It’s a sign of the times at Gaydon that Aston Martin has produced three new models since it walked away from Ford ownership in 2007. Sounds impressive until you realise that all of them are special editions more akin to the mass-marketing commonly seen at Renault or Vauxhall. Hence the V8 Vantage N400 limited edition unveiled at last year’s Frankfurt Motor Show and driven here for the first time.
Built to commemorate Aston’s entries at the Nurburgring 24-hour race, it’s a regular V8 with a brace of mechanical, styling and equipment flourishes. And an £11,000 price hike. Aston will build 240 coupes and 240 roadsters in N400 spec and a plaque on the kickplate of our orange example reads ‘001 of 480’, confirming it as the original 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show car. Better not crash it then.
Aston Martin N400: the mechanical spec
The 4.3-litre V8 benefits from an ECU upgrade and tweaks to the throttle response to liberate an extra 20 ponies, swelling power output to 400bhp, while twist rises to 310lb ft. On paper that’s enough to hit 60mph in 4.9sec while the N400 will top out at 177mph on the fastest sections of the Nordschleife. If you’re brave enough.
The only other changes to the N400 are the addition of the sport suspension pack, bringing uprated springs and Bilstein dampers, a new rear anti-roll bar and graphite-finished alloy wheels. This will be rolled out to other Vantages this summer for a premium of around £2500. Meanwhile, car spotting anoraks should look out for the N400’s revised sill design, silver mesh on the bonnet and side strake intakes, clear rear lamp lenses and a bright finish to the unmistakeable Aston grille.
Doesn’t sound terribly different to the regular V8 Vantage…
It doesn’t, and that’s a good thing. Our test car is finished in Karussell Orange orange – think a quality Seville marmalade – and looks simply stunning. Is there a better looking car on sale today? I’ve yet to see one. Those 19-inch alloys set off Henrik Fisker's wedgy coupe design to a tee; the Vantage is one of the few cars to mix beauty with real sportiness, taut surfaces and fulsome flanks somehow managing to look at once compact, athletic and elegant. Such desire is so rarely provoked.
Clamber inside and you’re ensconced in a snug two-seat cabin. There’s plenty of space for a brace of tall adults and those new, perforated leather, electric sports seats remain comfortable on long journeys, with a decent range of adjustment. Your arm rests on a hidebound cubby embroidered with the iconic Nurburgring squiggle. Despite being front engined, the boot is pretty small; it’ll just about swallow a couple of weekend bags, but you can squeeze another couple in the stowage area behind the front seats.
Interior quality: gentleman’s club meets Ikea
This is only the second V8 Vantage I’ve driven and I’m impressed at how Aston has moved the game on. The early model I tested at launch in 2005 felt cheap and (whisper it) kit-car light, with poorly stitched leather and a general air of The Short Cut. The N400 feels sumptuous by comparison, with beautifully finished hide covering most of the dash, a tactile Alcantara headlining and pleasantly finished steering wheel just where you want it (although our test car was left-hand drive). This Vantage feels really well built – a far cry from the thrown-together Astons of old.
However, the V8’s biggest problem remains its details. Too many of them are Swedish. The standard sat-nav that rises asthmatically from the dashboard is obviously Volvo-sourced and shares the same Playschool typeface; the embarrassingly big keyfob could be from a last-generation S80; and the switches to adjust the heated door mirrors surely hail from Gothenburg not Gaydon. Yes, yes – I know parts sharing makes glorious cars like the V8 possible in an audited world, but I’d feel slightly cheated if my new £94,000 Aston had a nasty and cheap feeling, flat-barrelled 1990s Ford key. It’s your first point of contact with the car, for goodness sake. Expect a new key as part of a summer 2008 facelift for the whole Vantage range.
At least all the equipment works well. It wasn’t so long ago that you’d run a mile before using a small Aston Martin in winter conditions, but our N400 defrosted itself and drove panic-free through the –4C chill and wintry fog that’s descended on Britain this winter. The N400’s standard high-intensity discharge headlights were excellent. I just wish that the centre console was neither so brittle nor challenging a Boeing for the number of buttons per square inch.
Enough interior pleasantries. How does the N400 drive?
The V8 Vantage might not have dislodged the Porsche 911 as CAR’s favourite compact sports car, but it’s a pretty damn close call. Even with those 20 extra ponies, you wouldn’t call the N400 searingly fast in an age when numerous German saloons (and estates!) muster 500bhp-plus. But the V8 is so much more involving than the clinical efficiency of the Germans. You have to really gun it to unleash fireworks and only when the tacho needles arcs anticlockwise to its westerly bumpstop on the artful rev counter does the N400 start to sound and go like a thoroughbred sports car. It’s pleasingly fast and generates a delicious bent eight rumble for music to match the muscle. After a nerve-tingling cross-country drive, you wish you could bottle these sensations.
Aston Martin has clearly developed the V8 Vantage significantly since the early launch cars and the N400 goes, stops and steers with greater precision than I remember. The steering is well judged, not too lumbering and with a decent feel through the leather rim. Under most circumstances, I preferred it to the crystal-clear but worryingly light helm of a 911. The N400 is the first Vantage with the Sport pack, and those revised springs, dampers and rear anti-roll bar excel at settling the commotion of motion.
And the corners?
Being the lightest Aston Martin (the V8 is made from a bonded aluminium structure, but still weighs 1630kg a couple of hundred more than a 911), the Vantage is born to carve corners. The N400 feels compact and nimble on its feet, helped by the Sport pack which sharpens its responses considerably. I wasn’t brave enough to disengage any of the safety systems in our slippery test conditions, but the V8 feels planted and secure through fast corners. Body control is pretty exceptional, but then the trade-off is a vertebrae-troubling stiff ride. You’re going to feel every pothole and fag butt on the road surface – and don’t bother pressing the Comfort button on the dash; it just softens the gearchange speed.
Our car had the optional Sportshift robotised manual transmission (ordered by three quarters of V8 customers globally, but barely half in the UK). I think the Brits have the right idea. Leave it in automatic mode and progress is marred by a series of lurching and painfully slow gearchanges that sets your head nodding and your brain seeking out memories of the Smart Fortwo’s staccato gearbox. But once you select manual mode – two fixed paddles behind the wheel – and feather the throttle more sensitively on upshifts, it starts to work well. And those beautifully matched down-blips are sensational. On balance, I’d save £3000 and pick the six-speed manual.
Aston Martin V8 Vantage N400: the verdict
Like many cars that get under your skin, the V8 Vantage is a curiously flawed gem. To be honest, I got into the N400 as a sceptic, the disappointment of my first test three years ago still weighing on my mind. But Aston Martin has clearly fettled and polished and improved the Vantage – and if it resorts to special editions to further this process of continuous enhancement, then who am I to argue?
The N400 is the best of the current Aston Martins I’ve driven. It’s difficult to look past its sensational looks, everyday useability, comfort and sheer dynamic talent whether driving down the M11 or the B660. I’m not really bothered that it has apparently turned in a sub-eight minute lap of the 14-mile Nurburgring. What’s more important to me is how it involves you intimately with the driving experience in an age when too many cars have fallen into the power race for their thrills. For once, 400bhp isn’t too much, and that’s something worth celebrating.