From the first turn of the wheel, this feels like a different Aston Martin. The knurled rim is familiar as I go clockwise for ‘N’, then anticlockwise for ‘E’ before heading back through the rotational clicks like a navigational safe-cracker for ‘W’. It’s just so much easier to use than any Aston before.
“I haven’t even started the engine yet and the DB11 already feels like it is going to be good company”
Of course, I’m not talking about the steering wheel here (we’ll get to that in a bit), but rather the much smaller, more circular item perched on the transmission tunnel between the seats. Peel away the beautiful brogue leather and you’ll now find a Mercedes system underneath much of the switchgear in this new Aston, but any thoughts that this imported technology might demean the ambience of an Aston couldn’t be farther from the truth. I haven’t even started the engine yet and the DB11 already feels like it is going to be good company over the next two days.
I’m currently sitting in the car park outside Aston HQ at Gaydon. Daniel Ricciardo was the first person I saw on arrival (he really does seem to smile all the time) and I’ve just seen Max Verstappen head out in a Lagonda because The Future was unveiled this afternoon in the slinky shape of the AM-RB 001. Clearly the two FI drivers are happy about the association. But while Adrian Newey’s vision for science fact isn’t due until 2018, the DB11 is very much ready now and its big international launch is due to start in a few days’ time down in Tuscany. This example needs to be there too, and we have the key, so we’re going to do a bit of a grand tour, firstly because this is a new Aston, and secondly because if the ’ll lives up to its GT credentials, a road-trip should be a walk in the park.
I add in a ‘P’ and then select Newport Pagnell from the list. They say every journey starts with a single step and the 80km to Aston Martin’s traditional home certainly seem like a small hop when set against the 1850km we need to cover by Thursday evening. However, as well as giving the DB11 a brief history lesson, these first few kilometres will give me the chance to try the car on a couple of familiar roads.
The Emotion Control Unit has been consigned to Aston history and there is now just a large keyless key that you can keep in your pocket. On the dash is a row of five glass buttons labelled P, R, Start, N and D, and the middle one glows red as I stretch a finger towards it. What it summons is a new allalloy, quad-overhead-cam, 5.2-litre twin-turbo V12. Developed by Aston Martin itself, it has 447kW and 700Nm and is more powerful than any previous Aston road-car engine apart from the One-77’s naturally aspirated 7.3-litre V12. Yes, it should be very good company.
The really good stretches of bumpy B-road on the way to Newport Pagnell aren’t long, but they do reveal some interesting facets of the DB11. For a start, there is a surprising length to the suspension travel. This means the DB11 cushions the lumps but sacrifices a little bit of instant precision as it moves through that travel on turn-in. Over bigger hits, even in its firmest setting, the damping doesn’t always control the car completely on the rebound, so it can take a couple of movements to settle. However, the other thing that’s very obvious is that the balance of the DB11 is spot on. Despite a certain remoteness, you still feel in touch with the road, too. Interesting.
I park the DB11 on Tickford Street while the photographer and I decide how to blend traditional Aston with 21st-century Aston. It’s fun watching the few workers leaving the Aston Martin Lagonda Works building do a double-take as they walk past. There’s lots of the One-77 in the DBll’s design and I love the way the waist of the car seems to nip in and then the rear arches flare out. The rear of the car in particular is very distinctive and the C-pillar, with its integrated AeroBlade intake, has a little bit of BMW i8 about it. Lift up the beautiful clamshell bonnet and you can see the slatted wheelarch covers that relieve the high- pressure area arou|nd the wheels, the air escaping through a facsimile of the Vulcan’s bold side-strake.
We spot a ’70s Vantage wearing a brown paintjob called Cardigan Metallic (seriously) and our old-meets-new vision is captured, so the photographer and I head off for the Eurotunnel terminal where we consume some Burger King, see a lot of excited Welsh football fans and finally board a train at about 10pm. Once on the other side we head for Lille, as Brussels is always best avoided, and eventually find a glamorous Ibis Budget hotel that looks as though it was modelled on an uncomfortable open prison.
We reconvene at 6am and set the satnav for our first stop of the day, just north of Stuttgart. Belgian motorways are poor, but the DB11 shows its ability to cosset on this leg of the journey. The attractive, slightly square steering wheel has a button on its right-hand spar that changes the engine and gearbox characteristics, while mirroring it on the left-hand spar is a button for the suspension. Three modes can be cycled through with each button – GT, Sport and Sport Plus – and this morning is very much a GT sort of morning. You can really feel that relaxed, long-travel suspension breathing with the road through the bigger dips. There’s something quite Rolls-Royce about it.
The seats deserve real praise, too. Their shape is slim and the padding doesn’t look like the sort that will overly mollycoddle a posterior, but they definitely work. Even the photographer, a man who seems to have a spine more delicate than a daisy chain, is full of praise.
We clear Belgium, then Luxembourg, and finally, mid-morning, the DB11 has a chance to stretch its legs in Germany. Unsurprisingly, at this time of day there’s never a clear enough stretch of autobahn to get near the Aston’s claimed top speed of 322km/h, but frequent forays in the region of 275km/h are easy. Just moseying along, covering ground at 160km/h feels good, and the DB11 feels reassuringly stable, never tense or twitchy.
One thing that bugs a little are the brakes. The big steel discs feel great when you’re stopping hard, but when you want to just brush the middle pedal, you have to go through quite a bit of pedal travel before you get a reaction, as though the pads are set some way from the discs. Odd.
We branch off north of Stuttgart and head out into the countryside to a small town with a big industrial estate. The last time I came to Affalterbach, home of AMG, the company had only recently been bought-out by Mercedes, and it seems to have expanded almost beyond recognition since then. Smart, angular new buildings litter Benzstrasse and Maybachstrasse and I keep catching glimpses of the DBll’s sleek profile in big, mirrored windows. We spot a new E63 wagon in camouflage and a white GT R looking like the ideal wheels for a stormtrooper. There’s also someone’s Porsche 928 ‘RS’ project car, resplendent in what looks like Nogaro Blue.
In addition to Mercedes’ contributions to the DB11’s interior, the next Vantage will be getting the 4.0-litre turbo V8 developed here at AMG. At first I was uneasy at the thought of the tie-up, as the two marques seemed unlikely bedfellows, but I’m a big fan of the AMG V8 and I’m now just intrigued to see how Aston will put it to use.
Amazingly, no one shoos us away when we park outside the main AMG entrance, but we can’t linger for long and we’re soon pushing on for the Swiss border. We hit Zurich at rush hour but that reveals two very different aural delights. The first is a white GT3 RS that treats us to all of first gear and a bit of second. Lovely. The second is from the Aston and happens at every set of traffic lights. As well as cylinder deactivation, the DB11 also has stop/start, and every time the big V12 spins back into life it does so with a wonderfully theatrical high- pitched flourish from the starter motor that reminds me of a Lamborghini Aventador.
We’re racing the light as we reach Andermatt and the base of two passes. The way to Italy is over the Gotthard, but we’re taking a detour and instead heading up the Furka. The reason can be found about halfway up on the eastern side, where a small green sign marks the spot of possibly the most famous Aston Martin photograph of all time. The road has changed a little since 1964, so a replica of the shot isn’t possible today. Also, I look nothing like as insouciantly cool as Sean Connery did in Goldfinger, but the DB11 would make a very stylish modern stand-in for a DB5. As it’s a final pre-production car, it’s even got a big red ejector seat (alright, engine kill switch) button hidden in the centre storage area.
The real reason for coming here is that the Furka is fantastic to drive. It’s narrow and bumpy at first, which doesn’t really suit this Aston. It copes, but it just doesn’t feel very settled. As we race higher, chasing the sinking sun, however, the road becomes much more DB11-friendly. As the tarmac gets wider and smoother, so the DB11 begins to really flow. With the road allowing the car to sit more calmly onto its suspension, you’re free to enjoy the beautiful balance that the chassis has.
Ever since we left Gaydon I’ve been wondering where the button for the ESC is. And one last search through the menus finally reveals tha|t if you select Settings, then Assistance, then ESC in the screen to the right of the rev-counter, you have three options to choose from – On, Off or Track. The big, wide hairpins of the Furka are crying out for a bit of sideways fun and the DB11 is happy to oblige. You need to wait until late in the corner, when the road is flattening away from the apex, otherwise the LSD will still allow the inside wheel to spin too much, but be patient and DB11 slides beautifully. It feels very smooth over the limit and you seem to have plenty of time in the slides.
The ZF eight-speed ’box is occasionally a little petulant on our pre-production car. Especially on part or light throttle openings it sometimes thumps or jolts, but at speed it’s faultless and given we’ve never had any issues with the usually silky-smooth gearbox in any other application, we’ll put that down to pre-production calibration issues for now.
With alpenglow spreading over the distant peaks and the temperature plummeting, we head back up to the summit of the pass and past the Belvedere Hotel (which looks like something out of a Wes Anderson movie) before stopping to make the most of the view and the light. Part of me wonders whether we should push on over the Gotthard towards Milan tonight, but in the end we head into Andermatt and find a bar and hotel attached to a petrol station. Despite the late hour, they even serve us two huge bowls of spaghetti and a couple of large Weissbier. In the background a television is showing Wales sadly losing to Portugal. It seems a long time ago that we saw the fans at the tunnel.
“I’m glad we waited for the light, because the Gotthard is a truly spectacular pass”
At 6:30 the following morning, with perfect blue skies above, we open up the swan doors once more and head for the Gotthard. I’m glad we waited for the light, because it is a truly spectacular pass and one I’ve never driven before. The road is even wider and faster than anything on the Furka, but it also feels a bit more mainstream. The original road is still visible in the shade off to the side, and looks like it was zigzagged onto the mountain by a giant Mr Whippy machine, so we drop down to investigate. Apart from a lone marmot, it’s deserted, but there’s a reason – the whole thing is cobbled. Deciding that it’s better viewed from afar, we head back to the main road in the sunshine and secend through a couple of open-sided avalanche tunnels, past a military barracks, and on towards the next border.
At school there was always a sense of relief when the bell went for the end of a lesson with a particularly strict teacher, and I always get the same sensation when I leave the draconian road rules of Switzerland behind and cross into Italy. To celebrate, we stop at a service station and hand over a paltry amount of money for two deliciously thick espressos. Italian petrol stations might be some of the grottiest in Europe, but without fail they always do some of the best coffee you’ll taste anywhere. It’s as Italian as Ferrari. Talking of which…
We couldn’t not drop into Maranello. The place gets more touristy with every visit, yet you can’t help but love it. We cruise up to the back gates on Via Musso in case anything wearing a ‘Prova’ plate is about to leave, but it’s all quiet on the testing front. We do get lucky on Via Marsala though. This small street backs onto the Fiorano circuit and although Ferrari has tried to stop people watching through the fence, it’s still possible. No one’s there when we arrive but 30 seconds later we hear an amazing sound and soon people are flocking. I’ve never really understood the Corse Clienti programme, but seeing an ex-Gerhard Berger 412 T2 from 1995, I ache to have a go. It was Ferrari’s last F1 V12 and the 3.0-litre engine sends all sorts of emotions fizzing into the hairs on the back of your neck.
Over a pizza later (go to Pizzeria Mirage on Via Claudia, a little bit away from the factory), the photographer and I ponder what the Ferrari rival to a DB11 would be. At $428K the Aston is, relatively speaking, cheap, but the interior feels right up there with anything Ferrari has. It’s much more of a GT than an F12 and not as thrilling as a result, but it’s more enjoyably driveable than a GTC4 Lusso (although the rear seats in the Aston are merely token efforts, albeit with Isofix).
Stupefyingly full of mozzarella, we restore some sort of metabolic balance with another espresso and set off on the last stretch to Tuscany. A couple of hours later we’re amongst stereotypical cypress trees and rolling farmland north of Siena, and my opinion of the DB11 is crystallising. We go through three different sizes of road in relatively quick succession and its obvious where the Aston is happiest. The smallest, bumpiest roads with corners coming thick and fast are not the right hunting ground, with the big Aston never really recovering composure between each bump and change of direction. The big engine never has a chance to get into its stride, either.
Step up to something smoother with a white line down the middle and the DB11 is surprisingly adept. You can lean on the front end in tighter corners to the point where you hear the tyres chirrup and yet it never washes out. The big punch of torque, which feels at its most potent around 4000rpm, allows you to work the rear wheels through corners easily, too. Track mode for the ESC also works very well, giving you plenty of slip before it intervenes, and when you throw in surprisingly quick steering and brake-based torque vectoring to help on turn-in, it means this big, 1770kg car can really be hustled.
Where the DB11 feels at its absolute best, however, is in quick, smooth corners. The final run to our destination has long straights linked with fast bends that can be lined up with perfect sight lines. Down the straights the DB11 hauls as well as you’d expect, piling on speed in great, thrilling strides. Although there’s no denying that the turbocharged engine isn’t the sort of V12 where you feel the need to hang on for the limiter, under load the raucous exhaust note still sounds unmistakably Aston. In the fast corners you really get to enjoy the manner in which the DB11 works its chassis and the beautiful way you can feel the car move as you get on the throttle from early in the corner. Even at speed it’s so nicely balanced that a little bit of oversteer feels very natural.
“This is meant to be the GT in Aston’s new-generation range and it fulfils that role extremely well”
Aston wants its new generation of cars (of which the DB11 is the first) to be distinct from each other. This is meant to be the GT in the range and it fulfils that role extremely well. It means it suffers in some areas, but that doesn’t matter so much because it’s got clarity of purpose. And if you want proof of what a good GT car it is, as we arrive at the launch venue, the photographer and I genuinely talk about just turning around and driving the 1850km straight back to Gaydon instead of flying. I still rather wish we had.
Aston Martin DB11
Engine: 5204cc V12, dohc, 48v, twin-turbo
Power: 447kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 700Nm @ 1500-5000rpm (in seventh gear)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, ESC
Front suspension: Double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension: Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes: Ventilated discs, 400mm front, 360mm rear, ABS, EBD, torque vectoring
Wheels: 20 x 9.0-inch front, 20 x 11.0-inch rear
Tyres: 225/40 ZR20 front, 295/35 ZR20 rear
0-100km/h: 3.9sec (claimed)
Top speed: 322km/h (claimed)
Basic price: $428,032
On sale: Now