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Aston Plans Big Turnaround by
TCC Team (3/28/2004)
New DB9 may finally put British maker on right track.
If image equaled sales, Aston Martin might be one of the most popular cars in the world. In the case of this stately British marque, things seem to work the other way around. The lower its production sank, the closer it came to bankruptcy, over the course of its troubled, 90-year history, the bigger Aston’s reputation grew.
Why does it remain such a popular part of automotive lore? Maybe it’s the Sasquatch syndrome; you’re far more likely to hear about it than to actually ever see one. Of course, it hasn’t hurt to have a long-running association with that most dapper of celluloid spies, James Bond. But for a brief assignation, expensively sponsored by BMW, could you even imagine Agent 007 behind the wheel of any other car – with or without the rockets, lasers and ejector seats?
Aston’s overworked engineers might be hoping for the assistance of Bond’s friend, Q, these days. They’re facing a tough challenge now that Ford actually wants Aston to earn its own keep. Over the next few years, the British maker intends to not only take on the likes of the Porsche 911, but its goal is to outsell Ferrari.
On the road
Sounds good on paper, but how does it perform on the pavement? The first test of this bold – some might say audacious – strategy comes with the launch of the new DB9. This long-awaited successor to the DB7 made its debut at the auto show in Frankfurt just last September. A strikingly sleek 2+2, it’s the heart of the “new” Aston. Making extensive use of bonded aluminum, the DB9 will share its VH platform with yet another new addition to the marque’s line-up. The Vantage will be targeted against the top range of the Porsche 911 lineup.
But we’re getting several years ahead of ourselves here.
The DB9 is being produced at Aston’s all-new assembly plant in Gaydon, a quick sports car’s jaunt from Newport Pagnell. The factory introduces a range of new production technologies, such as an ultrasonic welding system borrowed from Ford. But make no mistake, this is still a bespoke automobile, offering endless amounts of customization and making extensive use of hand labor.
During a recent preview in southern France, TheCarConnection.com had the opportunity to spend plenty of time behind the leather-stitched steering wheel of a silver-blue DB9.
We found our car parked in front of the ruins of a medieval castle, on a hillside overlooking the Cote d’Azur. Though there are unmistakable visual similarities to the old DB7, but the new car is decidedly more elegant and a bit more timeless, with a body that’s sinfully curvaceous. But the yawning Aston grille lends an element of machismo to the design. This is an automobile that demands to be driven.
Open the doors and you’ll immediately notice an interesting touch: there are no presets, wherever you stop, the doors stay open. Might Ford borrow this for some of its own cars?
Be aware, up front, that the “+2” is a figure of speech. The back seat of the DB9 isn’t much bigger than a briefcase. The front seats, on the other hand, are surprisingly roomy and comfortable, even for the tallest adult male.
Elegance and understatement
Oh, and for unrepentant Americans, we’re promised a – single – cupholder – will be added to the U.S. package before the DB9 reaches our shores. We’d also like to see a grab handle on the passenger side, something Aston engineers grudgingly respond they will consider.
One thing we immediately noticed was the absence of a conventional shifter. The DB9 is offered with a six-speed manual, but most buyers are likely to opt for a Formula One-style manually-shifted automatic. To run the gears, you flick the paddles behind the steering wheel.
It takes a couple seconds to get the hang of the paddle shifters, but then it quickly becomes intuitive. Unlike some other cars with this transmission combination, the DB9’s shifts are smooth to the point of being nearly invisible.
If you are among the few who can afford a car like this, better get used to the stares. Even along the ritzy streets of Nice, vacation home for many of Europe’s elite, the DB9 is a conversation stopper – especially when you squeeze the throttle coming off a stoplight. The 450-horsepower V-12 responds with a deep roar and you immediately find yourself sinking deep into the Aston’s well-padded seats.
Throes of fashion
You don’t get many opportunities to use all that power on the crowded coast roads, but a few kilometers inland and it’s an entirely different world. We bob and weave our way through mountain and valley, the car nimbly threading a narrow ribbon of asphalt that lines the cliffs of Le Gran Canyon. It may pale in comparison to Arizona’s landmark, but it still tests your driving skills – and the capabilities of your car.
The DB9’s steering has just enough boost to ease the effort on roads like these. But it’s precise and smooth, with a dead-on on-center feel. The suspension – independent double wishbones front and back — is tight. On reasonably smooth roads, that’s great. It hunkers down when you get onto the throttle, and you have to work to get the car unbalanced. On rough roads, though, you’d better hope your dentist did a good job with your fillings.
The stability control system will keep you out of serious trouble, but it stays out of your way most of the time, and if you hang the tail out on a hard corner, there’s just enough throttle steering to power your way through a turn.
There’s plenty of rubber with the big 19-inch wheels and tires, and braking is excellent, with both front and back disc ventilated and grooved. Up front, they measure 355 mm, with 339 mm discs in the back.
As we headed onto the tollway for the return drive to our hotel, the thought occurred that with the automatic transmission the DB9 is, in a sense, two cars in one. Shift into automatic, and the DB9 is the classic grand tourer. Slip into manual mode, and you’ve got a true sports car. If you’re waiting for the numbers, the coupe will launch from 0-60 in 4.7 seconds – make that 4.9 with the automatic. Top speed is 186 miles an hour.
Ulrich Bez, the German CEO of this very British automaker, may have summed things up best when he declared, “a car like this must be judge by your emotions, as much as by its 0-60 times. Actually, the DB9 scores rather high on either scale. It’s a lot of money, and it’s not especially practical. But if you’re looking for the ultimate combination of elegance and performance, this could be the place where you wrap up your search.
Oh, and a footnote: for those who prefer driving in the open air, the DB9 coupe will shortly be followed by the ragtop DB9 Volante.
2005 Aston Martin DB9
Base price: $155,000 Coupe, $165,000 Volante
Engine: All-aluminum, 6.0-liter V-12, 450 bhp/420 lb-ft
Transmission: six-speed manual, or (as tested) Touchtronic 2 six-speed automatic gearbox with electronic shift-by-wire control system
Length by width x height: 184.9 x 73.8 x 51.9 in
Curb weight: 3771 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy: NA
Safety equipment: Anti Lock Braking System, Electronic Brake Distribution, Traction Control, Dynamic Stability Control, Brake Assist, dual front airbags, front seat side airbags, three-point seat belts
Major standard equipment: Xenon headlamps, LED taillamps, heated front seats, power doors, seats, mirrors and windows, digital climate control, AM/FM with six-CD changer
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles