We take the Ferrari-baiting new DB11 for a drive through prancing horse territory.
The early evening summer sun gives the Villa Collalto a pinkish glow. It is here that some of the world’s most powerful people, such as prime ministers, princes and the occasional Pope call home in Tuscany at a price of £42,000 a week. There is no key to my bedroom, for this is a private home, and the renaissance antiques that clutter the place could have been lifted from the Uffitzi’s permanent collection.
On one 400-odd year-old writing table sit pictures of the owner with her pals; Prince Charles, Rupert and Wendy Murdoch, Tony Blair, and Pope Jean-Paul II. Well, the Italian aristocracy aren’t ones to shun a glory wall and neither am I.
On this occasion they have added a flag next to Il Tricolore, that of Great Britain, fluttering alongside the Italian on the villa’s façade. It’s not to honour my arrival specifically, but that of the car I have come to sample: the Aston Martin DB11.
Let’s not forget Michael Caine drove an Aston DB4 when he crossed the continent for The Italian Job. The Italians know a thing or two about beauty. There’s a scene where a mafia godfather credits the DB4 as a “pretty car” and I’m sure his grandchildren would say the same of this latest incarnation.
We’re a stone’s throw from medieval Siena, staring out across rolling meadows and ancient Cypress trees that look lifted from a Piero della Francesca landscape. Somewhere round here is Sting’s summer pad, and I understand George and Amal Clooney are house hunting in the area. It’s exactly the sort of handsome, discrete destination that the superrich might arrive upon in a DB11.
The allure of the scarab badge – made by Vaughtons of Birmingham, who normally make medals and chains of office – is unquestioned, but that’s not enough if this car is to satisfy Aston’s increasingly demanding and international clientele. The DB9, which it replaces, is now 12 years old and, after a regular programme of under-the-skin surgery, it was time for a clean sheet of paper. I believe Astons to be the most gorgeous cars on the road, but the trouble is the range looks too alike. The DB9, Vantage, Vanquish and Rapide are all variations on a theme, both at standstill and through the turns. The aesthetic revisions kept them all looking up-to-date but it was evolution not revolution and, with the exception of the bonkers track-only Vulcan, we hadn’t seen an Aston that shocked for a generation. Thus the DB9’s replacement needed to jump several rungs on the evolutionary ladder, it couldn’t just be a step up. They couldn’t play this one safe.
I put this to Andy Palmer, Aston’s CEO of two years, over barbequed steak and panzanella salad on the Collalto’s veranda. Palmer, who joined the company from Nissan and comes with a highly acclaimed engineering and business brain, wants to create a more defined model line-up, and the DB11 is his biggest test thus far. In fact, he doubles-down: “It’s Aston’s most important car in its 103-year history.”
The design has taken cues from some very exclusive beasts, such as the DB10, of which just ten were built, the £1.7 million Vulcan, the £1.15 million One-77 from 2011 and, with its huge radiator grille, there’s a bit of Zagato inspiration too.
Aston commenced its occasional collaboration with the Italian coachbuilder in the 60s to add avant-garde edge for those who could afford it. Aston Zagatos are among the most valuable of all the classics, and the DB11’s nose draws from this bloodline, though it might not be to everyone’s taste when compared with the universally-pleasing DB9’s snout. The DB11 looks more aggressive, more purposeful, more a la mode, but a little bit like the DB9 got stung by a wasp. Chief Creative Officer and Design Director Marek Reichman would rather it be described as “shark-like”, with its elevated nose giving a gliding effect.
The single clamshell bonnet reduces cut lines, and opens forward like a proper exotic’s should. The rear lights – the thinnest production LED lights – look thoroughly modern, not unlike a concept BMW’s, and the overall proportions are perfectly 1/3rd to 2/3rds. As a whole, it really works.
Yet the bits that I love the most are those you can’t see, and prove this car is more than just a pretty (swollen) face. The side strakes that blend out of the front wheel arches, a rakishly post-modern reimagining of the signature Aston air outlets of yore and lifted directly from the Vulcan, are ribbed inside to reduce air pressure and increase the contact patch of the tyre.
The rubber, by the way, is bespoke from Bridgestone and its factory name, quite by Bondian coincidence, is S007.
Which brings us to the title. One might expect the DB9’s successor to be called the DB10 but, though featured in the 007 film Spectre, the DB10 was only ever a concept. Director Sam Mendes visited Aston Martin’s design studio and saw a sketch on the wall. He said he wanted it for the next Bond movie. Now, were I Marek Reichman I would have told him to sod off, but for whatever insanity possessed him Reichman said fine and pushed what was basically a sketch on the back of a beer mat through to ultra-limited production in record-breaking time. The result looked stunning on celluloid but was really nothing more than a rushed concept, without a powertrain to match the styling. Hence why Spectre’s car chase scene was something of a low-speed high-drift joke. The car Bond should really be driving, and anything less is a slur upon the government’s resources, is a DB11.
Perhaps my favourite detail, because it’s such a no-brainer, is Aston’s patented AirBlade. Invisible air intakes located at the base of each C-pillar vent air through the bodywork before ejecting it via slots in the rear deck, reducing rear lift and increasing downforce. Conceptually it’s not unlike the Formula One F-duct that propelled Jenson Button to the 2009 F1 world championship. It’s the most elegant solution to the spoiler issue I’ve ever seen, for I’ve never liked fins on Astons. It’s like turning up at Annabel’s with Reeboks. Here the lines are undisturbed and the DB11 grips the road without having to sacrifice good taste.
The cabin is an equally big step forward, beautifully designed and a lot more spacious than its predecessor, but too dark in some shades. I would have liked a glass panoramic roof to help illuminate it. I love the detailing, such as the broguing pattern stamp on the leather which, should you desire, can overlay a different colour hide. And as for the veneer options, the boldest choice has to be ‘chopped carbon’ which is so high-gloss it looked to my eye like it was plastered in fingerprints. Some of the hardware comes from Mercedes-Benz, which is an Aston Martin shareholder, but is disguised in Bridge of Weir leather. It’s Mercedes’ software which is most welcome, with infotainment and sat-nav to live up to the driving experience.
What most surprises me about this car, which is meant to be a comfortable GT and not a muscle car, is the throttle response. Gently squeeze the right pedal and hold on because it immediately lets you know you’re conducting a symphony of horsepower and they want to be heard. Under the bonnet it’s all new: twin-turbo, all-alloy, quad-cam, 48 valves and 5.2 litres of V12, producing 600 of Her Majesty’s stallions and a whopping 516lb of torque, making this the most thunderous pret-a-porter Aston yet. The last generation DB9GT showed its age in the acceleration stakes yet the DB11 forces Aston drivers straight into the supercar league with 0-60 in 3.7 seconds and a top speed of 200mph.
It’s more economical too, with cylinders deactivating when they’re not needed and other clever tricks designed to save the planet. And the steering is much quicker than the previous model, meaning it’s more chuckable, entertaining and involving. Here, Matt Becker plays a significant role. He is Aston’s new Chief Engineer of Vehicle Attributes and was plucked from Lotus.
Lotus – and you can ask anyone this – traditionally build the best chassis in the world and that was in large part thanks to Matt and his father, Roger, who was known to have the most sensitive bottom in the car business. There’s another Bond link here: Roger Becker was the stunt driver on The Spy Who Loved Me and, after outrunning a beautiful chopper pilot armed with a Gatling gun, drove his Esprit back from Sardinia to Norwich with its tartan seats stuffed with Lira. The actors’ union wouldn’t let him leave without it.
There is dynamic torque vectoring as standard and a 70 percent increase in lateral stiffness, which would help Bond get out of Dodge quicker than anything Blowfeld could throw at him. The rear sits on multi-link suspension for the first time, giving the car sublime ride on every surface Tuscany threw at it.
A lunch stop at the Podere Pendolino farmhouse gives me the opportunity to take in the dozen specifications Aston has fielded for our sumptuous trip,. My DB11 is in Mariana Blue, a shade so dark that without the Tuscan sun making an appearance looks black. It’s conservative but I love it. It would be my choice and, I’m told, is the preferred colour of designer Reichman. However, of all the cars on our test – and there are several eye-catching shades – the most beckoning is one in toothpaste blue. This, I’m informed, was specifically spec’d for the Chinese market. In Siena it looks out of place, but place it in Miami, Singapore or Hong Kong and this would stop traffic.
Ferrari is the religion in these parts, and I don’t believe anything matches the prancing horse for engines, aero, and race-bred tech. However, when it comes to GTs Aston have always held their own and while the Ferrari F12 is a more Olympian beast the DB11 delivers as much real-world performance as an Italian 12-cylinder, which costs almost twice as much. Overall, it’s a choice of character. The Ferrari is the thoroughbred, but the Aston is the one I’d root for. At £154,900 the DB11 is a significant step up from the DB9 but it’s still well short of the money commanded by Ferrari’s V12 production line. Were you to run their horses in the Grand National the Ferrari would be the favourite but the Aston would get appealing odds.
Dr Palmer plans to double Aston’s current 7,000 cars a year in the near future, introducing a host of new models, including replacements for the Vantage and Vanquish plus the controversial new DBX crossover, and he’s acquired £700 million investment to make this happen. Keeping the brand exclusive is a challenge requiring good judgement, but if the DB11 is anything to go by – and this is surely the most important car in the range – then Aston has demonstrated it knows its market and has delivered a car that is, frankly, hard to fault. It ticks every box a GT demands and, because of the emotional connection an Aston has over, say, an AMG Mercedes, it has magic that can’t be manufactured.
It is a renaissance marque at home among the Cypress trees and medieval villas, a four-wheeled masterpiece. Piero della Francesca would make it his muse.