Aston Martin DB11 First Drive
Gaydon nailed it.
In the late Aughts, former Journey front man Steve Perry was still sick of his band even though he'd dropped out of the group in the late Eighties, debilitated by a degenerative bone disease, disaffected in his personal relationships with his fellow musicians, and tired of the life on the road he’d memorialized in songs like Faithfully. His band-mates hoped for a reunion, but when that didn’t materialize they still hoped to continue generating adulation—and cash. After tiring of a few other replacements, they found a young Filipino dude on YouTube who’d spent countless hours watching Journey videos and perfecting his Steve Perry imitation; they hired him to play in a stadium where the singer is just a distant dot, a simulacrum that would be good enough when hearing is believing. Ticket sales soared.
A car is not a stadium. It is a private concert. So when Aston Martin set out to reboot their DB franchise—arguably, and officially, the soul of the brand—they knew they couldn’t fuck up the voice. Potent, commanding, and melliferous V12s have been an Aston signature for decades, and though the brand has an agreement with Mercedes-Benz to provide AMG-sourced twin-turbo V8s to be installed in some of their other, lesser models, a proper contemporary DB now requires a dozen cylinders arrayed like a flock of geese in flight. A V12 powered Grand Tourer has been, for the truly discerning, the only real option since at least as far back as the Packards of the early-20th century. In this sporting application, it mustn’t be some baffled Rolls Royce number enveloped in remote layers of velvet and cashmere: it must have presence and gravitas. When detonated, an ideal V8 must clear the air, but an ideal V12 must merely clear its throat.
Last week, at a private Italian track owned by Bridgestone, the DB11’s exclusive summer and winter tire supplier, I was one of the first Americans to drive Aston’s latest brand ambassador. I can attest, with basso profundo flourish, that Gaydon nailed it.
The car we were driving was a Verification Prototype, a pre-pre-production vehicle still wrapped in hypnotic, Escher-esque camouflage. But regardless of whether I was sitting inside the peacock blue, brogued leather interior at idle, standing behind the delicate (but purposeful) AeroBlade-equipped duck-tail during ignition, or pounding the car along the straights and cambers with the windows open, I was certain always that the 600-hp motor under the crisply cut hood was an Aston V12. (And that's despite the endemic muffling of its twin turbochargers and a 0.8-liter downsizing.) It sounds like titans wrestling in Teflon tarns.
Want more noise? Poke the button on the meaty steering wheel a couple of times and put the car in Sport + mode. This sharpens the response of the throttle, brake pedal, and steering wheel, and reduces the shift times for the automatically-swapped 8-speed gearbox. Want just a bit more oom-pah? Try Sport, which is plenty enough to scare the children. Want to sneak away, like a coward? Press and hold the start button to engage Quiet Start. Or better still, don’t ever do that; even in GT mode, the softest option of the three settings, the engine is hardly quiet. It’s hardy. It warms the heart.
The DB11 is not a pure sports car, but it certainly does a credible imitation of one on the track—especially in the capable hands of Matt Becker, the car’s vehicle dynamics engineering head, who took the wheel to demonstrate the skills he’d learned during his decades performing a similar task for the handling geniuses at Lotus. (He also sidelined as a stunt driver in the movies.) Becker estimated that the prototype we were driving was about 85 percent of the way to being production ready in terms of its dynamics. Its tires, gear ratios, roll bars, bushings, and other mechanical bits were all fixed. But it was being put through its paces in Aprilia to finalize the software tuning that will control the selectable damping, plus Aston’s first applications of dynamic torque vectoring and electric power assisted steering.
Becker’s work seems to be progressing nicely. The outgoing DB9 was no slouch the chutzpah department (neither was James Bond’s one-off DB10 when I took it for a spin.) But however exotic and sophisticated the brand's aluminum VH architecture was when it was introduced way back during the first Bush2 administration, it is now, as we say of the erudite-yet-aged, "venerable." The DB11 rides on an all-new platform and reflects the culmination of Aston’s century-plus history of blending ride, handling, and speed with advanced engineering. Like Ambrosia, the food of the gods reserved for those with proximity to perfection, it’s sticky and sweet. The year’s first global allotment of 1500 DB11s is already spoken for. Note to self: don’t get used to dining from this trough.
The DB11 is a proper modern car, the first stop in Aston’s route to releasing seven new models by decade’s end. Like many things in our era, it's fast-paced, has many applications, and is improbably capable of meeting disparate needs. Unlike many things in our era—particularly the signifiers of sophistication—it is not a pretentious and ersatz pastiche. It feels real because it is.
Honest materials exquisitely rendered in the service of elegance have always been Aston’s unique selling proposition. At $211,995 to start, and escalating quickly from there, its closest competitor may be one of the better Bentley Continental GTs. But a Bentley Continental GT is a handsome if brutish brick, reverse-engineered to behave like a nimbler sports car through radical electronic puppetry. The Aston Martin DB11 sings, and seduces, in its own distinct voice.