For people in my business, worrying about Aston Martin used to be a way of life. Through the late ’80s and early ’90s its product lurched from bad, past awful to the point when I drove the Virage Volante and knew the company’s time was up. I still recall that car as one of the worst of any sort I have ever driven, and I’ve seen a few. Years later, the late Victor Gauntlett told me the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had been a blessing of sorts because Saddam’s soldiers torched all the Kuwaiti royal family’s Astons which then had to be replaced. On at least two occasions during his stewardship of the marque, he went to work in the morning with the strong belief that the company would not survive until sundown.
But survive it did, thanks to Gauntlett engineering a sale to the Ford Motor Company. Then came the DB7 and the rest is history. For over a decade there has been no longer any need to worry about Aston Martin. With Ford’s money, the canny Dr Ulrich Bez has shown an innate understanding not just of the Aston Martin brand, but how it could be presented to a 21st century audience. Turn on the ignition of any modern Aston and on its dash will be displayed the legend ‘power, beauty, soul’ before the engine sparks into life. Personally I care not at all for such self-congratulatory gimmicks, but not even I would deny that those three little words define the brand as well as any I can conceive. The DB9 was a triumph, the little V8 Vantage even more so but what was really clever was the adaptability of the bonded aluminium structure that underpinned both. The disadvantages of this process – it’s expense and inherent space inefficiency – mattered little to Aston customers, while its strength and light weight mattered a whole lot. But for Aston Martin the clincher was its almost infinite adaptability into just about any configuration it required from a small V8-powered convertible to a large V12-powered four-door super-saloon such as the forthcoming Rapide.
But it would seem that the latest Aston, the DBS, has set people worrying about the marque again. Another Alfa Romeo 8C-shaped commitment meant I didn’t attend the original press launch but the reception it received from my colleagues was mixed to say the least. I was intrigued. On paper there didn’t seem much cause for concern: a 510bhp version of the V12 may not have been quite so high as the 520bhp of the final Vanquish but, with a much lower kerb weight thanks to carbon fibre panels and carbon-ceramic discs, nor did it need to. To give a measure of how quick this car is, you should know that no Aston has ever been able to reach 100mph in under 10sec, but when Autocar tested the DBS, it took 8.7sec.
Kindly, Aston Martin arranged to put a DBS at my disposal for a few days, and at first I started to worry too. This is Aston’s flagship, a £160,000 supercar, and as such an inveterate Aston fan like me should have been smitten by it. But I wasn’t. Much as Aston Martin would have wanted me to, I could not see it as a model in its own right: it looked like a DB9 to which a slightly unfortunate body kit had been applied. I can remember seeing a Vanquish parked outside my house one morning a few years back and despite the fact that I’d parked it there the night before, I was still startled by its sheer presence and beauty. And love the shape of the DB9 though I do, that didn’t happen once with the DBS.
When first I drove it, it felt too mannered to be a true supercar. For all its speed, there’s nothing brutal about the DBS, no unspeakable savagery in its power delivery nor any great challenge to getting it down a road quickly. Instead it was effortless, comfortable and easy, and for all the positives these attributes engender, so too is it undeniable that the sense of achievement you feel when you’ve mastered, say, a Ferrari 599GTB or Lamborghini Murcielago is missing.
Such are the perils of the first date. I’d been expecting fireworks but got a peck on the cheek.
But my time with the DBS coincided with a few long journeys and while my irritation at some of its detailing grew – the ergonomics are among the most singularly dreadful of any car on sale – so it became increasingly clear that, out there in the real world of traffic, bad weather and driver fatigue, this car really works. The DBS is not a sunny weekend recreation, it is a rather practical everyday car. It’s quiet at a sustained cruise and remarkably comfortable for hours on end. It uses less fuel than I imagined, and will therefore do 300 miles on a tank, which is a rare feat at this end of the market and has a profound affect on journey times. And while I could not bring myself to love the way it looked, the same could not be said for those who stood, stared and pointed from pavements in every town I visited. Call it the James Bond effect if you like – whatever it is, it’s mighty powerful.
In the end, I concluded that my initial indifference to the car was born not from disappointment, but misunderstanding. Rightly or wrongly I’d expected a car as different to the DB9 as the DB9 is to the Vantage, but it’s not: the DBS is a DB9, albeit one that’s been dynamically optimised in all areas. It is not the supercar I had expected, but a logical extension of the GT principle that Aston Martin now knows how to do so well.
Rumours persist of a super DBS, what would have been called a DBS Vantage in old Aston parlance. For Aston Martin has pitched the price and performance of the DBS almost midway between the DB9 and the flagship Ferrari and Lamborghini. Whether that’s just sound marketing, positioning it where it is effectively without a direct rival, or whether it’s been deliberately pitched low to make space for some uber-Aston remains to be seen. That said, if Aston Martin continues to launch cars at its current rate, we won’t have to wait long to find out.