BY Tom Barnard/ Auto Express
Here in the Auto Express office, the DB7 won an unofficial award, but we doubt Aston Martin will be too proud. We decided that it was the Most Disappointing Car We Had Ever Driven. You'd grab the keys, thrilled by the gorgeous looks and exclusive image, only to find it cramped, uncomfortable and dynamically inferior to cars costing half as much. Despite this, it became the best-selling Aston ever, saving the firm from extinction.
But buyers won't put up with dated dynamics, kit-car build and borrowed switchgear any longer. With rivals such as Bentley's Continental GT offering a real alternative, Aston needed a rethink. No more excuses - the DB9, which replaces the DB7, has to take on the world's best on its own merits, not simply trade on the brand. And it does with some style.
As soon as you're inside, it seems light years ahead of the DB7, with proper adjustment of the seat and steering wheel and plenty of space for even tall drivers. You can forget the back seats, though - they're only ever going to be useful for shopping or small children. Turn the key and the highly styled dash lights up. A central display screen dramatically announces "Power... beauty... soul... Aston Martin". But there's a less tacky way of trumpeting this machine's power - by pressing the start button.
The 6.0-litre V12 barks into life and settles into a rumble that makes it sound more powerful than an F1 racer, even at idle. Open the throttle and the growl was enough for a farmer on our route to complain it was upsetting his pigs.
Yet inside, the engine is remarkably refined. While essentially the same unit as fitted to the Vanquish, the V12 has been retuned to offer 10bhp less power, but 28Nm more torque. It's designed to give the DB9 two personalities.
Keep the six-speed auto in drive - there's no lever, only dash buttons to press - and the electronics change up early and make the most of that new-found torque. In fact, at lower revs the engine has diesel-like characteristics, with 80 per cent of the pulling power available from 1,500rpm. Flick one of the steering wheel paddles, though, and you control the gears manually - and the box changes faster than any other of its type. It even blips the throttle to make downshifts shunt-free. The chassis is equally smooth. The DB9 is based on a new platform that uses the same aluminium technology as the Lotus Elise.
At 1,775kg, you could put a Caterham 7 on top of the Aston and it would still weigh less than the Bentley, and this shows in the way the DB9 brakes, steers and handles. The Aston dives into bends and feels quicker to respond to inputs, as well as riding far more softly, with no creaks or crashes over broken surfaces. The only problem is getting the power down. With so much torque available at low speeds, the wheels will spin too easily out of corners, and the traction control light flickers constantly, even in the dry. Yet for a car that's so weight-efficient, it's not that careful with its fuel. Aston's claimed 17.1mpg figure is 0.6mpg better than the Bentley's, but on our twisty route we returned 9.0mpg, giving a range of just over 165 miles on a tank. Even those who spend Ł103,000 on a car might blanch at that.
The DB9 is a bigger achievement than its same-again looks suggest. The chassis is revolutionary and proves Aston has a bright future, while the ride is exceptional and the gearbox lets you cruise one day and have fun the next. Our only criticism is the economy - it's poor for such a light car.
AT A GLANCE
* DB9 on sale now, with Volante cabrio also available at Ł112,000
* New VH platform will also form the basis of V8 Vantage in 2005