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IT’S HARD NOT to get just remotely excited when the key to an Aston Martin for evaluation lands on your desk. Of life’s many pleasures there’s nothing as fulfilling as shepherding a thoroughbred sports car through a series of tightly knitted corners, all to the glorious tune of an unsullied V8 mill. The key I’m holding, however, doesn’t belong to the latest Vanquish but rather the new Vantage V8 – one of the most successful Aston’s ever made. Yep, it may be over seven years old now but Aston Martin has parlayed various components from last year’s Vantage S into the model you see here, resulting in a more focussed and surprisingly cheaper car than before. Nevertheless, can the Vantage V8 still cut it as a modern sports car?

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In the metal

Although the Vantage is getting on in years, it still cuts an exquisite shape, particularly when parked against the picturesque rock-strewn backdrop of Table Mountain. There aren’t many cars that exhibit the same sense of balance, beauty and poise. The classical contoured silhouette with short front and rear overhangs, bulky haunches and hunkered stance all evoke a sense of speed even when it’s not moving – it’s achingly beautiful. The 2012 model has inherited a number of styling riffs from the Vantage S and the results are rather impressive to say the least. Aston’s fabled grille layout punctuates the front end flanked by newly-designed headlight clusters complete with intricate LED accenting while a lower front bumper with pronounced air dams and a splitter have injected the Brit with a refined level of aggression and undeniable road presence. As you move along the car’s shoulder line towards the rear, you’ll notice the chunkier side skirts and a larger rear diffuser which complete the visual package.

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Life inside

As expected, the cabin features a contrasting meld of hand-crafted equipment and plush cow hide and Alcantara, resulting in a comfortable and cocooning cockpit. Of course, the interior is fairly customisable and can be personalised with complementary stitching, more leather and facia accents but our test car was pretty standard from a trim-spec point of view. Still, the relationship between the leather and aluminium switchgear on offer is of a premium feel, the only disappointments being the audio unit and the integrated pop-up Garmin navigation screen, which both look out of place amid the other equipment’s high-quality fit and finish. The seats may not quite match the grippy nature of a Porsche bucket seat but they’re still first-grade items, and the high scuttle line gives the illusion that you’re sitting just millimetres off the road surface – proper race car stuff. Like all automatic Aston Martins, the interior is bereft of a traditional gear lever. Four buttons assume the role of gear selectors instead and inhabit the space just above the audio toggles on the facia, marked Sport, Neutral, Reverse and Drive.

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In the hot seat

The same high-revving 4.7-litre V8 engine introduced during the last round of updates has been retained and fills the space behind the front wheels. Power and torque outputs are unchanged at 313kW and 470Nm respectively. The only powertrain alteration comes in the form of a new seven-speed automated manual gearbox that has been passed down from the Vantage S. Sure, this transmission has its benefits – according to Aston Martin the ratios are shorter and shifts are quicker, but in reality the gear changes feel stilted and incoherent. The terrible shift sensation can be minimised by coming off throttle during up-changes but this feels unnatural and counter intuitive, and does nothing but amplify the disconnection between engine and transmission. As a result you never really bond with the car in the same manner as you would a car with a traditional manual or even a dual-clutch transmission. But perhaps I’m being too harsh here because the gearbox does have its perks: it’s just as happy trundling around town at low speeds as it is butchering the red line, and the fuel consumption figure isn’t too bad, either. I managed to eke out an impressive 10.9ℓ/100km over our economy run but not without some serious restraint from my trigger-happy right foot.

Performance levels are surprisingly a little on the tepid side. The brochure claims a 4.9sec 0-100kph time but we couldn’t get it to dip under the magical five-second barrier, no matter how hard we tried. The best we could muster was 5.3 seconds with a 13.35 quarter mile, which are both quite a way off the figures logged by the Porsche Boxster S we recently put through its paces. Bugbears aside, the big V8 does discharge quite a spectacular noise especially when the bypass valves open their mandibles at 4000rpm, not to mention the flurry of spine-tingling blips that accompany each downshift.

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An asphalt rollercoaster

The Vantage makes up for the lacklustre straight-line stuff the moment you flick its nose into a corner. It’s phenomenally responsive in the twisties. The 49:51 front/rear weight distribution means the car remains neutral in most cornering situations so there’s no understeer – even oversteer feels oddly in check as the fatter rear wheels foster unbelievable grip levels as they embrace the bitumen beneath. The new Vantage also gets the steering column, re-valved power-steering pump and quicker steering ratio (15:1 instead of 17:1) from the S. There’s real positivity to the steering, it’s superbly weighted with detailed feedback instilling a sense of confidence that allows the driver to be more creative with steering inputs. And creative I was – the road directly beneath Table Mountain offers a varying surface with tight directional changes and the Vantage’s suspension absorbed the imperfections and kept its shape through some of the bumpier transitions even with as much as 70% throttle applied. The only real let-down, if I were to nitpick, is the thin steering wheel, which lacks the girth and meaty feel of a Porsche or Mercedes-Benz AMG equivalent.

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Final call

The Vantage is still a great driver’s car – no question about it, but realistically it poses no threat for the newer and more technologically advanced Porsche 911Carrera S. The competition has moved on significantly during the last couple of years whereas Aston hasn’t, choosing to instead reinvent (read recycle) an aging product portfolio. Personally though, the only real issue I have with the Vantage is the inarticulate automated transmission, which tarnishes the entire driving process and robs the driver from ultimate involvement. Sure, I understand that certain global markets demand the services of an autobox, but why anyone would prefer it over a razor-sharp dual-clutch transmission is seriously perplexing.

Make no mistake, the Vantage is still one beautiful machine, an icon of timeless design many admirers, including myself, hold in the same company as legends such as the Jaguar E-Type and Ferrari 250 GTO. From a pricing viewpoint, Aston has had to slash its sticker price by R100000 to level the showroom playing fields so to speak, but at R1720000 it’s still over half-a-million more expensive than the 911 Carrera S – yikes! One thing is for sure though, the Vantage is still the most alluring and well-proportioned sports car currently on the market, and because of its huge status appeal (and now cheaper asking price) it will continue to sell and beguile the buying public, even with faster and cheaper opposition entering the fray.

Follow me on Twitter @AaronBorrill

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Citroën’s new DS range has injected the current line-up with a much-needed dose of vitality. The DS nomenclature is held very close to Citroën’s heart, placing the prestigious lettering on only its most radical of offerings. Who can forget the original Bertone-designed 1955 Citroën DS that shocked the motoring world with its futuristic design and cutting-edge technology. The DS changed the face of automotive production and pioneered the development of hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension, handling and braking. After recently introducing the DS3 and DS4, Citroën has released the third instalment in the DS range at the international launch in Nice, France – the Citroën DS5. The DS5 is a very difficult car to classify. Part hatchback, part SUV, six of the one and half a dozen of the other. The DS5 seems to change shape depending on which angle you look at it.

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While admiring the vehicle in the Le Grand Hôtel lobby I could see whispers of hatchback, grand tourer, SUV and estate vehicle. I must admit that it certainly does have presence and urges the viewer to engage with its intriguing design language. The DS5’s bold and angular shape pays homage to the 2005 C-SportLounge concept car retaining most of the original sketch’s styling cues. The front-end is styled in typical DS fashion with perforated lateral air intakes, a chrome-plated grille and LED lights, while the most distinctive feature is the outlandish chrome sabres that run from the headlights along the bonnet line up towards the A-pillars. The DS5’s appearance makes it stand out from everything else on the road leaving many road-goers pointing and rubbernecking in appreciation of its crouched and assertive stance. Surprisingly, unlike the DS3 and DS4 which share their underpinnings with the C3 and C4, the DS5 doesn’t share anything with the C5. Instead, it’s based on a widened version of the Peugeot-Citroën platform two as used by the C4.

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The widened track in combination with a left-hand drive cabin proved a little tricky when navigating through the narrow French road network. On some occasions my spacial judgement was found wanting but the DS5’s agility and relatively small turning circle sorted things out almost every time. The test drive took the Citroën convoy on a picturesque drive from the hotel in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat along the Côte d’Azur to the town of Juan-les-Pins and back – about 240km. Punctuated by mountain passes, tapered village roads and pristine stretches of motorway, the route highlighted the all-round driving capabilities of the DS5. I’ll admit I had my reservations about the DS5’s handling but I was proved wrong especially at how flat it cornered through the snaking mountain roads. It exhibited no body roll and actually had me, at some points, thinking I was driving a sports coupé – yes, the handling is that good.

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The suspension unfortunately isn’t as supple as I thought it would be. The damper settings are very sporty and the large-diameter low-profile 19-inch wheels amplify all nuances in the road surface. Quite surprising given its luxurious grand tourer-like demeanour. The DS5’s interior is its most defining attribute. Inspired by aeronautics, the driver is cocooned in a plethora of buttons and gadgets, which resemble that of an aircraft. There’s also a retractable head-up display that, along with blinds for the three-piece glass roof, can be adjusted with ceiling-mounted toggle switches. The build quality is quite superbly finished in materials that you’d expect to find in an Audi. Strangely, besides the DS insignia, there aren’t any traditional Citroën chevron badges on display inside the cabin. If you never knew any better you’d think you were riding in a luxurious German saloon, such is the refinement. The brushed metallic surfaces and trim detailing around the door-pulls were manufactured by the same company that produce trim for Bentley and Aston Martin. Even the seats are clad in leather from the finest bulls of Bavaria. The seats are beautifully stitched together and exhibit a cubistic design – Pablo Picasso would be proud. I managed to get behind the wheel of the1.6-litre petrol turbo engine (200THP) and the 2.0-litre turbodiesel unit (160HDi), which are both destined for South Africa. The 1.6-litre turbo is the most exciting of the two and makes a really good noise when shifting through the gears. Twinned to a manual transmission it generates 147kW and 275Nm. The 160HDi delivers generous amounts of low-down torque (340Nm) but the narrow torque band means it runs out of grunt pretty quickly. Thankfully, the gear ratios of the six-speed automatic harnesses the available power with aplomb.

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I also got to briefly sample the diesel-electric Hybrid4 model but it’s unfortunately not making its way to South Africa anytime soon. The DS5 comes standard with safety equipment such as EBD, EBA, ABS, ESP, intelligent traction control and beefy 340 mm-diameter front brakes. I’ve never been one for crossover vehicles but the utilitarian DS5 ticks all the right boxes. Not only does it look really good, it’s practical, sporty and has one of the most comfortable and well-appointed cabins around. Will it sell? Well, that depends on how well its niche appeal is received by consumers and, if the stigma often associated with French cars can be overlooked. The DS5 is a polished and elegant vehicle; you need only sit in one to realise what you’re missing out on.

Specifications DS5200THP

Price: R400 000 est.

Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo

Power: 147kW and 275Nm

0-100km/h: 8.2 seconds

Top speed: 235km/h

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The first Porsche model that instinctually comes to mind is the 911 and that’s because it’s long been associated with racing and is one of the most fulfilling performance cars to drive. Purists often regard other vehicles in the Porsche line-up as pariahs because they’re not as track-honed and don’t offer the same sense of telepathy you get from piloting a 911 model. This, however, doesn’t mean the other derivatives aren’t any fun to drive – take the Cayman for example. It’s essentially a coupé version of the second-generation Boxster and, although it’s often criticised for its lack of oomph, the refined handling makes it one of the best driver’s cars on the market. Producing 195kW from a 2.9-litre flat-six engine, the Cayman never really caught the attention of enthusiasts so to spice things up the Cayman S was launched. This elevated driver involvement to another level with a functional, driver-focused package and uprated 3.4-litre engine. However, it’s the Cayman R that’s garnered most interest from Porsche disciples – perhaps it’s that R badge. You see, the R moniker is reserved for models that not only encompass the brand ethos, but also deliver a race-peppered driving experience. The main aim of the Cayman R developers was to improve the overall performance by reducing weight. So out went  all superfluous items and in came  lighter parts such as 19-inch Boxster Spyder wheels, carbon-fibre racing seats, aluminium doors from the 911 Turbo, door straps and a lighter fuel tank. Together these slimline parts shave 55kg off its kerb weight. Not much, I know, but every kilogram counts.

Porsche has also fiddled with the suspension geometry, lowering it by 20mm, with shorter and stiffer springs culminating in a lower centre of gravity. There’s no body roll, either, especially when shimmying from side to side – instead, the car listens to your every input and behaves impeccably when changing direction. The handling does come at a compromise though: the lowered suspension lends itself to a hard ride quality but it’s tolerable and sucks up most imperfections the road throws at it. It’s only when you hit undulating surfaces that your internal organs start to take abuse. That said, the steering is sharp and responsive. In fact, the feedback from the steering wheel is so accurate that it feels as if you’re gliding your finger tips over the surface of the road. The cabin offers a sporty yet ergonomic interior that’s garnished with body-hugging bucket seats and a clearly positioned instrumentation cluster. In standard trim, the car comes without amenities such as a sound system and an air-conditioner but can be ordered as optional extras. Porsche has created a minimalist interior that takes driving back to its purist form – even the door handles have been replaced by door straps. Apart from the vintage Porsche vinyl lettering running along the bottom of each door, the Cayman R comes standard with an Aerokit package consisting of a black rear spoiler, smoked headlights and taillights and matching side mirrors. Porsche’s engineers have managed to squeeze 8kW from the flat-six mid-mounted 3.4-litre engine by installing the ECU with revised software and fitting a custom-made, less restrictive exhaust system. Power is rated at 243kW and 370Nm, which sounds fairly impressive on paper but out on the road it could do with a little more torque. There’s also a mechanical limited-slip differential (LSD). Forming part of the rear axle arrangement the LSD keeps grip levels in check and delivers maximum spread of power to the road.

Acceleration is from nought to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds but you’re going to have to order it with a seven-speed double-clutch PDK transmission and Sports Chrono Plus Pack to achieve this. This allows the driver to tailor how the car’s drivetrain behaves by selecting either  Sport or Sport Plus. Both settings change the throttle sensitivity/shift times and are more intuitive than the regular mode delivering super-fast spine-jolting shifts. While its nought-to-100km/h time may not be as quick as its stablemates, the throaty tone from the sports exhaust makes up for it. If you’re after a spicier soundtrack you can always push the exhaust button. Once activated, bypass valves in the exhaust open to transform the hard-edged exhaust note into a rich baritone – a sound that never gets old. The off-beat boxer crescendo encourages you to drive it at the limit and as the revs climb into the upper echelons of the power band the seamless gear swopping of the PDK transmission sees to it that you don’t lose any momentum going forward. The top speed is impressive, too. If you manage to find a deserted road you can reach 282km/h, which is on par with the 911 Carrera and Targa 4.The brake set-up is also very effective. Comprising four-pot calipers all round with discs measuring 318mm at the front and 299mm at the rear the Cayman R can scrub off speed without any fuss. According to Porsche, the Cayman R will return pretty reasonable fuel-sipping figures of 9.4l/100km. I managed to return a dismal 300km per tank, granted I did drive it hard – I’m sure with a disciplined right foot a figure like 10l/100km is more realistic. What about the competition? Strangely, many consider the BMW 1M Coupé and the Audi RS3 as worthy adversaries. Both cost around R300 000 less than the Cayman and deliver similar performance figures but aren’t anywhere near as engaging to drive – well, the 1M Coupé does come close. The Cayman R is all about the relationship between car and driver and the unrelenting performance and driving experience that comes standard – no fancy gadgets here. Unlike the RS3 and 1M Coupé, the Cayman R doesn’t need a turbocharger or two to compensate for a dearth of cubic centimetres. Instead, everything about it feels natural and instinctual, and that’s the feeling you get when you drive it. A feeling its rivals can’t emulate.

SPECIFICATIONS

Engine: 3.4-litre six-cylinder boxer

Power: 243kW and 370Nm

0-100km/h: 4.7 seconds (PDK)

Top speed: 283km/h

Price: R839 000

Porsche Cayman R road-test video:

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I’ve always been fascinated by Ferrari supercars. Growing up, my bedroom walls were plastered with pictures of the fabled F40, the 308 GTB and the Testarossa. Up until recently, I never thought I’d ever get to drive a Ferrari, but just two days after testing my first, the California, I was invited as one of only two South African journalists to drive the Ferrari 458 Spider at the international launch in Italy. I don’t think anything comes close to driving a Ferrari in its natural habitat so I treated this trip as a pilgrimage. For starters, not only would I be driving a Ferrari on some of Italy’s most picturesque and winding roads, the route would take me just 100km away from Genoa – the city of my forefathers. The morning after arriving at the hotel in Reggio Emilia, an affluent city in Northern Italy, I was woken up by a choir of 458 Spiders warming up their mechanical voice boxes in the hotel’s courtyard. I skipped breakfast and bolted down to the courtyard to catch a glimpse of the action and pick my car for the day. The test route took the form of an epic 350km round trip through the meandering roads of the Apennine Mountains and down to the Mediterranean city of La Spezia on the Ligurian coast – a proper way of determining the 458 Spider’s pedigree. The 458 Spider is the world’s first mid-engined Berlinetta with a retractable hardtop roof, choosing to eschew the traditional fabric roof configuration made famous by the 360 Spider and F430 Spider. The reason for this departure is quite simple – the two-piece aluminium roof is 25kg lighter than the fabric alternative and takes only 14 seconds to fold away. The structural augmentation of the Spider’s design has only one shortcoming – the engine is no longer visible. Ferrari’s engineers have done well to retain the natural form of the 458 Italia with the only design changes coming in the form of two flying buttresses and an aluminium tonneau cover that replaces the engine display glass. These buttresses function not only as roll bars but optimise air travel to the engine intakes, clutch and gearbox oil radiators. Ferrari claims the structural integrity of the chassis is as strong as the 458 Italia and it certainly felt that way. No matter how hard I tucked the Spider into the sinuous roads of the Italian countryside I never experienced any scuttle shake, and body roll was hardly noticeable thanks to the multi-link suspension arrangement.

The only issue I experienced was an annoying blind spot created by the buttresses – a nightmare when trying to change lanes. As a whole, the 458 Spider is just as pretty as its coupé sibling, perhaps a little prettier, but one thing it does for sure is turn heads – including that of the authorities. Just six kilometres into the test drive and the carabinieri forced my driving partner and me to pull over on the side of the road. It turned out that they merely wanted to admire the svelte lines of the 458 Spider but it was an unnerving experience nonetheless, particularly after forgetting my licence back at the hotel. The engine soundtrack is a harbinger of the power that lurks in the rear – 425kW and 540Nm to be precise. The vibrations from the boisterous 4.5-litre V8 travel up and down your spine with every push of the throttle as if you’re plugged into the car’s intricate circuitry. Driving through the narrow streets of the surrounding villages brought out the best of the engine acoustics. The hard-edged rasp of the engine penetrated the surrounding architecture and reverberated off the walls with such accuracy that it returned a sonar-like image of the town. As we approached the first stretch of Autostrada coming into La Spezia I spotted the first of many tunnels; could this trip really get any better? My throttle inputs naturally became more aggressive as I prepared myself for aural Nirvana. The echo of the free-revving V8 in the tunnels was incredible and drowned out everything in its path including several 18-wheelers while the odd-downshift and burble on the overrun was also very entertaining. No matter your driving skill, the Spider makes you feel like a seasoned professional, even when you’re at your most vulnerable. The feeling you get from driving the 458 Spider is one of telepathy, almost as if the car knows what you’re going to do next. Handling is sublime and no matter your steering input the car is agile enough to respond to every flick of the steering wheel. The manettino dial – marked Wet, Sport, Race, CT Off and ESC Off – gives you complete control over how the car reacts and lets you misbehave a little if you’ve selected an advanced mode. The MSC damper button changes the suspension characteristics of the car no matter which mode you’ve selected. Put to the test it sucked up most of the bumps and ruts the countryside’s pockmarked surfaces threw at it. Race mode supplies a generous amount of power, gear response and play but ‘CT Off’ is the most enthralling and challenging mode. It allows for a bit of wheel slippage when accelerating out of a corner sending the rear squirreling for a moment before the 20-inch wheels regain traction.

What’s the cabin like? Well there’s plenty of room, enough in fact, to consume a 1.95m adult and there’s space behind the seats for a some luggage. The interior can be shaped according to your taste – I liked the sport bucket seats with carbon-fibre fascia accents and cuoio leather. The F1-style shift light on the summit of the steering wheel is also a nifty option particularly if you’re after a pseudo-Formula 1 experience. The route back to the hotel gave me an opportunity to test just how quickly the Spider can reach the horizon line. The seven-speed F1-derived dual-clutch transmission is a thing of precision – it sends optimal power to the rear wheels with help from the E-Diff. Select manual mode and the column-mounted paddle shifters come into play. The response is rapid with the gear changes forcing the exhaust to crackle in appreciation as the rev needle slingshots to 9000rpm. Despite weighing 50kg more than the Coupé the Spider can complete the 0 to 100km dash in just 3.4 seconds and hit 200km/h in 10.8 seconds. Mid-range torque is phenomenal with over 80 per cent of the torque accessible from as low down as 3200rpm. The generous lumps of torque mean that even cosseting the throttle – in any gear – will result in your head smacking the headrest. The Spider can reach a top speed of 320km/h – quite believable given the rate at which it accelerates. Balls to the wall and your peripheral vision becomes blurry. At some point I looked down at the speedo binnacle to find myself travelling at 250km/h-plus, yet at no point did I feel uncomfortable or lose faith in the car’s stability. Thirty kilometres from the hotel and we hit peak hour traffic. I selected automatic, placed the manettino in sport and let the car do its thing. The throttle mapping became more accommodating and the gear changes more civilised showing just how drivable it actually is. How does it compare to other Ferraris? Well, having recently driven the California I can vouch that the 458 Spider is a far more personal and driver-focused car. In fact, it’s very difficult to find any negatives about it. Compared to the hundreds of cars I’ve driven this year the level of driver involvement and the sensory experience that accompanies it is unmatched. It’s number one on my all-time list and will stay there – I’m sure – for a very long time. The 458 Spider will go down as one of the greatest Cavallino Rampante’s ever made and will undoubtedly become the poster car of choice for car enthusiasts the world over.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price: €226 800

Engine: 4.5-litre V8

Power: 425kW and 540Nm

0-100km/h: 3.4 seconds

0-200km/h: 10.8 seconds

Top speed: 320km/h

Launch drive video:

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