The waiting is over! Aston Martin's latest drop-top, the V8 Vantage Roadster, has finally hit the road.
The newcomer aims to prove the firm is sticking to its ambitious plans for the future - despite its recent change of ownership. It's set to rival the Porsche 911 Cabriolet and Jaguar's rag-topped XKR - a machine that until recently shared the same stable as Aston under owner Ford.
Now in independent British hands, Aston aims to expand with the introduction of the Roadster, plus the addi-tion of new models, including the DBS coupé and four-door Rapide. However, as first steps go, they don't come much bigger than the Vantage Roadster. Since the wraps were first taken off the car at November's Los Angeles Motor Show, dealers have reported customers deserting rival manufacturers to place orders for the fabric-topped British two-seater - which should help boost the firm's sales by 20 per cent in the next two years.
And it's not difficult to see why. Chopping the roof off the V8 Vantage coupé must have been a daunting task for the designers, but they have executed it brilliantly. The Roadster has lost none of the hard-top's beauty, the rear deck is neat and shapely, and overall it's hard to think of a better-looking convertible. The detailing is superb as well. Lower the roof (it takes 18 seconds and can be done at speeds up to 30mph), and you'll see the leather has been extended over the humps behind the seats, softening the crossover between bodywork and cabin.
This also has the effect of drawing the eye into the equally pretty cockpit. It's carried over from the hard-top, but gains useful stowage recesses behind each of the figure-hugging chairs. A surprising amount of luggage can be crammed into the 144-litre boot, too.
The driving position itself is virtually flawless, and the jewel-like instruments and crystal starter button add to the sense of occasion. Press the latter, and you're in for a real treat. The 4.3-litre normally aspirated V8 is shared with the coupé, and although it doesn't set a class benchmark for power (380bhp) or pace (0-60mph in 4.9 seconds), it sounds absolutely fantastic with the top down. Above 4,000rpm, the exhaust rasps, barks and crackles - and with the maximum 410Nm of torque arriving at 5,000rpm, this unit thrives on revs.
Our car was equipped with the new Speedshift transmission, which adds electro-hydraulic control to the standard six-speed manual gearbox. It costs a hefty £3,000 on top of the Roadster's £91,000 asking price, yet is undoubtedly better to use.
There are gear selection buttons on the dash, but we preferred the column-mounted paddles - and the faster you go, the quicker the shifts become. Unusually for these clutch-free systems, it's easy to modulate the throttle when manoeuvring, although the transmission does hunt for ratios and jerk occasionally.
Chopping the top off meant some structural changes had to be made to the V8 Vantage - most notably a stiffer front bulkhead cross-member to preserve chassis stiffness. The Roadster weighs 70kg more, but on the road it's free from scuttle shake, with no kickback through the steering or shudder from the A-pillars.
It's also incredibly entertaining to drive. Over smooth surfaces, it sweeps around corners effortlessly, with the steering providing detailed feedback and the chassis proving superbly balanced - although if you push it right to the limit, the car will understeer.
It's not quite as taut as a 911, and its damping isn't as well controlled, either. Although vastly superior to early DB9s, the Roadster's rear suspension rebounds too fast, so it's bouncy on bumpy roads. This can be unnerving - but the Aston is a very involving driver's car nevertheless.