If looks could kill, Aston Martin's V8 Vantage would be a murderer. It's unquestionably one of the most cohesive design statements on the road, with a compact, lithe profile that's free from excessive flash.
With a long hood, short deck, and wheels pulled to its corners, the Vantage has an uncompromised presence. It looks like the work of one designer, and you can easily imagine its transition from cocktail-napkin sketch to cast aluminum. But, in fact, two designers had a hand in its design way back in 2005 – both Ian Callum (now with Jaguar) and Henrik Fisker (now of his own eponymous brand) still claim the lion's share of this design's genesis, years after the first car came from the Gaydon, U.K. plant.
It's a testament to this design's success that Aston has taken an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach (there's probably a much more stately British expression for this), only making minor lifts and tucks to the car's bodywork over the years. For 2012, a few cosmetic changes give the car a slightly more aggressive look: The front bumper has been lowered and a carbon fiber air splitter appears, along with crisp, race-car-like side sills on the car's flanks. A rear diffuser adds downforce.
Unlike many of the pricey cars it's cross-shopped against, an Aston Martin is still a rare sighting, at least here in New York City, where we tested it out. On a recent summer drive up to the winding roads that spindle around the mountainous Harriman State Park, we watched the Vantage elicit camera-phone snapshots from sidewalk diners, thumbs-ups from pedestrians in crosswalks, and Clark Griswoldian games of cat-and-mouse on the parkway. People like to look at this car.
It's a rewarding drive, too. It doesn't jolt off the line, and the car's 420-hp-producing 4.7-liter V8 barely registers to the ears until its thick, sonorous exhaust note shows up midway through the power band. But once you get there, and are sweeping through turns, the Vantage is pure bliss to drive. Compared with its predecessor, a new steering rack provides quicker feedback, fatter tires increase its road-holding capabilities, and bigger brakes make cornering more fun. On mountain roads, we heard and felt the chassis of our six-speed manual model creak and tighten, and suddenly it seemed as though we were playing with a beautiful toy. It's a different feel from driving, say, a Porsche or Mercedes that's loaded with tech like an adaptive suspension or complicated torque vectoring. In comparison, the Vantage offers a more elemental feel.
The V8 Vantage is not a drag-strip champ by any means. Or even a track star. If you want punishing low-end torque, get a Corvette and save 60 grand. If you're looking for a quicker lap time, hit the Porsche dealership and pick up a 911. But if you're looking for a rare, refined sports car that will still look timeless in 10 years, then splurge on the Aston. [From $118,650; astonmartin.com]