Aston Martin long was best known in America as just the producer of the "James Bond" car, first featured in early 1960s Bond movies. But Aston executive Patrick Fleming said at a preview here of Aston's improved 2009 Vantage V-8 sports car that "even in the year 2000" auto import personnel said "Who's that?" when asked what automaker he worked for.
Things have changed. Even the character Gabrielle Solis in the television series "Desperate Housewives" has driven an Aston. Fleming, who is Aston Martin's product market manager, said most people he now encounters know exactly what Aston Martin is.
Although well known in Europe, where it's been making cars since 1914, Aston long sold a small number of autos here, mostly to affluent, knowledgeable sports car fans. But Aston picked up worldwide momentum when Ford owned it from 1987 until last year, when it sold Aston to two Kuwaiti investment companies because of Ford's financial troubles.
Aston built 7,000 cars last year, with the V8 Vantage accounting for most sales. (More than 10,000 have been sold around the world.) America has become one of the automaker's largest markets, with annual sales of about 2,000 models.
Aston now has 33 North American dealers, compared with less than half that number about 10 years ago, said Francesca Best, Aston's western region marketing manager. Aston's Chicago area dealer is racer Rick Mancuso's Lake Forest Sports Cars in Lake Bluff.
Sold as a coupe and convertible, the 180-mph V8 Vantage arrived in 2005 and is Aston's lowest-priced model and the most successful car in its history, Julian Jenkins, vice president and general manager of Aston Martin North America, said in an interview here.
Aston Martin wins by its modified production cars at this year's major 24-hour Le Mans race in France and the Nurburgring 24-hour race in Germany help give Aston more visibility. (It first won at Le Mans in 1959, but few Americans noticed, familiar with only the Indianapolis 500.)
Aston is drawing customers who've owned Porsche, Bentley, BMW, Maserati and Mercedes-Benz models, partly because they "want something a little different," Jenkins said in typically understated British fashion.
Aston also sells its flagship $265,000 DBS coupe (March 24 AutoTimes) and DB9 coupe and convertible, which list from $182,450 to $199,950. It plans to increase sales when it introduces its 2010 Rapide four-seat sedan, which will be a rival to the new Porsche sedan and Maserati Quattroporte four-door. (Aston sold its fast, posh, futuristic 1976-89 Lagonda sedan, but the sleek $200,000 car took 2,200 man-hours to build and cost a small fortune then.)
"Aston has a good racing history and many customers wanted our cars painted British Racing Green paint," Fleming said. "But they now favor more high-tech modern colors, such as black, silver and blue. Fire Red makes the car look incredible, but we also offer the V8 Vantage with a special white paint that subtly changes color under different lighting conditions."
Aston V8 Vantage prices -- including delivery and a gas guzzler tax -- range from $119,500 for the coupe with the manual transmission to $136,500 for the convertible with the Sportshift automatic transmission, which has a manual-shift feature.
Some 70 percent of V8 Vantage buyers opt for the $123,500 Sportshift coupe and $136,500 convertible, although the $132,500 manual-shift convertible costs less. Traffic congestion is causing even Ferrari and Maserati buyers to order cars that have an automatic with a manual-shift feature.
I drove all versions of the V8 Vantage for more than a hundred miles on rural flat and winding mountain roads away from San Francisco during the preview and found it has lightning fast upshifts and downshifts with the manual-shift feature, controlled by steering wheel paddles. But passing gear is a bit slow to engage when the transmission is left in fully automatic mode, which is for easy cruising and heavy traffic. I liked the manual gearbox the most because it's the best traditional transmission for a sports car, although the shifter gets a bit notchy during quick gear changes and works with a high-engagement clutch that takes a little getting used to.
Aston announced the V8 Vantage in 2005 as a coupe and introduced the convertible version last year. Aston's flagship model is the $265,000 DBS, and it also sells the $182,450-$199,950 DB9 coupe and convertible.
All Astons are hand-built at Aston's headquarters in England. They possess voluptuous styling and gorgeous interiors with lots of leather and hand-stitching. One Aston employee is assigned to each car from its inception and puts his name in the engine compartment when the car is done. (One of my test cars had "Final Inspection By Barry Griffin" on an engine compartment plaque.)
The only major exterior cosmetic change for the V8 Vantage is a range of new standard and optional 19-inch alloy wheels, although there's considerably more to this updated model.
Most importantly, its lusty, high-revving V-8, which emits a marvelous exhaust note, has been enlarged from 4.3 to 4.7 liters and horsepower is up 11 percent to 420, with a 15 percent torque increase. Revised transmissions improve performance and handle the higher power and torque levels. A modified clutch and flywheel increase engine responsiveness.
Combined European fuel economy and CO2 emissions are improved by 13 percent with the Sportshift transmission. Estimated economy here is 13 mpg in the city and 19 on the highway with the automatic and 12 and 19 with the manual -- not bad for a 3,595-pound two-seater that does 0-60 mph in 4.7 seconds. A 21.1-gallon fuel tank assures a long range. Regarding an Aston hybrid car, Jenkins said, "We won't be left behind in technology."