Why, you might well wonder, would Aston Martin even consider naming its most important new car of the moment after a machine from the 1980s that was, shall we say, not exactly touched by genius? The answer is that the boss is rather fond of the name Virage, and because the original version was, according to Ian Minards, Aston's director of project engineering, “actually a far better car than history would have us believe.”
Whatever the truth or logic behind this car's name, and however familiar its styling may initially appear, the Virage is a key car for Aston Martin right now. Not only is it intended to plug the gap between the DB9 and the DBS, but it also represents a small, yet important, philosophy shift in the company's engineering intentions.
The Virage, claims Aston, is a genuine GT car; one that's meant to be as refined as it is sporting. So, even if its power and performance may seem extremely similar to those of the DBS, in reality the Virage is a softer, more cohesive car than its big brother, one that will set the template for most of Aston's more popular models in years to come. This shift in emphasis is largely due to what was learned during the creation of the four-door Rapide.
In short, Aston's designers and engineers achieved great things with the Rapide's chassis, suspension and refinement. In fact, they were so impressed by them that they felt they absolutely had to continue the theme into the company's more sporting cars. As one highly regarded ex-Ford boss who now works for Aston as a consultant told us recently, “Until the Rapide, they didn't really do noise reduction at Aston Martin. But now they've learned how, it makes sense to pass that knowledge on.”
Hence the new $210k, 490hp V12 Virage features a level of sophistication about its entire dynamic personality that really is as calm as it is composed. You can detect as much from the moment you climb aboard and start driving. Actually, you get a sense of its heightened intentions even before you climb inside – merely by looking at it.
The basic shape may seem predictably close to those of all the other VH platform-based Astons (particularly the Vantage, DB9 and DBS), but, in its detailing, the Virage is quite different from, and more grown up than, anything that's preceded it.
In the raw, the car looks as elegant as it does aggressive. The line that runs from either side of the new front splitter, all the way along the sills and then across the base of the rear bumper provides a very obvious sense of thrusting, forward movement to the shape. At the same time, there's a more mature feel to the headlights (carried straight over from the Rapide) and the wheel design that makes the Virage feel like a superior being – certainly when compared with the more obviously aggressive DBS.
That theme continues inside, where you'll find not only a brand-new navigation system nestling within the dashboard, but also new seats, a pair of paddle shifters (whether you like it or not) behind the new wheel, and a slightly more restrained feel to the cabin in general. What you won't find is much in the way of room in the rear seats. They seem to have shrunk somehow compared with those of the original DB9, possibly because the new front seats are that much bulkier. Under no circumstances could an adult sit behind an adult in the Virage, which makes you wonder why they didn't just go for a simpler storage area in place of two all-but-unusable rear seats.
No matter, because the main event inside the Virage is still the driver's seat, from which you get a charismatically clear view of that long hood as it disappears out of sight toward your destination. The driving position is excellent in its fundamental ergonomics, even if the wrong-way-'round rev counter continues to confuse. The instruments also still suffer from awkward reflections in certain lights.
Either way, you get an undeniable sense of majesty when sitting inside this car. It feels and smells expensive, exotic even, in a way that few other cars do. When finally you get yourself comfortable behind the steering wheel, and realize that to start the engine you must insert a glass key into a slot beneath the air vents and hold it there for a second, the 6.0-liter V12 catches. At that point, the sense of occasion goes up a gear again.
There isn't a cacophonous burst of revs when the engine fires, but it's a dramatic enough event to smack you round the chops and force a rare strand of concentration. However, the moment you pull the right-hand gear paddle to select first, prod the throttle and move gently away, something changes in your perception of this car. Even while traveling the first 20 feet there is a soothing, more graceful edge to the way the Virage responds that has simply not been present before outside of the Rapide. The ride is deliciously well damped, the steering light but better resolved than you remember, and even the brakes have a delicacy of touch to them that you notice particularly under light application. This is some achievement considering that the discs are carbon ceramic as standard (and therefore notoriously difficult to get right at low speed).
What you soon realize after a few miles is that, despite having 490hp and 420lb-ft at its disposal, plus a top speed of 186mph, the Virage is, at its core, a quite extraordinarily civilized machine to drive. It feels almost like a bona fide luxury car, in fact, which just happens to be able to hit 62mph from rest in 4.6sec. That gives it a unique breadth of appeal because, of course, the flip side is that it can do sporting any time you ask it to.
Nudge the button marked Sport within the dash and you get a more aggressive response from the throttle and faster, slightly more frenzied gear changes from the 6-speed paddle shifter. By pressing Sport you also remove the automatic upshift mode, which means you can hold the V12 right up near its 6500rpm red line without the gearbox selecting a higher ratio. In other words, it won't then upshift mid-corner at precisely the moment you don't want it to.
If the Virage doesn't feel as vicious as a DBS in a straight line, that's mostly because the way in which it delivers that performance is so different from, and mostly so much better than, the DBS. There will be some who will no doubt bemoan the lack of a manual gearbox option, but for many owners this means the business of changing gear will be vastly easier. And, most of the time, rather more satisfying.
The Virage is also a fair bit more restrained in its personality beside the DBS. It makes less noise, for starters, which is both a good and a bad thing: good because it's more refined; bad because the sound of a DBS in full flight remains one of motoring's more delightful experiences. Yet, as a whole, the driving experience offered by the Virage will prove infinitely more desirable, and not just compared with the DBS but the DB9, too.
There are numerous reasons why this is so, not least because the Virage represents the latest step in the evolution of the VH platform, and therefore should be better resolved than any of its predecessors. However, the outstanding item, the aspect that elevates the car to another level dynamically, is the chassis.
Although the Virage is heavier than the DBS because it isn't made from such expensive, exotic materials – there is no carbon fiber in the car, for example – you'd never guess as much from the way that it drives. In fact, there's both a crispness of response and a level of polish to the ride and handling that is strangely absent from the DBS.
You notice it first when turning in for quicker corners, and then again once the car is settled but loaded up mid-corner. There is just a lovely, natural feeling of balance to the chassis, particularly the rear suspension that bestows huge confidence in whoever happens to be behind the wheel. The steering, too, is unusually refined in its damping on the one hand, but alert and intuitive in its response on the other. As a result, the Virage has to be one of the most friendly feeling 490hp cars there has ever been to drive on or near to its limit.
Most of all, though, the Virage is a supremely refined GT car first and a sports car second. So much so that it doesn't actually feel like a sporting machine at all to begin with – at least not until you've aimed it at a few corners and realized that it can, indeed, do what it can do. Is it enough to keep Aston Martin in the forefront of the minds and aspirations of people lucky enough to have around $210,000 to spend on a car such as this? That's the big question, of course, and the one to which the manufacturer hopes the answer is yes.
With newer, theoretically fresher rivals from Ferrari et al to contend with, you might fear for the long-term prospects of a car such as the Virage, and a company such as Aston Martin. Yet this car shows just how valuable the process of evolution can be, and how an ongoing range of improvements can deliver such excellent results.
The Virage could well be the most complete Aston Martin that there has ever been, and if that isn't a good foundation from which to go forward, then it's hard to imagine what is.