An important newcomer for a whole host of reasons | By Andrew Frankel
It seems barely believable. In less than two years Aston Martin has gone from struggling also-ran, forced to trade once more on the quaintness and charm that barely kept the brand alive through the 1980s, to the marque of the moment. Since Andy Palmer took over the reins he has brought us the Vulcan hypercar, a universally well received revival of the Zagato Aston, sell-outs for the limited-edition GT12 and GT8 Vantages and, in the as-yet-unseen shape of the Adrian Newey-designed AM RB001, the promise of the fastest street-legal supercar the world has yet seen. Without doubt, Aston Martin is on the front foot.
But none of these cars is going to secure the future of a company that, lest we forget, is controlled not by a massive automotive conglomerate with almost limitless resources of technical know-how and purchasing clout, but an agglomeration of owners from the Middle East and Italy with Mercedes-Benz holding just a five per cent stake. If Aston Martin is to rise again, it will be hoist on the shoulders of two product ranges, neither mentioned above. First is the DBX SUV, to be built in an all-new factory in Wales. And if you don’t like the idea of an Aston Martin off-roader, think of it in terms of more traditional Astons its profits will support.
And then there is this, the new DB11. Palmer has called it the most important car in the company’s history and, while I’d not go quite that far, I think it’s certainly up there with DBs 2, 7 and 9, all of which had the potential to make or break the company. For from the loins of its all-new architecture will spring not just the DB11, but the new Vantage, Vanquish and every other front-engined sports car Aston intends to make over the next decade or so.
There is nothing revolutionary about its design, though the way air is forced to pass through parts of its body to generate downforce with minimal drag is mightily clever. Otherwise it uses a bonded aluminium platform, as different in execution as it is similar in concept to that used by the DB9. It has a large V12 engine at one end and a gearbox between the rear wheels in now traditional Aston fashion. Body panels are predominantly fashioned from aluminium, too. Suspension is provided by double wishbones per corner, though those at the back have an additional link to provide Aston’s first true multi-link rear end. Not exactly radical, you would agree. Even the vast brake discs are iron, though carbon-ceramics are on the way.
If there is a genuine departure, at least for Aston Martin, it is that the engine is turbocharged. And those used to the sound of Aston’s doughty V12 need to read on before concluding this is tantamount to heresy. This engine is related to that engine and you’d know it if you measured the bore centres, but Aston insists it is effectively new, without a single shared component. Its swept volume has been reduced to 5.2 litres, its power raised to 600bhp, more than any DB Aston to date and beaten only by the One-77 hypercar. Power is fed to an eight-speed ZF gearbox like those already found in the Vanquish and Rapide, but not the DB9.
The cabin is sumptuous, modern and, miracle of miracles, spacious even for very tall drivers. I’m 6ft 4in and for the first time I can remember in any Aston, didn’t need all the rearward seat travel. You won’t struggle to spot the Mercedes-Benz telematics and switchgear, but their look has been carefully changed so it doesn’t appear at all like it’s been thrown together from MB off-cuts. And while I cannot vouch for the way it all operates because the car I drove was a dog-eared prototype with very little of its interior actually functioning, there’s no reason to think it won’t be as intuitive as it is in a Benz and therefore by definition about a billion times better than anything we’ve seen from Aston Martin these past dozen years or more.
The engine doesn’t rumble into life nor even thunder. A crisp, clear bark answers your thumb as if there was no interruption at all to the passage of exhaust gas from manifold to outside world. Ease out onto the circuit and, because time is short, nail it. There’s no waiting, no pause for reflection while the engine and gearbox debate how many gears need to be dropped: it just goes. The last time an Aston engine felt so relatively strong in the mid-range was back in the days of the supercharged Virage Vantage. It’s effortless in the way Aston GTs always should be but too rarely have been. It’s fast, too, punching past 160mph on the short straights between banked sections of track. This is an entirely different level of performance to a DB9. In the real world, I expect even the flagship Vanquish would not get near it. And no one, repeat no one, is going to quibble about the noise it makes. The engine appears turbocharged only in its provision of a torque band almost as wide as the rev-range. In all other regards, you can forget it.
Yet this is no screaming sports car. One of the new regime’s key aims is to provide greater differentiation between its models in all regards, so while the new Vantage is reputedly an edgily styled, up-and-at-you road racer, the DB11 is a GT to its tyre treads.
You might be surprised to know for instance that its spring rates are the softest in Aston’s history, and while being confined to a test track meant I couldn’t prove it, I would expect its ride also to be the best. Aston Martin has been able to do this because the advances in shock absorber technology mean the car’s considerable mass (an unconfirmed 1850kg) does not run away uncontrolled, turning the car into a heaving, pitching, wallowing mess.
I found it tricky to drive on an unbelievably slippery wet handling track, but largely because a glitch in the electronics meant it was not possible to feed in the power as smoothly as I’d like and the torque vectoring on the prototype was not functioning. On the dry course it was terrific, offering good grip, outstanding traction, benign breakaway characteristics at both ends and surprising throttle adjustability in the middle of quick and difficult corners.
Given the car’s limited functionality and not having driven it on the road, that’s as much as I know. Normally I might wait until able to provide a more comprehensive review of a production-specification car, but for a machine as interesting and important as this, I thought you’d prefer at least the heart of the story now. The tale it tells is uplifting, at least for any fan of this brand in particular, or sporting British cars in general. It suggests very strongly that Aston is back where is was in 2003, with a world-class, cutting-edge product with all the charm Astons have always had, but also the ability many often lacked. If the company can maintain this momentum, its future is as bright right now as it has ever been before.
Price – £154,900
ENGINE – 5.2 litres, 12 cylinders, twin turbochargers
POWER – [email protected]
TORQUE – 516lb [email protected]
TRANSMISSION – eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
WEIGHT – 1850kg (approx)
POWER TO WEIGHT – 324bhp per tonne (approx)
0-62MPH – 3.9sec
TOP SPEED – 200mph
ECONOMY – n/a mpg
CO2 – n/a g/km