One thousand miles were etched on the face looking back at me. Hard miles. It had started at 4.45am on a cold, dark, foggy morning deep in the English countryside 18 months ago. Outside my house was a dark blue DB9 coupé that was due in Italy for a big group test with the Ferrari 612 and Bentley Continental GT the next day.
And if that wasn’t enough, Autocar needed some performance figures, so it was timing gear, Millbrook proving ground and 0-160mph before breakfast, followed by the British rush hour, the Pride of Calais reverberating to a V12 in its hull by late morning, and then France, beaten into the rear-view mirror by dusk. Then the hairpins on the climb up to the Mont Blanc tunnel – negotiated with the cackle of blipped downshifts – and the hallucinogenic streaming of endless tunnels across the border on the blisteringly fast run downhill past Aosta. Then finally to that mirror, in a nondescript hotel room at a quarter to midnight, and a face so heavily drawn as to be almost unrecognisable as my own. The next morning I took a photo of the DB9’s face, which I still have: it’s the best bug collection you’ve ever seen. It took hard work to accrue that lot.
I haven’t been in a DB9 since the crazy few days of that test – which, incidentally, the DB9 coupé went on to win – but today should be very different. Today is about basking in the sun, about enjoying the sweeping country lanes of middle England, appreciating this green and pleasant land, the sight of grazing cows, fields of corn and quaint cottages, the sound of chirping birds. Maybe a pot of tea, even a scone or two. The Volante is different, you see. It’s that sort of car. Time to take it a bit easier.
A convertible model was planned right from the start of the DB9 project – a task made easier by the advanced aluminium chassis that enables fundamental changes to be made. But the DB9 convertible is more than just a roofless coupé; it’s really a whole new model, developed with a different kind of Aston buyer in mind. A DB9 engineer used the ungainly phrase ‘boulevard cruiser’, but it gives you the idea. It’s not hard to see what Aston is looking for here, and it’s not the long, repetitive ‘boulevards’ of central Milton Keynes. The company expects 70 per cent of DB9s sold in the USA to be Volante models. So there are softer springs front and rear, and less aggressive damping. There’s no point getting down on your hands and knees and peering underneath for a rear anti-roll bar because you won’t find one, and the front bar is smaller.
Remarkably little has been done to put back some of the chassis rigidity lost by guillotining the DB9’s roof: there’s a shear panel bolted to the underside over much of the front half of the car and the chassis’ sill sections are made from slightly thicker aluminium, but are otherwise the same. The upshot of this is that the convertible is only 60kg heavier than the coupé. To help prevent any unfortunate incidents that may lead to your toupee parting company with your tanned head, Aston limits the top speed of the Volante to ‘just’ 165mph.
The theatre ingrained within the Volante begins the moment you set eyes on it. Crucially, it is at this moment – apart from on start-up, perhaps – that the Volante delivers its winning line, its killer catchphrase. It’s rare for a modern car to have such a purity of line that you’re left simply standing and staring. For minutes. Perhaps the cleverest thing about the DB9, and the Volante as much as the coupé, is that without resorting to any retro cheesiness it completely avoids the shock tactics that some manufacturers deem necessary to create visual impact. It simply looks magnificent: a blend of British power, prestige, athleticism and gilt-edged affluence to steal the show anywhere in the world.
And it keeps on grabbing your attention the closer you get to it, with real depth to the details such as the elegant flip-out doorhandles, the beautifully integrated xenon light units, the bold side strakes over the open vents and a glossy paint finish and precision of panel fit well in keeping with the £115,000 price. Considering the sudden appearance of the sun, it seems only fitting to lower the canvas roof, a task that’s fully automatic after the toggling of a switch on the right of the centre console. In 17 seconds the roof whirs away behind its tonneau, leaving the two small humps from where the roll-bars blast out when a roll-over incident is deemed imminent. All very slick.
Twist the ignition key until the dash glows and thumb the button to start the 450bhp 6.0-litre V12. Time for part two of the Volante’s stage-show noise. Although the chugga-chugga-chugga ka-BOOM is the same as the coupé’s, without the insulation of a roof it’s all the more immediate and spectacular. Select drive, release the occasionally awkward fly-off handbrake and you’re away – with a lurch if you’re not sensitive with the throttle over the first few yards. Now we’re bumbling around the Warwickshire lanes near Aston’s HQ and all the DB9 essentials are there as I remember them: the slightly contrived but grin-inducing ‘blat’ from the exhaust over 4000rpm, the heavy steering and brake pedal, firm ride and excellent gearbox – a proper slusher, but with an uncannily good paddle-shift function complete with throttle blips on downchanges.
Life seems sweet behind the wheel of a DB9 Volante on a summer day with the roof down. Just replacing one of the elegant new multi-spoke alloys would cripple my finances to the point of extinction, so I can only draw conjecture as to what it must be like to have casually stumped up the cash for one, finely tailored to exactly your own specification. Smug probably doesn’t even begin to cover it.
In fact, so blatantly flashy is the Volante that there are times when I cringe at the attention it draws. Safe to say, if you’re thinking of ordering one you’ll need to be an exhibitionist who loves to bask in the attention of others, and I guess that’s an acquired taste.
We’re heading towards Newport Pagnell, but not to visit the old works where the Vanquish is still made. Rather, we’re off to a small and very English market town called Olney and the workshops of Desmond J Smail, specialist in the restoration and servicing of classic Aston Martins. Principally, because I want to see the Volante in the light of some of its predecessors, and hear the views of those who work on the old cars as to whether the new cars are ‘real’ Astons. Tucked away in a small courtyard is a collection of brick workshops, and as the Volante prods in with its long nose from the corner of the square it meets a collection of classic DBs. There’s a silver DB5 on axle stands having its gearbox removed and a forget-me-not blue DB5 slowly rusting to oblivion, awaiting a patient owner with a handy quarter of a million burning hole in their pocket.
The big shock is immediate: the DB9 Volante is a spectacular car, a supremely stylish car. But it is not a truly beautiful car. Where it had looked feline and graceful, it now looks merely purposeful beside the feminine DB5 with its fabulous curves and classical proportions. It can’t hope to compete with the way the light licks seductively over the Five’s vented bonnet and dances around the pontoon wings. You can’t really criticise Aston Martin for this – there’s no doubt which car you’d rather be in in a crash, which car would last longer and which is the more aerodynamic, but it does put some of my earlier musings into perspective.
It’s not long before two of Smail’s mechanics are poring over the new arrival. There’s praise for the shape, and love for the noise. Less happy is the reaction to the interior. The new piano black fascia gets the thumbs-up, but the switches on the dash ‘look like one of those cheap radios from Tesco.’ The key – an old Jaguar item – produces howls of laughter and some of the niggles like the poorly closing boot get a frown. I hadn’t even considered the Ford parentage of the V12 – fundamentally two Duratec V6s spliced together – as an issue, but to these guys it is, and they bemoan the lack of a homegrown unit like the classic straight-six and V8. But the key question is, do they think it’s a real Aston? ‘No’ is the instant reply. ‘It’s far too well made to be an Aston.’ It’s a quip made with genuine affection for the old cars, but it makes a revealing point all the same. Aston Martin has made such huge strides in quality, specification and performance that its new products seem divorced from what came before, with just enough heritage to keep the marque true to itself.
Finally, with all the photos in the bag, there’s time for a proper drive. You can instantly feel that the Volante is more laid-back than the coupé. The primary ride is thankfully softer than the uncompromising coupé’s, but the secondary ride still isn’t good enough and there’s noticeable bodyroll when you turn into a corner enthusiastically. One of the odd sensations you get driving a DB9 – magnified in the Volante – is how much car is in front of you and how much inertia you have to overcome before you can really turn into a corner. You sit low, with acres of dashboard stretching out in front of you and a mass of bonnet after that, hidden from view. As such, the car seems to pivot from a point some way ahead of the driver’s seat and you’re always aware in slower corners of the weight of the V12 up front. The steering is heavy initially, but once you’ve turned into a corner the car feels as if it’s understeering early and in a pronounced way, only to regain its composure and grip keenly around a corner from there on.
Everything changes for the better when you get back on the throttle, as the nose-heavy sensation fades and the Volante sits down and powers its way determinedly out of a curve. It really is explosively quick down the straights, given a chance to use the full rev range, but you can’t help feeling you’re trying to force the car to do something it really rather wouldn’t – push it hard and things quickly get a bit ragged. The bottom line is slightly uncomfortable but true: you’ll have more fun on your favourite B-road in a decent hot hatch than you will in a Volante.
Heading home with the roof up the Volante’s appeal starts to wear a bit thin. There’s surprising shake through the steering wheel and shimmer from the A-pillars over bumps. More wind noise than you’d expect through the hood, too. It just doesn’t have the tight integrity of a Porsche Boxster, say, which at this price is surprising, to say the least.
The Volante, then, is an event. A glorious, A-list style event, best sampled with warm sunshine and an appreciative audience. If the DB9 coupé is emphatically Sean Connery’s car in spirit, then the Volante is very much Roger Moore’s. That says everything you need to know. There are those who profess Moore to be the best Bond, but they are, of course, completely wrong.