REVIEW DATE: 01 Sep 2006
Aston Martin's DB9 may look reassuringly familiar but underneath that sleek body lies a superstructure like none before. Andy Enright reports
It seems Aston Martin know a good thing when they see one. Many considered the old DB7 one of the world's most beautiful cars and its basic shape has become the template for a whole range of contemporary Astons, from the muscular Vanquish supercar, via the DB7's spiritual successor, the DB9, and onto the compact V8 Vantage. Of these three product lines, the DB9 is the central focus, the model around which the company is pinning its hopes. Fortunately they haven't backed a dud.
Underneath the sleek bodywork resides Aston Martin's VH platform, upon versions of which the V8 Vantage and the eventual Vanquish replacement will sit. It's a mixture of extruded, stamped and die-cast aluminium, bonded together into an extremely light yet rigid superstructure. What's more, experience with the Vanquish has enabled Aston Martin to develop the chassis in a cost effective manner; essential when dealing with relatively low volume production runs. Most of the exterior panels are aluminium, bonded into position by Aston's sole robot assistant, nicknamed James Bonder. The bootlid and front wings are made of a composite material, helping to keep weight down to a relatively low 1760kg.
In these days of super coupes pumping out five or six hundred bhp, the DB9's 450bhp output may not seem initially outstanding, but the engine that does the cranking is a thing of beauty, essentially an uprated version of the DB7 Vantage's V12, and sounds utterly intoxicating courtesy of new cams, inlet and exhaust manifolds and an exhaust tuned for the enthusiast ear. Although a little more discreet than the banshee wail of the Vanquish, the DB9 is still a car that will have you dropping the windows a few millimetres when you spot a tunnel approaching.
Priced at £113,950 as a coupe (or £122,950 as a convertible), it's not instantly apparent who the DB9's key rivals are. Does it go head to head with outright sports models like the Porsche 911 Turbo and Lamborghini Gallardo or is it cast more in the mould of a high speed super-smoothie like the Bentley Continental GT or Mercedes CL65 AMG? In truth it leans towards the more sporting end of the spectrum, thrusting to 60mph in just 4.8 seconds and on to a top speed of 186mph. Although the 'Touchtronic 2' gearbox that accompanies the first production DB9 models may not seem overtly sporting, featuring as it does an automatic-style torque converter, the change is slick and positive enough to please keen drivers via steering wheel paddle controls yet handles automatic changes a whole lot better than sequential manual units. In 'manual' mode it holds onto gears throughout corners, never shifting up and leaving the car wallowing mid-bend without drive as some less intelligent units are wont to do. It matches downshifts with a sharp blip of the throttle and has a neat trick up its sleeve as well. Knock the left paddle to downchange a little too early and the engine's electronics will remember this input and only downchange when the speed drops to an acceptable level.
"It's difficult to overstate the importance of the DB9 to Aston Martin's future profitability"
Although the asking price may seem heady, when judged in context it almost seems underpriced. The interior offers a sense of occasion unmatched at this price point with beautifully finished aluminium dials, lustrous leather and quality wood cappings. So many manufacturers fail to get the balance between wood veneers and 'technical' finishes correct but the interior of the DB9 is a case study in how to effectively mix traditional and modern materials. As well as the aluminium, wood and leather, there's even a glass starter button on the centre console. A satellite navigation system is secreted in a pop-up dash top panel. In the unlikely event that you should tire of the majestic engine note, there's a 1300 watt Linn stereo system to keep you entertained.
Everything about the car feels substantial. Take a good look around the cabin and you won't find the quality wanting. Aston Martin have engineered the steering to feel meaty with a decent amount of heft to the helm. The ride is firmer than you might expect, especially if you opt for the Michelin Sport rubber rather than the preferable Pirelli P-Zero Rosso tyres but body control is reported to be superb as a result, the Aston by no means left struggling against some of the best handling cars in the class. With power being directed to the rear wheels, the British car can't match the all-wheel drive grip of the Porsche 911 Turbo or the Lamborghini Gallardo but a whole host of electronic trickery ensures that power is deployed cleanly on all but the greasiest surfaces.
It's difficult to overstate the importance of the DB9 to Aston Martin's future profitability. Although the company now has the technical know-how and bankroll of Ford's Premier Automotive Group behind it, the Blue Oval won't tolerate a sympathy case on its hands and has gone to great lengths to ensure the DB9 carries Aston Martin onto a new plane of sophistication. All-new chassis are very rare for Astons; that the DB7 essentially ran on a modified Jaguar XJ-S chassis gives an indication as to how expensive it can be to tool up a whole set of new underpinnings.
One chassis for future Aston Martin models - no matter how customisable - and one 'family look' has led to a number of high profile gaffes from Ford top brass who have been unable to distinguish model from model when pressed. Aston Martin chief executive Ulrich Bez isn't fazed by the accusation that the putative model line up all looks rather similar. "This is deliberate," he notes. "We have to increase the visibility of Aston Martin by just having Aston Martins, not distinct models. We do not want people to see an Aston Martin and a V8 Vantage. We just want people to see an Aston Martin." That argument may well work when buying an entry level V8 model, but will it undermine the appeal of the more expensive 12 cylinder cars such as the DB9? Bez reckons that owners of connoisseur products such as fine watches are attracted by the subtleties and esoterica that may well escape the less well informed. This logic, he believes, extends to cars. That orders of the Vanquish model have held firm since the unveiling of the DB9 would seem to support his viewpoint.
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