As it prepares to enter its 104th year, sports-car maker Aston Martin is embarking on what is officially known as its “second-century plan” to ensure it remains competitive, successful and relevant in the fast-changing world of the automobile. According to the firm’s entertainingly outspoken CEO Andy Palmer, the plan has an internal name too. And that’s “sh*t or bust”.
Which makes the all-new DB11 rather significant to the proudly British marque, which has survived more than its fair share of ups and downs over the decades to prevail as one of the best‑loved names in the motoring lexicon.
But, says Palmer, Aston Martin can no longer rely simply on love, history and being James Bond’s favourite if it is to last through its second century – and that’s why he’s setting out to reposition it not just as an automotive company, but as a true luxury brand. “Our second-century plan amounts to our best roll of the dice,” he says. “We have £700m in the bank and what we are aiming to achieve with it is almost a rebirth of the company. By the time we reach the end of the plan in 2022, my hope is that people will be talking of Aston Martin in the same context as the likes of Louis Vuitton and Hermès.”
To that end, Aston recently launched its Art of Living service to offer clients “high-end experiences” around the world, and has sprung an offshoot called Aston Martin Consulting, which will design anything from a cutting-edge home to a state-of-the-art superyacht.
It has also created its “Q” department to build personalised and bespoke vehicles, complemented by a “special projects” division, which produces limited‑edition, ultra-high‑performance models such as the £2.3m, track-only Vulcan, the Vantage GT12 and GT8 and the AM-RB 001, a “groundbreaking hypercar” that is being developed with the Red Bull Racing Formula One team.
But right now, as the “sh*t or bust” standard-bearer, it’s the DB11 that really holds the key to Aston’s future. “In my humble opinion,” says Palmer, “this is the most important car Aston Martin has ever launched.”
Unveiled at the Geneva motor show six months ago, the car is the much-needed replacement for the 13-year-old DB9 and will serve as the core, two-door grand tourer in the Aston Martin line-up. New from the tyres up (yes, the Bridgestone Potenza S007 rubber was made for it), the DB11 gets a freshly developed aluminium platform topped with an exquisitely good-looking “two‑plus-two” coupé body penned by the marque’s chief creative officer, Marek Reichman, whose remit, we’re told, was to create a car “for the love of beautiful”.
And Reichman and his team certainly seem to have pulled it off. Despite having a 65mm-longer wheelbase than the DB9 and weighing about 20kg extra, the DB11 looks lithe, its shark-like front profile coming courtesy of the largest clamshell bonnet in the business – a component so big that the aluminium from which it is made had to be specially rolled.
Its one-piece nature reduces the number of shutlines, making for a smoother, slicker shape that works in conjunction with so-called “curlicue” side vents designed to extract hot air from within the wheel arches. It’s all part of a patented aerodynamics package that not only helps the DB11 better stick to the road, but makes it possible to eliminate an excessively low-mounted front “splitter” – meaning speed humps that populate many of the cities in which it will be driven need not be approached with the usual deadly caution required of most sports cars.
More clever aerodynamics appear around the DB11’s rear end, its Aeroblade vents playing the part of a virtual spoiler, channelling wind through discreet, side-mounted intakes and out through slots at the back to form a jet of disrupted air that reduces lift. The use of all-round LED lighting, meanwhile, further helps to maintain an uncluttered look that’s topped off by an impressively complex, extruded roof strake that’s stretch-bent, pressed and laser-cut to visually unite the front and the rear.
Equally important, however, is what’s going on beneath that monster bonnet. Aston Martins have long been known for relying on beefy, large-capacity motors to provide performance through brute power. Unfortunately, the outgoing generation of engines has a double-edged Sword of Damocles hanging over it in terms of being left behind by the competition and the need to meet ever more stringent emissions rules. The answer has been to give the DB11 the first turbocharged engine to appear in an Aston, a 5.2-litre V12 producing 600hp and 700 newton metres of torque that transmits to the rear wheels through an eight-speed, rear-mounted, paddle-shift gearbox.
“We would have preferred to have used a naturally aspirated engine,” admits Palmer, “but we didn’t want to downsize capacity. The idea of an Aston Martin with a four-cylinder engine just doesn’t compute. The cars are all about larger, torquey engines that make a great sound – and the only way we could maintain those elements and meet emissions standards was by turbocharging.”
Aston traditionalists need not fear, however. So much thought has been expended on the new design that even the most mechanically attuned driver would be hard-pressed to detect the two turbos at work. There is no lag, of course (not these days) and no sudden thrust as the revs rise – just a smooth, seamless and decidedly exhilarating wave of power that will push the DB11 to 200mph and allow it to sprint from standstill to 60mph in less than 3.9 seconds. So it’s the quickest DB car ever made.
Indeed, the engine is one of four features that stood out during a first drive on the winding roads of Tuscany – the others being the looks; the really excellent, electric power steering; and a quality of ride that is probably the best yet in an Aston Martin, a marque hitherto known for its willingness to compromise comfort for taut handling.
Large sums and many hours are said to have been spent on developing the new suspension system that, in common with most high-performance cars today, alters in compliance according to which driving mode is selected. Unusually, however, the DB11 has but three settings: GT for a comfy ride and “maturity of character”; Sport for firmer handling and sharper steering and braking; and Sport Plus, to unleash its ultimate all-round performance potential. Other cars might have more options, but these can be so extreme they are seldom deployed. Aston’s approach has been to offer fewer, more usable alternatives.
Inside, meanwhile, the car gets a Daimler-designed electrical and infotainment setup, easy-to-use rotary and touchpad controls and the firm’s usual myriad, handcrafted trim options, from “brogue” perforated leathers to “chopped strand” carbon-fibre finishes.
Initially only £170,000 Launch Edition cars fitted with various options are on offer, but standard models become available in the spring at a starting price of £155,000.
But regardless of configuration, if the DB11 really is Aston Martin’s first move in a second-century plan that constitutes its “best roll of the dice” – I reckon Palmer’s just thrown a double six…