Aston’s oxymoron

DRAG N'DROP

WORDS BEN MILLER

ASTON MARTIN DBX

BUILT IN WALES, WITH A BRITISH SOUL AND A GERMAN HEART, THE DBX IS AN SUV FROM A SPORTS CAR COMPANY. AND WHILE CONSPICUOUSLY UNLIKE ANY CAR FROM ITS PAST, IT MUST SUCCEED IF ASTON MARTIN IS TO HAVE A FUTURE

MOMENT OF clarity number one: if you were asked to create a luxury SUV that drove with the alacrity that the Aston Martin name demands, you might seek to pull together a team and a parts toolkit not dissimilar to those behind this car, the most important Aston in the marque’s history.

The pandemic torpedoed Aston’s original DBX launch plans (set for the perfect light and wide open spaces of California), leaving ever so slightly less sun-drenched Silverstone to host our first meeting with the car in finished, production-ready guise. Aston has an engineering centre on the Stowe circuit, nestled within the flat-out curves of the Grand Prix track, and I get a guided tour with chief vehicle attribute engineer Matt Becker. We head past banks of studious engineers at their desks, up the complex’s airfieldstyle control tower – “Imagine a couple of deck chairs on the roof for the British Grand Prix” – and on into the bustling pitgarage-style workshops.

We pause in the last of these garages, its space filled with dampers hung like Spanish hams and, between them, the equipment to strip and rebuild them. It’s here, where the DBX’s enormous air-sprung shocks dwarf those of the Aston sports car hung nearby, that the enormity of the project – “New platform, new factory, new everything,” says Becker – is made abundantly clear, as is Aston’s exciting combination of big OEM backing and passionate, small-volume agility.

Even my dog is well aware that Aston’s future depends on the success of this, its first SUV, but ponder for a moment all the really good stuff that’s gone into the DBX and you can’t help but feel optimistic – and a little sad that ex-CEO Andy Palmer, whose baby the DBX is, has left the building.

First up, the platform. Bespoke to the DBX, it is wrought in Aston’s beloved aluminium. It is also rigid, relatively light (kerbweight is 2245kg) and thrusts its vast wheels out to each corner of the car in search of fine dynamics and handsome proportions. Now, dream powertrain? A twin-turbo, 4.0-litre AMG V8 of course, because Aston Martins demand special engines, and AMG’s eight is a brawny, raucous, head-banging cad of a motor. For the rest of your all-important oily bits how about a cherry-picked edit of big-ticket OEM stuff? The active centre transfer case, for example, (to which Aston hooks up a carbonfibre prop shaft) is borrowed from the AMG E63 S courtesy of Aston’s Stuttgart connection. The electronics architecture and infotainment are also Mercedes-based, andarchitecture and infotainment are also Mercedes-based, and tier-one supplier ZF has architecture and infotainment are also Mercedes-based, and

Promising? You bet, but consider also that Aston’s cars, led by hands-on new CEO Tobias Moers, are engineered and calibrated by a motivated, empowered nucleus of talent pulling stuff apart in pit garages (in Northamptonshire, at the Nurburgring and elsewhere), driving constantly and endlessly tweaking its way toward brilliance. Because as good as your parts may be, they’re nothing without the right set-up.Promising? You bet, but consider also that Aston’s cars, led by hands-on new CEO Tobias Moers, are engineered and calibrated by a motivated, empowered nucleus of talent pulling stuff apart in pit garages (in Northamptonshire, at the Nurburgring and elsewhere), driving constantly and endlessly tweaking its way toward brilliance. Because as good as your parts may be, they’re nothing without the right set-up.

And so, with the DBX, you get stories of super-early prototypes being driven around a mocked-up toy town of junctions, mini-roundabouts and traffic lights to check the usability of the package; its sight lines and so on. (That work’s paid dividends – this vast SUV is as easy to place on the road as a Golf.) You also catch issues that could have damaged the car’s chances of success. For instance, when CAR drove a DBX prototype in Oman, the front suspension behaviour dented confidence on turn-in. Says Becker with disarming honesty: “We had two issues: too much compression damping, so the car was sitting nose-high, and an anomaly in the anti-roll control software, which hadn’t shown up in earlier tests but that became apparent as we got into that phase of pre-production testing.”

Moment of clarity number two, five o’clock in the morning: the DBX is a mighty GT. When it’s so early it hurts and you need to do a two-and-a-half-hour journey in two hours, with scarcely any effort, you want easy speed and absolute, hushed comfort.

At the wheel of the Aston, blood-red sun rising in my mirrors, life is easy. The seat and driving position are almost as comfortable as my bed, and with a good deal more lateral support. Interior space is generous in the extreme – sixfoot-tall second- rowers can sit comfortably behind six-foottall front-seat occupants. The quality of finish, from the brogued leatherwork to Aston’s new infotainment screen and steering wheel, is a cut or two above the Vantage and DB11. On the move, road noise – given that all DBXs roll on 22-inch wheels – is well suppressed.

Miles simply melt. On a motorcycle magazine I once tried to prove there was no point buying a powerful superbike, my hypothesis being that, with traffic and speed limits, average journey times were barely affected by power. That, it turned out, was nonsense. Our Honda Fireblade (127kW, 2.8sec to 100km/h), stole an advantage over the lesser machinery absolutely everywhere; away from every junction and with every opportunistic overtake. The DBX does the same, your ETA on Waze (via CarPlay) tumbling as the car’s ample power, unreal corner speeds and mighty brakes do their thing.

AMG’s eight is a brawny, raucous cad of a motor

This early stint is a journey of two halves, and after the good stuff comes the dual carriageway. The Mercedes electronics deployed here (a generation ahead of the gear in the DB11, but one behind Merc’s new MBUX stuff) give the DBX tech such as adaptive cruise, autonomous emergency brake assist and, on the infotainment side, a bigger screen and Apple CarPlay connectivity. Adaptive cruise is handy (the two little DB5 icons that flash up when you’re adjusting the gap to the car in front is a lovely touch), though lane-keep assist and lane departure warning don’t seem keen to help. Nevertheless, as a car in which to dispense journeys you’d really rather not be doing, the DBX is right up there.

Moment of clarity number three, in the Peak District: this is an off-road Aston (if you’re brave enough). We head onto a forestry trail and the DBX rises on its fiveposition air suspension and takes to the track like a (very large) duck to water. Ride height is linked to drive mode, selected via up and down arrows on the centre console: push up to lift the car 20mm from default GT to Terrain, and up again for another 25mm to Terrain Plus; prod down to drop 15mm to Sport, down again to drop a further 15mm to Sport Plus. A mix-and-match Individual mode lurks between GT and Sport and switching drive modes also moves the roll centre rearward in the sportier modes.

My timid, low-speed off-road approach lasts all of 30 seconds. As on the road, the DBX’s high driving position and slim pillars make for excellent visibility, while the keen, direct steering (2.6 turns lock to lock) and rearbiased powertrain build driver confidence fast. Even on the steepest climb the DBX doesn’t flinch, powering up on a surge of easy traction and even easier torque, before hill descent control sees us safely back down the other side.

The first two or three corners, as the road twists back on itself to drop down a hillside in a flurry of tight, secondgear hairpins, don’t do the DBX any favours. I know from yesterday’s track laps that the Aston doesn’t easily wash into understeer but it does so here, my greedy speed and the sheer mass to be rotated conspiring to check my ambition and suggest a different approach.

With a final flurry of flung mud (and an audible sigh of relief from Gaydon), the DBX pushes up one last fernfringed climb to return to the tarmac, undamaged and irrepressible. And so to the fourth and final DBX moment of clarity, on brilliant Peak District B-roads that make you wish the World Rally Championship came here.

But then the going opens up a little, the quicker corners punctuated by straights that never manage to ever actually run straight. In Sport Plus, working the column-mounted shift paddles manually (gears five to nine are there to tame the V8’s thirst; third and fourth will see you convincingly through almost every kind of corner), the Aston is simply breathtaking; impossibly agile, able to hoard scarcely believable corner speed and, via the steering, the drive-shuffling transfer case and active rear e-diff, capable of gliding through corners hard and fast and with an entirely unexpected tactility and interactivity. Fun? Oh yes. Convincing as an Aston? More so than some of its predecessors, assisted of course by hardware they could only dream of.

If Aston joins the list of car makers who shone brightly in their first century but couldn’t adapt to the challenges of its second, it won’t be because the DBX wasn’t good enough.

DRAG N'DROP

A better Bentley?

SAME ETHOS; OPPOSITE RESULT

Being V8 powered, similarly priced and British, the Bentayga is the obvious comparison, though in truth the two are like chalk and cheese. The DBX is a big Macan, all unlikely agility and fast fun. The Bentley is less involving, more luxurious. If there’s a chink in the Aston’s armour it’s the occasional thumping over rough, corrugated tarmac, though generally the ride is as cosseting as anything wearing an Aston badge should be.

ON THE MOVE

Traction engine

Smoother than greased glass, the 4.0-litre V8 is a fabulous engine. A fish out of water it may be off-road but it works, snaffling grip with its easy torque just off tickover and offering instant, soaring drive when you need it. The engine’s equally compelling on the road, and the beautifully resolved throttle response works with the equally well calibrated brakes and steering to make the DBX a joy to drive.

THE STATS

Model Aston Martin DBX 

Engine 3982cc V8 (90°), dohc, 32v, twin-turbo 

Max Power 405kW @ 6500rpm 

Max Torque 700Nm @ 2200-5000rpm 

Transmission 9-speed automatic 

Weight 2245kg 0-100km/h 4.5sec (claimed)

Economy 14.3L/100km 

Price $357,000

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