Live and Let Fly

Face it: Few will ever see an Aston Martin up close, much less drive one. These cars are movie props, better suited for celebrities or gadget-loving secret agents than the motoring masses.

But for those who can come up with $160,000 and join an 18-month waiting list for Aston's new DB9 coupe, the experience is within reach. Or, for an additional $13,000, make that a drop-top.

Go ahead. Lose thyself in the choir of baritone exhaust notes; tickle the magnesium paddle shifters through gear after glorious gear; slip through the air like a stealth fighter; luxuriate in a cabin girded with leather, bamboo and mahogany. It's the closest you'll ever get to a date with one of those leggy Bond Girls.

During a recent 300-mile (483-km) test drive through California, the car convincingly reinforces Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd.'s newfound quality pedigree - birthed with the '01 Vanquish.

Hand-assembled in Gaydon, U.K., alongside the $255,000 Vanquish, the DB9 comes on with a bit less swagger than its more-expensive brother.

Although it carries the same 6L DOHC V-12, it churns out 450 hp and 420 lb.-ft. (570 Nm) of torque compared with the faster Vanquish's 520 hp and 425 lb.-ft. (577 Nm).

Aston is bolstering its brand against other high-performance players. The DB9's exterior design is subtle, especially when parked next to the Porsche 911 Turbo and Ferrari 360 Modena. Where Teutonic and Italian designs often go down like a belt of 24-year-old scotch, Aston's understated look is on the same page as a smooth Cabernet.

The fine details need to be savored, such as the cigar-shaped door handles that fold flat into the body, the "swan-wing" doors that angle upward 12 degrees to avoid curbs when opened and the seven monkey-bar-strength alloy vertical bars filling the grille.The rear-end melts forward into the car's countertop rear shoulders, convincingly balancing against the shark-like bonnet.

Inside, the cabin can be personalized, albeit for a price. Optional are too many features that should be standard at this level, such as heated seats ($450), a first aid kit ($75), cruise control ($450) and matching "footwell" mats ($430).

On road, it behaves like a sports machine stuck in a grand tourer's body. Lighter than the 525-hp Continental GT by a spectacular 1,290 lbs. (585 kg), the DB9 darts with nimble grace through the sinuous roads east of San Diego.

Speed-sensitive steering is calibrated a little on the soft side for the pure racer's taste, but provides a responsive connection to the wheels.

The DB9 can reach 60 mph (97 km/h) from a dead stop in 4.7 seconds; top speed crests at 186 mph (300 km/h). Electronic brakeforce distribution, emergency brake assist, dynamic stability control and traction control harness the power and lend confidence to even the most amateur of drivers under severe conditions.

The fully independent suspension makes the most of its aluminum double wishbones at each corner; the front incorporates anti-dive geometry; the rear includes longitudinal control arms. Monster 14-in. (36-cm) steel brake discs handle stopping for the front wheels, while 13-in. (33-cm) discs impede the rear.

Whereas many vehicles feel short-leashed when restrained to posted speed limits, the DB9 remains collected and comfortable at any speed, making a drive up the coast to California's wine country as enjoyable as a romp on the track - with or without a Bond Girl.

'05 Aston Martin DB9 (Automatic)

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, 4-passenger 2-door coupe
Engine: 5.9L (5,935 cc) DOHC V-12, aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net): 450 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 420 lb.-ft. (570 Nm) @ 5,000 rpm
Compression ratio: 10.3:1
Bore x stroke (mm): 88.9 x 79.5
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 107.9 ins. (274 cm)
Overall length: 185.4 ins. (471 cm)
Overall width: 73.2 ins. (186 cm)
Overall height: 50 ins. (127 cm)
Curb weight: 3,968 lbs. (1,800 kg)
EPA fuel economy, city/highway (mpg): 11/19
Market competition: Bentley Continental GT; Ferrari F360; Lamborghini Gallardo; Porsche 911 Turbo
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