Speeding To The Top Of The Hill: DB9 Means To Set New Standards For What A GT Can Be
By KEVIN A. WILSON/AUTOWEEK
2005 ASTON MARTIN DB9
ON SALE: Summer
POWERTRAIN: 6.0-liter, 450-hp, 420-lb-ft V12; rwd, six-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT: 3968 pounds
0 TO 60 MPH: 4.5 seconds (est.)
In Aston Martin lore, the "DB" in model names DB2 through DB7 and now DB9 stands for David Brown, the owner of the firm in its heyday. After rescuing this legendary British sports car marque from one of its many brushes with financial oblivion, Brown presided from 1947 to '72. This period included a Le Mans victory and a world sports car championship (both in '59), not to mention the roots of the company's association with the spy novel and movie character James Bond, agent 007.
Well worth honoring David Brown, but with the DB9, perhaps the initials should represent Dr. Bez. For if Dr. Ulrich Bez, CEO of Aston Martin since 2000, has done his sums right, the DB9 represents the beginning of a new heyday for Aston Martin, an ambitious era in which the firm should grow to Ferrari stature in both worldwide sales figures and clubroom cachet. Bez, whose doctorate in engineering was formerly applied in the employ of Porsche, BMW and Daewoo, even harbors some racing ambitions for his company. Where David Brown was an entrepreneurial engineer, and a Brit with his own group of holdings, Bez is a German who answers to Americans at Ford Motor Co., owners of Aston Martin since 1987. He has, however, been given wide scope to operate the company as an entrepreneurial venture.
"If it fails, there is no one to blame at Ford. It is us."
By "it," Bez means his business plan, which calls for break-even performance (at long last) this year and operating profits in 2005. By "us," he means his tiny team, primarily himself with design director Henrik Fisker, who now has broader responsibilities within Ford and so operates from California, and Jeremy Main, who is in charge of engineering and motorsport. Main is the man you seek if you wish to hear a British accent at Aston nowadays, and also the company's leading career Ford man.
"We met every Monday and made decisions among us three, sometimes four when we needed to hear from marketing; decisions that would stick, that were not sub- ject to review in Dearborn," Bez says of his management team. They were, to a man, near giddy with excite- ment about the DB9 at its official launch in Vence, France, in March. The last time we saw Bez in this part of the world he was still with Porsche, launching the first 911 Carrera 4. That was more than a decade ago. Yet we recognize that spring in his step, the sparkle in the eyes beneath those bushy brows, as he proclaims he has much to tell us about his new car's technology and design, but that first, he wants us to drive it and drive it hard.
"It drives as good as it looks," he bubbles, looking pretty good himself, fit and trim, a glow to his skin that suggests he has been enjoying the Mediterranean sun. "We have designed a sports car to GT standards of comfort, for the person who loves to drive, but not only that. The driver who also appreciates comfort, exclusivity and a high standard of design. A car like this must be judged by emotions, not only by logic or reason. Aston Martin needs to be art."
So what have they wrought that warrants such ambitious forecasts, such gleeful enthusiasm? Inspired by their promises, we headed for the nearby mountain roads, famed for their regular inclusion in the Monte Carlo Rally route. They are roads on which the experienced auto journalists attending the event have already driven Ferraris and Porsches and Mercedes aplenty. In putting us on these same roads in the DB9, Bez not only risks comparison, he invites it. Eagerly.
The car's instruments are built up of aluminum, not printed on plastic. The glass start button, with company logo, lights red when you insert the key and turns blue when the engine starts. Red also flashes if you hit the rev limit; the tach has no redline. The engine has a "soft" rev limiter. Peak rpm varies, but is really around 6800.
THE DB9 FAIRLY LEAPS OUT OF CORners, its electric motor-smooth V12 offer-ing torque at any rev range, but all the better when you use the paddles behind the steering wheel to select the best gear. The 6.0-liter doesn't have the 500 hp the simple-minded might regard as a requirement of the class, nor even the Vanquish's 470 ponies, but has been "downrated" to 450 hp in order to fatten the torque curve to 420 lb-ft (from 400) at lower rpm. It is more than ample, the psychology of round numbers notwithstanding. The company notoriously low-balls performance, but says this 48-valve, quad-cam unit, with its modest roots in the coupling of a pair of Ford Duratec V6s long ago, can push the car to 100 km/h (62.1 mph) in less than 5.0 seconds, with top speed listed at 186 mph. There is nowhere on this route to seek out the top end-even the highway segment bends too often, and is too cluttered with traffic, though the car lopes along at 125 mph like an Olympic runner on a walk to the corner store, breathing easily and just enjoying life. The Cd is 0.34, but Main and company worked harder on ensuring that the amount of lift, front and rear, changes evenly, so that the aerodynamic balance of the car changes not at all from 100 mph to top speed-the steering won't go light on you, the tail won't start waggling around at the bidding of the wind, they assert.
For now, we must take their word for it, but it seems steady enough at high speed. We far more enjoyed having a blast on the two-lanes in the mountains, over hairpins and curves in endless variety. The route gave the big Brembo brakes a workout into the corners (firm pedal feel, wonderful to modulate, never a trace of fade), the 19-inch Bridge- stones (developed expressly for the DB9) gripping tenaciously through the middle, and the bent 12's muted roar echoing off the rocks as we accelerate out to begin the cycle again. Passing, even uphill on short stretches of pavement, is no problem. Once you know this car, you can make such moves with a degree of confidence that leaves passengers gasping for breath until they figure out it is every bit as easy as you've made it look.
If we have a concern at all we'd say the DB9 is a skosh wide for these narrow hairpins beside the rock walls, many of the curves lined with what look like denuded logs in place of guardrails, others sans pro-tect-ion. A moment's inattention and you'd either clout a mountainside or slide down a slope strewn with boulders. Our biggest worry is traffic; the natives regard straddling the centerline as the norm. Get into a turn too hot, and you might plow out into the oncom-- ing lane, but there is plenty of electronic assist available, so you can lift or even stab the brake and the car will tuck itself back in. These assists are not intrusive-no abrupt throttle cutoffs, no artificiality to the car's responses when the dynamic stability control or electronic brake distribution kicks on.
"Our idea throughout," says Main, "is to use electronics to enhance character, not to disguise flaws. I think if you look closely at what some other carmakers are doing, you will be able to tell the difference."
Work up the nerve to turn off the traction control in a 450-hp car on narrow roads sprinkled liberally with gravel, and you find there is enough thrust under your right foot to drift the tail around at will in the right gear.
This is a six-speed tranny-a transaxle, rear-mounted to give the car both a 50-50 weight distribution without occupants, and a stable, GT-like high polar moment of inertia. But there is no shift lever on the console, just those paddles (made of magnesium) and a row of pushbuttons labeled D, P, N and R. Yes, pushbuttons. The Touchtronic trans is really a ZF automatic, torque converter and all, with electronics cleverly contrived to shift rapidly with the paddles. There is nothing, really, to choose from between it and the performance of the more famous Magneti Marelli F1 paddle-shift manual found in Ferraris and Aston's own Vanquish. Except maybe comfort in automatic mode, which can be rendered crisper with a touch of the button that turns on the sport program. The shifts are amazingly quick-so much so that you could mistake it for a smooth electrohydraulic manual on the order of the Audi or BMW system-yet without that head-snapping sensation the F1 system induces. At the other end of the scale, if you just push the D button you can trundle around through small village centers without a care in the world, as if you were in nothing more ambitious than a Volkswagen Passat.
The plan calls for a more traditional six-speed with a clutch pedal and a console-mounted shift lever to appear later, but the automatic has been so well received that Bez was gauging reaction to the idea of just skipping the manual option entirely for the DB9. That is unlikely for a company with so many traditionalists among its owner body, but the DB9 is, after all, intended to be the Grand Tourer in Aston's lineup, to be straddled by the more overtly sporting AM V8 Vantage (coming next year) below it on the size and price spectrum, and Vanquish V12 above. It may be that a vast majority of customers find this paddle-shift automatic the most acceptable alternative yet in the ongoing quest for a transmission that offers full control without demanding an increasingly rare set of skills.
The GT character also comes through in the car's comfortable ride-it is astonishingly unflappable for something that is also so responsive. Once, shying away from that centerline around a blind turn, we drop the left-rear wheel into a curbside drain a couple of inches deep, and stiffen up with anticipation of the coming jolt. But no, the car simply drives out of the situation as smoothly as it went in. Like a luxury sedan. It also tends to roll just a touch more than would be ideal for a purist sports car, but the blend of ride and handling qualities is really above serious reproach. On these roads, where so many other sports and GT contenders have demonstrated both their strengths and weak- nesses, the DB9 passes every test without revealing a significant flaw.
The overall DB9 package is roughly the size of a DB7, a few millimeters' difference here and there, but the wheelbase is longer and the track wider, so there is a bigger cabin designed to give a six-foot-three-inch male enough room to work (neither Bez nor Main is a short man). The engine mounts both lower and farther back than in DB7, the drive being carried aft by a carbon fiber shaft spinning in an aluminum tube. Eighty-five percent of the mass is between the wheels; the fuel tank mounted in such a spot that the balance of the car doesn't shift as the tank empties. Which prompts a short tale of journalistic adventure: The example we drove had a flaw in its fuel gauge, the float in the tank having moved sideways under hard cornering such that it hung up on the evaporative emissions gear. So it read "full" all day, even when, twice, Aston Martin handlers checked to see if it was time to top off. So we eventually ran out of gas and had to call for help. We were informed it was a rare condition, caused only when a driver cornered hard to the right (above 0.8 g, they said) with the tank near full. So that's how we crazy press drivers helped develop the DB9: Production models have an S-bend in the wire that carries the float, so that it can't hang up on the evap gear, even if you go haring away with the tires barely warm- ed, like some slalom racer on a mission to set fastest time of the day.
Neither a Porsche nor a Ferrari GT, this Aston Martin presents an enticing alternative to either one.
"This isn't meant to be a race car on the road," says Main. "It must be comfortable to drive slowly, and exhilarating to drive quickly. It mustn't be nervous, but linear and predictable."
The stiff structure is a big part of that story. Like Vanquish, the DB9 is built of aluminum and composite elements bonded together in aerospace fashion-welds and fasteners are minimal, the resulting monocoque being both stiffer and lighter than more conventional construction, even within the growing universe of all-alloy body-shells. Aston Martin goes so far as to claim it is the most structurally efficient in the world, factoring in strength, weight and torsional rigidity. Built at the recently opened Gaydon facility-Aston Martin's first purpose-built car manufacturing plant- the base, manual-gearbox car weighs 3769 pounds. With automatic transmission and all options it just touches 3968 pounds. If that seems high for a 2+2, take a look at the mass of the all-aluminum Ferrari 612 Scaglietti, which offers real rear legroom for its extra 150 pounds, or even Aston's own Vanquish, a two-seater that weighs 4100 pounds. The power-to-weight ratios of the two Astons are virtually identical, despite the DB9's lower peak figure. Consider, too, the DB9 offers virtually every luxury feature known, from 128-watt Linn audio system with six-disc in-dash CD changer through Recaro-designed and built seats onto which Aston stitches the leather covers, to a clever hideaway GPS navigation system atop the center stack.
HAND CRAFTSMANSHIP HAS LONG been an Aston Martin calling card. If its ambitions for 5000 worldwide sales suggest less exclusivity in the future, and the presence of robotic tools in Gaydon speaks to a level of modernity far beyond the hand-hammered aluminum panels of legend, Fisker has seen to it that hand craftsmanship is still a hallmark of Aston design. And he has done it in such a way that the inform-- ed eye readily discerns it. One place is on that navigation-system wood panel.
"This has to be hand-fit," he says, pointing to the seam. "If we're just a little off on this surface, it will jump right out at your eye. We deliberately designed it to cut the cover out of the same piece of wood... see how the grain matches up?"
That same center-stack panel houses the transmission buttons, round black ones surrounded by chrome rings, alongside the start button with its glass surface that is made of the same stuff as the crystal of an upscale wristwatch.
Similarly, Fisker notes, the way the head- lights fit into the quarter-panels demands hand-fitting. "There's no body seam there," he says. "They're cut into the fender itself, set right in like the jewels they are."
Fisker, perhaps more famous as the BMW Z8 creator, has avoided being "edgy" in the modern idiom-indeed, this car is so un-trendy that it could represent Aston for a decade as its predecessor did-yet has given the DB9 a crisper look than the DB7, the best-selling Aston Martin of all time. As for exclusivity, where the DB7 did a lot of borrowing from Ford, of necessity (the floorpan has its roots in the Jaguar XJS and a lot of pieces throughout came from the global giant's numerous parts bins), that car's relative success has given Bez and company breathing room to create a genuine clean-sheet car this go-around. No Focus switch- gear here, no recognizable taillights-everything the driver touches and feels and sees is crafted to give the sensation of owning a piece of art. The impression of mass production is like that found in a limited run of artist-signed prints, not a trace of rent-a-car to jolt the eye. The DB9 coupe starts at $155,000 with a manual transmission and the automatic is an extra $5,000. The Volante is $168,000, with the auto an extra $5K.
The DB7 saw 7000 copies built in its decade on the market, a modest rate but a far cry from the near moribund pace at Aston Martin when Ford took over. Aston Martin counted fewer than 50 cars built as recently as 1992, the year before the DB7 was launched, and managing director John Walton says nearly half of those had to be bought back by the company. Aston Martin built more DB9s, 53, just for the development testing process.
If Ulrich Bez's math works out, the DB9 will soon surpass the DB7 as the all-time sales leader in the company's history and at a generous per-copy profit margin that could ensure Aston Martin's future for decades to come. It would be a rescue at least as dramatic as the one David Brown pulled off. Certainly Bez, Fisker and Main equal Brown for enthusiasm. Maybe their next car should start a new series of Aston Martins designated not DB, but BFM?