Candy for the Eyes, Music to the Ears

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As if playing musical chairs, ultraluxury carmakers have scampered to find a safe perch within the global automaking giants.

Rolls-Royce and Bentley, brothers-in-arms for decades, were split up and absorbed by, respectively, BMW and Volkswagen. Both brands have achieved record sales since. VW also revived Lamborghini and Bugatti, lavishing resources and components to allow these tiny and often-troubled brands to thrive as never before. Ferrari and Maserati, once fierce Italian rivals, now share and share alike, playing nice within the Fiat family.

Even Porsche, so proud of its record as a small independent, succumbed to hubris and tried to swallow Volkswagen in a takeover -- and found itself eaten by VW instead. Yet Porsche, too, sells more cars than ever around the world.

Among the pedigreed names, that leaves two British marques, Aston Martin and the even tinier Lotus, standing with no sugar-daddy automaker to lend support.

For Aston Martin, that tenuous position raises a question: how strongly can the company -- propped up for now by Italian private equity and Middle East petrodollars -- compete against Ferrari or Bentley, brands with munificent parents helping to pay the bills?

One thing's for sure: 10 minutes in the company of the 2014 Vanquish, and even a casual car fan would wish this 100-year-old company a fruitful second century.

That's because the Vanquish, which assumes the DBS's position atop the Aston hierarchy, seems to be appreciated by one and all as one of the world's most nakedly pretty automobiles. It's hard to drive the Vanquish anywhere, and impossible to stop, without people popping up to remind you of that fact, as though you were showing off a particularly photogenic child.

Second, and almost unfairly, the sound of this Gabriel is as beautiful as its looks, a 12-cylinder, 565-horsepower Hallelujah chorus. That's a 55-horsepower jump from the DBS, with additions like direct injection, dual variable valve timing and a "big wing" intake manifold.

Oddly, perhaps, that sound and beauty trace their roots to workaday Detroit. Ford owned Aston outright from 1994 to 2007, bequeathing a new factory in Gaydon, England. It also carved out space in a plant in Cologne, Germany, where Aston is hand-building its 5.9-liter V-12 engines.

Tooled up and modernized, the oldest living sports car company went from just 43 worldwide sales in 1993 to nearly 6,900 by 2007. Just as important, a longtime Ford designer, Ian Callum, blossomed into a star with the DB7 of 1994. That DB's signature shape was burnished in the later DB9 and Vantage by Callum's successor, Henrik Fisker (now perhaps better known for the troubled plug-in car company that he started, then departed).

The Vanquish is the most blazing riff yet on that 20-year theme. By updating Aston's bonded-and-riveted aluminum platform and a V-12 engine whose thirst is increasingly at odds with regulations, the Vanquish works to justify its $282,110 base price, a cinematic splurge of luxury and force.

Making its glamorous way through the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Vanquish stood out like the Duchess of Cambridge at the local tattoo parlor. In Manhattan, when the Aston growled up to a Chelsea wine bar, the Italian managers threw open the building's glass-walled garage door to better display the car, despite chilly temperatures; one joked that I should just pull the Aston inside.

Such gratuitous charm is influenced by Aston's $1.8 million One-77 supercar, including the Vanquish's all-carbon-fiber body, demure recessed grille and a valved exhaust system that opens its gilded throat under acceleration. Buyers can expose a little or a lot of the lightweight carbon twill by opting to forgo paint on the roof or side mirrors, or to leave a full wraparound carbon-fiber band on the lower body. In any case, the driver will cringe every time the low front air dam sands the pavement.

Inside, the former infuriating Volvo-based interface for audio and other controls has been banished for a modestly intuitive rotary knob and display menus. But there's no avoiding the cheap-jack Garmin navigation unit: while the Bentley Continental GT Speed gets Audi's Google-based glories, Aston has settled for Radio Shack.

And it wouldn't be an Aston without ergonomic goofs: Awkward glass buttons still control the transmission; the seat controls are buried along the center tunnel.

But no one who rubs up against the Vanquish notices those things. Instead, passengers flip out over the lush cabin and gasp when the Vanquish rips to 60 miles per hour in 4.1 seconds. (That's slower than a Corvette and much slower than a Ferrari F12 or Porsche 911 Turbo, but who needs to know?)

There's so much hand-sewn leather and alcantara in the cabin that occupants might dress to match, perhaps in those full-skin jumpsuits that Eddie Murphy once favored. A Bang & Olufsen audio system makes great sounds considering the limited cabin space. The One-77's suede-textured squared-off steering wheel adds $1,020.

The standard Vanquish has no two-plus-two pretenses, but $4,545 converts a rear parcel shelf into a semblance of a back seat. My 6-year-old daughter did manage to squeeze into one maroon pod, but she would outgrow the space in nothing flat. Compared with the DBS, the switch to a carbon-fiber floor pan allows 60 percent more trunk space, plenty for two-person, five-star getaways.

The 2008 DBS was the first 12-cylinder Aston GT that drove more like a serious sports car. The Vanquish engages the road with even more brio; the steering is quicker, the front-rear weight balance is a 50/50 and there is incredible traction from the 20-inch wheels and tires. The adaptive suspension turns surprisingly firm in its driver-selectable Sport mode and downright crushing in Track mode.

Aston says the 6-speed, rear-mounted automatic transmission shifts 37 percent faster. The gearbox performs smoothly, but it's doddering compared with the sophisticated dual-clutch units of Audi, Ferrari and Porsche. An extra gear or two would help keep the naturally aspirated V-12 in its favorable range.

The combined mileage rating is 15 m.p.g., up from 13 for the DBS, reducing the new car's gas-guzzler tariff to $1,700.

Standard carbon-ceramic brakes could use a firmer pedal, but they're quite assertive. I miss the manual shifter that was available on the DBS but is now virtually extinct on automobiles at this level.

That level, it must be said, includes the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, whose Formula One-bred technology and numbers objectively vanquish the Vanquish: 731 V-12 horses, an 8,700 r.p.m. redline (versus the Aston's 6,800), a 211-m.p.h. top speed (versus 183) and a 3.1-second Vesuvius blast to 60 m.p.h. The Ferrari costs more, at around $317,000, but buyers at this level aren't exactly price shoppers.

As Aston seeks a steady source of capital and technology, or an outright owner -- a proposed deal to secure engines from Mercedes's AMG division fell through -- Aston may discover that beauty and a good family name only take you so far.

Yet it's easy to see why a wealthy buyer would prefer the Vanquish's classic, artful approach, and chuckle at childish notions of horsepower bragging rights. Every drive in the Vanquish feels like a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, and I suspect that's true even for people who can afford one.

Plenty of pseudo-supercars and not-quite-exotics prowl the streets. The Vanquish is the real deal. Should you forget, everyone from New York cabbies to giddy schoolchildren will underscore the point.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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