Beautiful cars? They're surprisingly rare in today's showrooms. Visually arresting machines are plentiful, and at all price ranges – think of the Mini Cooper or Citroën's C3 Pluriel at one end of the scale, and Ferrari's F430 or the Rolls- Royce Phantom at the other. But beautiful? Well, you'd have found more during the '60s. This isn't just my opinion, but that of many car design chiefs – so why they don't get to work?
A glorious exception is Aston Martin's exquisite DB9, launched earlier this year. Where so many moderns are brash and brutal, the Aston's graceful proportions and restrained detailing are decidedly tasteful, but not to the point that this car goes unnoticed. It has real presence – and an exhaust note that's hard to ignore.
These cultured trumpetings are the product of a 450 bhp V12 that will rush you to 186 mph, if you can find the space, dismissing 60 mph in 5.4 insouciant seconds on the way. And that's fast, if not as furious as others of this ilk can muster. The Aston's engine does not really wake up until 4,000 rpm shows on its hard-to-read instruments – at which point it develops an assertive growl that suddenly has the scenery advancing at eye-widening pace.
Never mind quibbles over slightly brisker rivals – by any standards, this car is searingly fast. A good thing, then, that its tyres exert a gum-like grip on the road, making it a willing accomplice through fast-hustled curves.
Driving it like this reveals a character more sporting than its refined lines and opulently furnished interior might suggest. It can buck over bumps rather suddenly in style, and its weighty steering and surprisingly unresponsive brakes demand concentration, though that's no bad thing in a vehicle this fast. In fact, the brakes are very effective, but you need to shove them hard.
If this DB9 sounds like a racecar disguised as a svelte long-distance machine, you might be surprised to hear that it can be had only with automatic transmission. But that's no drawback – those who enjoy stirring their own levers can select gears manually via a pair of paddles behind the steering wheel. It's a six-speed box, and it changes gear with seamless finesse. Automatic or not, this car is an exhilarating drive.
Yet the Aston is a calming companion at moderate to brisk speeds, not least because you sit in considerable luxury. The furnishings are leather, wood and aluminium, but they're deployed in a style fresh enough that you don't feel you're sitting in a pastiche of a '60s sports car. The electric front seats are comfortable too, although the back seats are little more than lavishly upholstered receptacles for shopping.
If truth be told, this Aston is not quite as civil as its pedigree-look implies. On Britain's many unevenly surfaced roads it's a bit jostling, and there's more wind noise than there should be at 85 mph in a car that will do twice that. Still, it's hard not to be mightily impressed by this car, which is a pleasure to look at, a treat to sit in and, for the most part, a deeply satisfying drive.
Price £103,000 (Aston Martin DB9)
Max power 450 bhp
Max torque 420 lb ft
Max speed 186 mph
0-62 mph 5.4 sec
Fuel consumption 17.1 mpg
CO2 emissions 349 g/km
Bentley Continental GT £112,750
This is more grand tourer than sports car. Roomier rear seats, grander interior.
Ferrari 612 Scaglietti £170,500
Faster than the Aston, roomier in the rear, feels more robust, but it's costlier and less handsome.