow - far from it - but it is a delightfully relaxing car to drive, as tactile and familiar as a pair of well-fitted gloves. The DB9 has long been our favourite sporting GT, and the Virage just upped the ante. The name is also telling. The link between the modern company and the classic Astons of the 50s and 60s were David Brown's initials. Now, ten years into the enthusiastic and forward-thinking stewardship of CEO Dr Ulrich Bez, the 'DB' nameplate could finally be heading off into the sunset.
The V8 Vantage S is a very different beast. Aston Martin's V8s have proved to be mighty on the track, and Aston Martin Racing offers a selection of Vantage-based race machines. The Vantage S shares its professional sibling's snappy enthusiasm, with a snarling exhaust and an all-new gearbox that makes short work of snapping the paddles up and down. On the track at Ascari, it's a delight, but on the road the Vantage S is almost criminal in its ability to spur you on. Even the droptop version dissuades you from a simple, modest cruise in favour of the occasional engine scream and accompanying G-force thrust.
On initial encounter, these two new models feel rather crowbarred into the existing Aston range. But given the space to play with their respective strengths - the wide open roads of Southern Spain and the tight corners of a purpose-made raceway - and their individual characters shine through.