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2013 Aston Martin is stuck in the past -- exactly as it should be

A model poses next to a Aston Martin

A model poses next to a Aston Martin V8 Vantage on media day at the Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition. (April 20, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

I pull a white Aston Martin Vantage S roadster out of a Manhattan garage and the rumble of the V-8 reverberates, vibrant and animalistic, down the crowded street.

I get less than a block before a woman leans out of her SUV and asks, “Is it a six speed?” I tell her it is. She sighs expressively. “Good. A car like that should have a stick shift.”

Two more conversations ensue before I can escape to the highway. People like Aston Martins.

This year marks the brand’s 100th anniversary. It began life in 1913 as Bamford & Martin Ltd., and has endured a steady turnover of owners, including an oil company, Ford Motor Co. and a group of Kuwait-based investors.

I can think of few other brands which remain as rooted to their beginnings as Aston Martin. After a century, we’re still getting more of the glorious same.

I’m not convinced that this is entirely by design — some of it comes down to benign neglect and ongoing financial struggles — but the company continues to build about 4,000 cars a year for drivers who like their sports cars both simple and spectacularly beautiful.

Today it offers four model lines: the Vanquish coupe ($280,000), the four-door Rapide S ($200,000), the DB9 coupe and convertible ($185,000 and up), and the two-seat Vantage coupe and roadster ($118,000 and up). There’s also Cygnet, a tiny “city” car which is actually a re-badged Toyota and simply doesn’t count.

GT4 Racecar

In the last few months, I’ve driven almost the entire line, including the DB9 on a long road trip and a Vantage-based GT4 racecar out on the racetrack.

Because the Astons are so full of personality and almost doggedly old-school, it’s natural to compare them to other cars I’ve tested recently, like the Tesla Model S.

The differences in approach are stark. If the Tesla is the harbinger of the new automotive order — electrically powered, relentlessly digital — the Aston Martins are shamelessly analog. In some aspects they have more in common with the last century than this one.

At times this can be vexing. These cars are exorbitantly priced, and a modern driver expects everything to actually, you know, work. Just try programming a destination into an Aston’s GPS unit and you’ll soon make a detour to a gas station to buy a map. And I spent an entire road trip fiddling with the air conditioner unit in the Vantage ($152,820) and never got the temperature to a comfortable level.

Single Clutch

The technological gap extends to the engines and transmissions, which are not as advanced as their supercar brethren’s. The V-12 engines found on the Vanquish and DB9 sound amazing, but they only produce comparable horsepower to a Nissan GT-R’s twin-turbo V-6. And none have an advanced double-clutch automated manual transmission like you’ll find on Ferraris. Instead we get a clunkier six-speed, single-clutch unit.

I used to think those things should be fixed, but I’ve recently changed my mind. Completely. It is exactly these quirks and kinks which make Aston Martin one of the most interesting brands in the supercar market.

This hits home as I upshift from fourth to third in the Vantage, which still comes with that aforementioned stick shift. It’s a really nice unit, smooth and intuitive, and like the rest of the experience of driving the hot little roadster, highly interactive.

Stop Watch

Meanwhile, Ferrari and Lamborghini no longer offer a single car with a manual transmission. They argue, correctly, that it would severely hamper the performance of the car. Those carmakers are shooting for perfection, and losing tenths of a second per shift is simply unacceptable.

I get that. But except for the Vantage-based GT4 racecar I did drive on the track, I’m not actually racing. I’ll happily give up a whole second or two for the pleasure of rowing through gears in the Vantage. It’s fun.

Meanwhile, the auto industry as a whole is moving relentlessly to making cars which, in part, drive themselves. We already have features that nudge the car back into the lane if the driver wanders, or slows the car automatically if it senses an impending collision. Tesla recently said it was exploring cars which would drive on “auto-pilot.”

Aston, I trust, will not be releasing a self-driving car anytime soon. Part of the reason is that it isn’t owned by a bigger automotive company, and simply doesn’t have the cash to devise such technology.

Tata Motors

An Italian private equity group recently took a 37.5 stake in the company for 150 million pounds ($229 million). Compare that to Jaguar and Land Rover (which were once Ford-owned, too), whose owner Tata Motors is spending $4.6 billion on research and development between the brands.

But, I believe, Aston Martin’s reluctance also reflects a unique philosophy. It builds cars for people who actually love to drive. In another 100 years, I hope that won’t have changed.

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