Sometimes, but not often, you drive a car over a stretch of road and it does something so extraordinary, you simply have to turn around and take another run. Just, you know, to be sure. So you do, again and again. Maybe it’s Dodge’s 840-hp Demon lifting an axle as you launch down the drag strip. Or a Civic Type R—front-drive, but limited-slip-equipped—actually pulling itself into that curve instead of washing wide when you climb clumsily over the gas pedal. Spoiler alert: The new Aston Martin Vantage is one of those cars.

Dean Smith
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There was a time, back when the David Brown behind those iconic “DB” initials was in charge, when Aston reserved the Vantage badge for the most special machines. More recently, Vantage has come to represent the least expensive way into an Aston. When the baby Vantage appeared in 2005, slightly underpowered and fuzzy in its handling abilities, it felt like it hadn’t quite earned the badge. Credit the company for honing and improving that car, turning the V8 model into something focused, and then stuffing a V12 in the nose to make it ferocious.

But those Vantages, like all Astons of the last decade, were reheated leftovers from Ford’s tenure—the automotive equivalent of what Britain’s thrifty home cooks call “bubble and squeak.” The new Vantage, based on the same all-new architecture as the larger DB11, promises a return to the days when Vantage really meant something.

Dean Smith

So we’ve come to Portugal, a country where people still wander along the side of the road carrying bundles of sticks as if the last 100 years never happened, to test the new Vantage. But Aston’s design department is doing the testing first. It’s pushing forward, breaking free of the mold that characterized the early 2000s cars. Some trademark motifs remain: The grille can trace its shape to the Two Litre Sports of the late 1940s; and in the elegant and taut profile, you can still see the echoes of pretty Astons past. But the rear, with its kicked up tail and discrete diffuser, looks strong and racy—much tougher than the old car.

The freshest and most jarring angle is from the front. The broad nose and its too-small lights puncture a wide clamshell hood. When passersby open their mouths to comment, it’s anyone’s guess whether they’re about to liken it to the $2.3 million, track-only Aston Vulcan or the banjo kid in John Boorman’s Deliverance.

Dean Smith
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The door opens, as in other Astons, with a slightly skyward arc and with little effort. You drop into a low-mounted, Alcantara-wrapped bucket and stare up at the windshield—you feel like a child trying Dad’s hot seat for the first time, desperately hoping to get a peek at the hood unfurling toward the horizon.

Where big brother DB11 goes for restrained elegance, clearly aimed at the more mature buyer, the Vantage’s interior gives off angry sports-car vibes. The center console is crowded with switchgear. There are so many circles—HVAC controls, buttons for the transmission, the ignition—that leaning in to locate a switch is like eyeballing a spider. In other words, the ergonomics aren’t great. Why, for instance, are there separate buttons to lock and unlock the car?

Dean Smith
Dean Smith

The beacon of comforting familiarity in this confusion is the multimedia system, a pairing of dash-top screen and tunnel-mounted rotary controller that comes courtesy of Mercedes-Benz. Although some buyers might prefer a touchscreen, the functionality is good. The graphics are Aston-specific, so you can mostly forget its origins.

The media system is actually the least interesting bit from the Stuttgart parts bin. The piece you really want to know about is under the hood. Thumb the big starter button and the eruption sounds familiar, yet unfamiliar, like hearing a long-lost school friend’s voice out of nowhere on a vacation to Tahiti. Was that? It couldn’t be?

Dean Smith
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It is. This is essentially the same 4.0-liter V8 fitted to the Mercedes-AMG GT, although Aston sticks with a traditional wet-sump oil pan rather than the GT’s dry-sump setup. Aston debuted this engine in the DB11, but with the smaller Vantage, there are about 500 fewer pounds of extraneous stuff for the engine to move. In terms of power to weight, not even the mighty DB11 V12 can touch it.

These days, we’re used to new cars improving on their predecessors by fractional amounts. For instance, the Ferrari Portofino is 0.1 second faster to 62 mph than the California T it replaces. The new Vantage is not like that. By the time its predecessor, the naturally aspirated V8 Vantage, had gasped its last breath, it was making 430 hp and 361 lb-ft of torque. This one pushes out 503 hp and 505 lb-ft, the torque peak coming at less than half the crank speed of the old engine. Result: Aston says the new Vantage is 1.1 seconds quicker to 60 mph than the last-gen Vantage GTS.

Dean Smith

You feel the urgency every time you press the right pedal, whether mashing it from a stoplight or summoning an extra dose of adrenaline at the kind of speed that would have had the old car red-faced. With an indicated 180 mph on the digital display as we stroll down one of Portugal’s always-deserted freeways, the Vantage picks up speed fast. The drag-limited top speed is only 15 mph away, but from the way the Vantage is pulling, it seems like no one has told it that. The last of the old-shape cars was all done by 190 mph. Not a huge difference, except in the effort it took to get there.

You can thank the two BorgWarner turbochargers nestled cosily between the banks of the V8—what engineers call a hot-vee setup—for the way the Aston hauls. This layout makes for a short induction tract that keeps lag to a minimum, although the throttle response can’t hold a candle to the old naturally aspirated V8’s. Those turbochargers also dull the clarity, if not the outright volume, of the noises filtering through to the cabin. But the engine sounds strong—and just different enough from the AMG applications. Less hot rod, more haute couture.

Dean Smith
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The Aston isn’t obscenely quick. Five hundred three horses isn’t that much these days, and an estimated 3600 pounds is. Its factory-measured 3.5-second 0-to-60-mph time is rivaled or beaten by cars costing less than $153,081 (see: Carrera GTS, Camaro ZL1, or even the freakish new M5). But the Aston feels quick enough in the context of a package that’s designed to do more than simply get you to the state line like you’re outrunning a murder rap. The Vantage is more nuanced than that.

Which brings us to those roads—the ones that made us stop and go back, just to make sure. They’re north of Portimão, fast and free-flowing, smooth enough in most stretches to goad you into pushing a car, but peppered with random craters and weird depressions that make you really wish you hadn’t.

A couple of times, we ran into those hidden depressions in the Vantage, the kind that are too close to avoid and have you lifting your ass out of the seat to minimize the surely coming catastrophic oil-pan-to-road interface. But then, nothing. The Vantage glides over them like it’s suspended from the clouds. It’s astonishing. How a car rides might not be the sexiest thing to talk about when you’ve been tossed the keys to a 503-hp exotic, but it really matters. Because not having your backside pummeled means you’re happier spending more time in the seat. And because the more supple a car is, the more time its wheels spend keyed into the pavement, allowing your right foot to spend more time keyed into the throttle.

Dean Smith
Dean Smith

Eventually, the Vantage will provide something for your left foot to do. Aston boss Andy Palmer has professed a commitment to offering manual-transmission cars, and we can expect a stick shift in the next year or so. If Aston had fitted this Vantage with the arthritic single-clutch automatic that blighted the last car, we’d be suggesting you make other four-wheeled plans for the next 12 months. But what’s actually mounted over the rear wheels is ZF’s excellent eight-speed automatic, operated by a pair of exquisite aluminum shift paddles fixed to the steering column. This transmission might not slice through the ratios like a Porsche PDK, but the torque converter makes it a more soothing town companion. And with the driving modes flicked to Sport Plus or Track to engage the racier shift map, it has no trouble predicting your next move.

With the clued-in suspension and excellent transmission, you can get comfy with the gas pedal. Lean on it firmly through curves, and you realize that the composure over bumps doesn’t come at the expense of body control. Like the DB11, the Vantage features two buttons on the top of its strangely square steering wheel’s spokes: left for damper modes, right for throttle, steering, and gearshift mapping. The Vantage skips the DB11’s GT damper setting, which feels too soft for any remotely energetic driving, and goes straight for Sport, then Sport Plus, and Track.

Dean Smith

There’s a smidge of body roll but no understeer, so you can push harder on the gas and feel the rear tires load up as the corner opens. The tail will go wide, but only with a decisive nod from the driver. Given the go-ahead and with the stability system disengaged, it arcs neatly around, the electronically controlled limited-slip differential—fitted here for the first time—making it easy to moderate just how much of your view forward you want to take in through the door window, rather than the windshield.

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But what it really likes, and what you’ll like too, are those little dances on the threshold of adhesion. Dances that show off the 50/50 weight distribution and teeter between neutral and slight oversteering attitudes, requiring the subtlest of corrective inputs and almost no loss of momentum.

Dean Smith

At Portimão, that technique makes for some effortlessly swift laps. This place has many gut-churning elevation changes and unsighted apexes to learn. But the Aston’s got your back. With the stability-control system dialed back and dampers set to their firmest, you quickly get a feel for how much you can push on that front end. And you can push it plenty, considering the weight and non-track-spec rubber. Push the brakes, too. Carbon-ceramics will come later, but this steel-rotor setup is heroically strong and feels so good underfoot, we’re not sure why anyone would bother upgrading.

Eventually, rain sweeps in. Faced with such conditions, Jaguar’s similarly shaped, rear-drive F-type becomes unpleasantly spiky. The Vantage remains friendly. There are quicker ways around a circuit or across a map, but the Aston’s ability to show you a good time at all speeds and in all conditions is a trick not every fast car can pull off.

Dean Smith
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The one area where the Vantage hasn’t leapt forward is steering. Make no mistake: It’s great. Roll away from center and feel that reassuring build in weight. In any other car, we’d be singing praises. But this is Aston, remember, one of the last holdouts for true steering feel. Like the DB11, the Vantage has switched to an electrically assisted rack, and, like that car, for all its precision, there’s just something missing—that really textural surface feel. It was good enough to make one forgive the previous car’s deficiencies. Which is saying a lot, because, boy, were there deficiencies.

Dean Smith

At times, we wondered whether Aston, jettisoned by Ford and lacking another automaker sugar daddy, could actually pull itself back from the ropes. But it has. A 911 Turbo might be quicker, but this car is a tantalizingly viable opponent. One that looks more distinctive and feels more special. It stands on its own merit to the point that Daniel Craig could come out and tell the world that Astons are terrible, and it wouldn’t hurt at all.

But this is only the beginning. Apart from the manual and roadster versions now being readied, it’s possible there will be V12 and GT3-style track-biased versions that are even faster and more focused. And then there are the additional, very different cars Aston is preparing to serve up, including a hybrid crossover. That might sound like anathema to Aston fans, but it reflects the radically changing automotive landscape. As Palmer points out, Aston went bust seven times in its first hundred years, and he has no intention of being responsible for an eighth. Cars as accomplished, as brave, and as self-confident in their abilities as this Vantage will ensure that doesn’t happen anytime soon.

Dean Smith