What is it?
It’s a DB11; the model Aston Martin calls the most important car in its history. Personally, I think that’s over-egging it slightly, but it’s certainly up there with DBs 2, 4, 7 and 9 in its significance for the future health of this often troubled company.
Many exotic car manufacturers have recently embraced the dark side of better than atmospheric induction and added turbochargers to their petrol engine, Porsche and Ferrari among them, but none more successfully than this. For a turbocharged engine, the noise and response of the DB11’s motor is not good, it’s a miracle. Of course, such an engine does not make a fine GT car, but it certainly sets it off on the right foot.
The DB11 is the most powerful model ever to bear the initials and in Aston road car history it’s beaten for output only by the One-77 and its seven-digit list price. Its bonded aluminium structure and aluminium panels share a philosophy with Aston’s old V/H platform strategy but nothing else. The 5.2-litre V12 motor is related in a similar way to the old 6.0-litre V12. Apparently its bore centre spacings are the same, but that’s about it.
True, it diverts its power to the same eight-speed ZF gearbox now used in the Rapide and Vanquish (but never the DB9) mounted between the rear wheels, but from there power distribution and control is managed by a new design of limited slip differential and Aston Martin’s first multi-link rear axle.
As for that engine, it displaces 5204cc and produces 600 proper brake horsepower. It has cylinder deactivation and stop/start functions, but now also two exhaust-driven turbochargers. In its output and specification it is not dissimilar to the 6.0-litre twin turbo W12 newly re-imagined for the Bentley Bentayga, but in its character it is as different as a sabre and a sledgehammer.
I’ll leave an in-depth critique of the interior to my colleagues when they try a pristine production specification car later in the year and not this hard worked, dog-eared validation prototype wearing the camouflage of its Bridgestone tyre supplier.
What's it like?
I must post a minor hygiene notice here too: I have not driven the DB11 on the road but only on a private, albeit vast, Bridgestone test track. The car was signed off so far as hardware is concerned, but not software and some fettling of the dampers, the torque vectoring system, the algorithms that set the parameters for Sport and Sport Plus mode for both the powertrain and chassis remain to be done. However, I have caned the engine to the limiter in every gear required to reach 160mph, and slid it around until it ran out of opposite lock.
This engine finally demonstrates how to gain more than you lose through the adoption of turbochargers. Had this been achieved by replacing a merely rather endearing normally aspirated engine, that would be impressive enough; that it has done so filling the already mighty shoes of Aston’s still splendid old V12 is nothing short of remarkable.
Indeed in its noise you suspect something blackly magic at work, some artfully crafted sound symposer or, worse, synthetic sound blasted out through the speakers, but the car has none of it. Of course, its exhausts have been tuned as they are on every new car, but the noise it makes is natural.
It is a wonderful noise: so sharp, clean, pure, characterful and very V12. True it only develops peak power at 6500rpm, but it’ll rev to 7200rpm and only lose its urge just before nudging into the soft rev-limiter, at which stage you’ll want to change up just so you can hear it howl again. And that’s what it does: as well as any V12 Aston production car there has been, it howls.
The motor is not perfect – while maximum torque is claimed to be in place at just 1500rpm, that’s not how it feels. Low down response is merely adequate for such an immensely specified engine; about 2200rpm needs to be dialled up before it all comes chiming in to boot you up the road.
However, once it is percolating, you’d need to be a powertrain engineer even to tell it’s turbocharged, let alone feel inconvenienced by the fact. It may or may not have more lag than a Ferrari 488GTB whose engine sets the forced induction benchmark, but it is detectable in neither case and therefore constructively absent. Less surprising is the gearbox: the ZF eight-speeder has for some time been the best true automatic on the market for sporting response and it has not dropped form here.
That’s just half the story, though, the DB11’s chassis is at least as good at illuminating its true character as its powertrain; and it’s not what you might expect.
When Matt Becker, former chief chassis engineer at Lotus arrived at Aston Martin 18 months ago, the development of the DB11 was just over half done. Instead of electing to stay true to Aston’s racing roots and take the car in a more sporting direction, Becker wanted to go the other way. “A DB Aston should be the ultimate GT car, which means it has to ride properly,” he explained. He started to soften the DB11’s springs and didn’t stop “until it had the lowest wheel rate of any Aston there has been.”
You can feel it, even on an inconveniently smooth test track. I can make no worthwhile observation about secondary ride absorption on such an un-obliging surface, but I can tell you the DB11 glides in a way I can recall no Aston gliding. It feels almost limo-like as you waft around at low speed.
And yet if you fling it round battery of different test tracks – wet, dry, high and low speed – it doesn’t feel limo-like at all. Thanks to the rapidly advancing art of electronic damper control, you can now choose a very gentle primary springing medium and use said dampers to exercise iron discipline over what would otherwise be comparatively uncontrolled body movements.
Most of the time it works a treat. Lotus blood still runs through Becker’s veins so while the DB11 is not light – he estimates a genuine kerb weight of 1850kg – he saw no reason why it could not now feel that way. Choosing a surprisingly quick ratio for the new electronic power steering he worked from there to ensure the car has a neutral high speed balance and a sensitivity to throttle opening you would not credit on a car this heavy, long and softly sprung.
Right now it understeers too much in low speed corners because, says Becker, the torque vectoring is not yet active on the test hack, but otherwise its balance is gorgeous. It only becomes anything approaching a handful on a wet handling circuit so slippery the DB11 would spin its wheels in any one of its first five gears, and with such a large physical mass to control, perhaps we should not be too much surprised by that.
Should I buy one?
Based on a dynamic assessment alone, if you like the idea of the DB11 it seems implausible you’ll do less than love the reality. I think the engine truly warrants the title of masterpiece, with the chassis its ever willing, always able companion.
I know little of what it would be like to live with day-to-day or how comfortably Mercedes-Benz telematics sit within an Aston Martin environment, but I can tell you that this is the first V12 Aston with enough leg room to accommodate my 6ft 4in frame in comfort. Also, all-round visibility is excellent.
Time will tell whether the DB11 is indeed the most important Aston Martin in history, but I can say with a high degree of confidence it is likely to be one of the best. Although I never met him, I have a strong sense that David Brown, the man whose initials this car still wears, would not merely have approved: he’d have been delighted with it.
Aston Martin DB11
Location: Rome, Italy; On sale: October, 2016; Price £154,900; Engine 5204cc, 12 cyls, turbocharged, petrol; Power 600bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 516lb ft at 1500-5000rpm; Gearbox 8-spd ZF automatic; Kerb weight 1850kg; Top speed 200mph; 0-62mph 3.9sec; Economy tbc; CO2 rating & BIK tax band tbc