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100 years later, Aston Martin stays true to its classy sports car lineage

Over the last 100 years, Aston Martin has ferried royalty, seduced James Bond and won world racing championships. It's also been through enough bankruptcies and reorganizations to make American Airlines proud.

This year finds the iconic British brand celebrating its centenary year in fine form. The brand's lineup is as robust as it's ever been, with three sports cars and a four-door coupe selling for $121,000 to $311,000.

Such princely sums for a car were unimaginable in 1914, when founders Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford first started building cars to race up a course called Aston Hill. The company would spend the next 30 years building racing and road cars, while passing through several owners.

PHOTOS: 100 years of Aston Martin

In 1947, a wealthy tractor maker named David Brown bought several auto manufacturing companies, including Aston Martin. With his new holdings, Brown ushered the Aston brand into a golden era of performance and style. Along the way, he bestowed his cars with the DB naming convention that lives to this day in the DB9.

The David Brown period saw the creation of iconic Aston models such as the DB4, the DB5 made famous in the 1964 James Bond film "Goldfinger" and the DB6. The subsequent decades saw Aston Martin change hands several more times before Ford bought a 75% stake in 1987 and the remaining piece in 1994.

With long-term financial stability in place, Aston Martin cars saw a thorough modernization. The 1994 DB7 and the 2001 V-12 Vantage ushered in a new design language that was further refined in the 2003 DB9 and the 2006 V-8 Vantage, and lives on to this day.

Ford got out of the exotic car game in 2007 when it sold nearly its entire stake in Aston Martin to several investment groups that now own 62.5% of the company. Private equity firm Investindustrial owns the remaining 37.5%, which it bought in April. Global sales in 2012 were around 3,800 vehicles, according to the company.

Yet despite the relative robustness of Aston Martin's current lineup, the brand appears to be on the cusp of a new chapter. It has squeezed as much life as possible out of the platform that underpins all of its current models. And Aston Martin's styling, while among the most handsome on the road today, has evolved as much as it can over a decade.

So what does the future hold? The company is mum on salient details about its next products, saying only that we'll start seeing the next generation of sports cars in 2016. And they will be sports cars. Unlike Porsche and Lamborghini, Aston Martin will follow Ferrari's lead and resist the temptation of sport utility vehicles. So do not expect to see James Bond fording any rivers in a boosted Aston Martin.

"It's important to know that our core is sports cars," said Julian Jenkins, president of Aston Martin of the Americas. "That's our focus, and that's what you'll continue to see."

This is despite rumors that a recent technical partnership with Mercedes-Benz would yield an SUV. That partnership, which is expected to be finalized by year's end, gives Mercedes a small ownership in Aston Martin. In return, the German automaker will supply the "base architecture" for a new line of V-8 engines and transmissions, and access to in-car electronics such as navigation systems.

For now, Aston Martin's lineup of the Vantage, DB9 and Vanquish will remain the brand's core sports cars (the four-door Rapide S is the sole outlier here). We recently took a spin in each of the coupes to see the fruits that 100 years of building sports cars can bear.

V-8 Vantage

This is Britain's answer to Germany's Porsche 911 Carrera S. With a similar price tag and roughly equal power, the V-8 Vantage is the gentleman's alternative to the Porsche.

Though its styling hasn't changed since 2006, expect favorable attention from the valet, even in exotic-laden Los Angeles. Its compact, purposeful design mirrors its character on the road; never superfluous, always capable. It's also friskier than its 3,600-pound curb weight might indicate.

Inside, the car's interior and ergonomics are beginning to show their age. The dashboard — shared with the DB9 and the Rapide S — has way too many tiny buttons. The Garmin Navigation system looks and acts as if it's using a dial-up modem.

This base Vantage we tested uses a 4.7-liter V-8 that makes 420 horsepower and 346 pound-feet of torque. Our $125,000 tester came with a six-speed manual transmission. A seven-speed automated manual gearbox is optional.

Though it's been with us since 2006, and a Porsche 911 probably will beat it around a track, the Vantage is still an incredibly compelling way to drive well and look good. What else do you need an Aston Martin to do?

DB9

Do not mistake the DB9 for a true sports car. With a 4,000-pound curb weight, this $200,000 grand tourer prefers meandering curves to tight apexes. As a daily driver, it's a demure chariot with stunning sex appeal. It will liven up some if you step on its tail, but in a refined, subdued way.

Though it shares the same interior foibles as the V-8 Vantage, the DB9's biggest drawback is its transmission. With rapid-firing dual-clutch gearboxes commonplace on exotic competitors, the DB9's automatic felt a bit slow, even in sport mode. Fortunately, drivers can expedite the process with large paddles on the steering wheel.

Despite sharing a chassis and name with the DB9 that debuted a decade ago, Aston gave this model a healthy update in 2013. Key changes included a more powerful V-12 engine and a refreshed face with a more crisp look.

The new 5.9-liter V-12 now makes 510 horsepower and 457 pound-feet of torque, and pushes it to the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic gearbox. And oh what a sound it makes; if they're lucky, owners of this car will live near a tunnel to amplify all that delicious noise. Imagine a thousand angry trombones.

The model we tested rang in at $208,000. If your hedge fund returns are subpar this year, save yourself the $5,400 and skip the interior carbon fiber trim. There are faster cars for the money, but you're going to be hard-pressed to find something with more panache. It's a worthy trade-off.

Vanquish

The pinnacle of Aston's lineup, the Vanquish can be considered a louder, lighter version of the DB9. All-new for 2013, the Vanquish coupe and convertible wrap a lightweight carbon fiber body around a massive V-12 engine.

Horsepower from the 5.9-liter V-12 engine checks in at 565, while torque is 457 pound-feet. A six-speed automatic transmission is your only choice, and is also this car's biggest downside. The Vanquish deserves better, especially with a price tag near $300,000. But sport mode in this car seems better programmed than in the DB9.

Despite being a grand tourer by pedigree and weighing around 3,800 pounds, this car is agile in the mountains with a confident, neutral feel through turns. The steering tells you everything, and the standard vented carbon ceramic brakes keep a tight rein on all that weight.

Aston Martin has never been about flash, but this model gets close. It's lower and more dramatic to look at than anything else the brand makes now — or ever. The car is all body, taut and muscular, with the windshield and roof looking almost like an afterthought. The tail section pays homage to the brand's recent supercar, the One-77.

Inside, Aston Martin has finally upgraded the interior. The center stack now has a more intuitive layout with new touch-sensitive buttons that look better than they work. For a good time, tell your date to count the stiches in the leather of this Vanquish. The automaker boasts that it uses about a million inside each car.

When you get into the $300,000 neighborhood of cars, things get competitive — and Italian. Yet in the new Vanquish, Aston Martin has done an excellent job of balancing three key tenets. This car has the grand touring capability Aston Martin gleaned from 100 years of making cars, just the right amount of raw and exotic power, and of class and grace befitting James Bond.

Here's to the next 100 years.

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

Twitter @latimes_driven

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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