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Aston kicks off its ‘second century plan’ with an all-new turbo V12 grand tourer

It is often the job of this part of the Autocar road test to filter out the contrived sense of importance with which car makers sometimes seek to surround every new model. Not today.

The future of one Britain’s most celebrated and revered brands starts here.

Boomerang rear lights are now an Aston ‘thing’, so expect to see more of them. They’re slim and integrate well into the shapely rear

Aston Martin’s bold ‘second century plan’, which will eventually see seven all-new models launched in as many years and their maker expand into all-new premises in Wales, has taken shape – and can at last be weighed, measured and scrutinised.

The first all-new ‘DB’ car in more than a decade, and the most important Aston Martin in the company’s 103-year history (if you believe boss Andy Palmer), has arrived.

The Aston Martin DB11 is the product of an all-new aluminium platform and a new design direction. It’s the first Aston to reap the benefit of its maker’s technical relationship with Daimler, and it brings technologies such as turbocharging, electromechanical power steering, multi-link rear suspension and torque vectoring by braking to an Aston for the first time.

To top it all, and in partnership with the next Aston Martin Vantage, Aston Martin Vanquish and DBX due to follow (and whatever is to come under the Aston Martin Lagonda brand), the DB11 is tasked with shrugging off the yoke of £200 million of investment and £500m of aggregated debt. It is an absolutely vital car.

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Aston’s last production DB model, the Aston Martin DB9, was launched 13 years ago and was hailed in its Autocar road test as “extraordinarily desirable and supremely capable”.

We were there for the introduction of the DB7 in 1994 (“Holds its own against the opposition and, in many spheres, shows them the way home”), the DB5 of 1964 (“A man’s car which challenges, satisfies and always excites”) and the DB2 in 1950 (“In the first rank for handling and sheer brilliance of performance”).

So now that the company’s second century has been trumpeted in, just how good is its best foot forward?

DESIGN & STYLING

Aston Martin DB11 rear

The Aston Martin DB11 is the first new series-production car in 15 years to be built on underpinnings other than the firm’s ‘VH’ platform.

Like the VH structure, the new platform is made of pressings, castings and extrusions that are bonded and riveted together.

Two-tone paint feels unbecoming of this car. The styling is quite colour-sensitive but a body-coloured roof is classier

But the way those elements combine is new, making for a monocoque that’s at once lighter (by 21kg) and stiffer (by 39%). It also intrudes less into cabin space.

The DB11’s body panels are mostly aluminium, except for the plastic-composite quarter panels and bootlid and the injection-moulded plastic bumpers and sills. Magnesium door frames also keep weight down.

Built in the same Cologne factory as the normally aspirated V12 still found in other Astons, the DB11’s new engine is essentially the same 5.9-litre unit, with its cylinder stroke shortened to 69.7mm and its capacity reduced to 5204cc.

Twin turbos make peaks of 600bhp and 516lb ft, the latter available between 1500 and 5000rpm. The Aston Martin DB9 went out with 457lb ft at 5500rpm, so it should feel like a transformative difference.

Cylinder bank deactivation also features, but there’s still no stratified direct fuel injection. Aston says changing emissions legislation would have made now a bad time to dip a toe into that particular water.

The styling looks like a deliberate move away from the seductive curvaceousness of Aston’s VH cars towards a more modern and aggressive idiom, but it leaves much of the firm’s trademark gracefulness intact.

Intelligent aerodynamic design feeds air out of the front wheel arches, via the front wing vents, to reduce front axle lift, while inlets in the C-pillars channel air through the rear wings and out of the rear via the ‘aeroblade’ virtual spoiler.

Aston’s rival, Ferrari, has been doing similar things with ‘aerodynamic design by subtraction’ for some years, but not always quite as neatly as this.

INTERIOR

The DB11’s door sills are notably slimmer than those of the DB9, making ingress easier as you swing your legs over and into the car’s deep and roomy-feeling footwell.

The high centre console and shapely, high-rise dashboard look familiar, but the instruments aren’t, while the material quality and integrity of the smaller fixtures is a real improvement. Where plain, cheap buttons, stalks, levers and switchgear dragged the DB9 down, you find mostly solid, grained, expensive-feeling fittings.

The steering wheel boss trim is metallic; flick it and it pings. Same for the shift paddles. But the buttons on the wheel spokes, which you touch all the time, are plastic and much less tactile

A satin-finish aluminium look is common to much of the trim, although not all of it benefits from the same authentic cool metallic feel.

But overall, the perceived cabin quality is many times better than that of its predecessor, and Aston Martin's newly developed skill with leather is impressive.

Instead of the fly-off manual handbrake sited outboard of the driver’s seat (as has been common to Astons for decades), you now get an automatic parking brake – which does rob the car of a little sense of occasion.

There’s a close cluster of column stalks sprouting on the left of the steering wheel, exactly as you’d find them on, say, a Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

There are no stalks at all to the right of the wheel, this being where Mercedes would locate its gear selector lever, whose purpose, in an Aston, is accomplished via the Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive buttons on the centre stack.

It’s clear that all of this Mercedes-sourced equipment hasn’t been easy to integrate, but the overall effect is well worth the effort.

Conscious of criticism of the DB9’s meagre ‘plus two’ occasional back seats, Aston has improved rear space – but not hugely. By reconfiguring the rear differential and fuel tank, occupant space has grown by a couple of inches on rear head room and more than three on leg room, Gaydon says.

Frankly, you’d still only recommend the back seats for very small adults or children, as is the way of things in the two-door GT class.

The better news is that luggage space has almost doubled to make for a short but still fairly accommodating boot of 270 litres, so the DB11 is at least as usable as any car in its class.

As is on-trend right now, the DB11’s 8.0in colour multimedia set-up is presented like a docked tablet rather than hidden away inside the fascia. The merits of this are debatable, particularly when the permanently fixed screen has such an impact on the shape of the dashboard.

More important, however, is that the system is fine-looking, feature-rich, responsive and intuitive to use. There’s absolutely no mistaking that it’s Mercedes’ Comand Online system reclothed and graphically tweaked around the margins, but when that system is one of the market’s best, that’s no bad thing.

You can use the touch-sensitive track pad or rotary wheel to interact with it, both of which we prefer to a touchscreen interface. Failing that, the voice recognition control is very good, just as it is in a Mercedes-Benz.

Aston Martin gives you 400W of audio power, DAB radio, Bluetooth media streaming and a wi-fi hub as standard. There are 700W and 1000W premium audio upgrades available as options, the latter sounding predictably excellent.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Dwelling too long on the many ways in which the Aston Martin DB11 is quicker even than the Aston Martin DBS we figured in 2009 would be an injustice here; a good GT car is one configured to impress more with the luscious style and scope of its performance than its strength.

But it nonetheless matters just how quickly your new Aston can make a blur of British countryside flit past the side window.

The DB11 engine’s weight begins to manifest in a tendency to understeer from the apex on if you’re impatient with the throttle

And despite its increased kerb weight, that’s now very quickly indeed. The DB11 dashed off the sprint from 0-60mph in 4.0sec, 0-100mph in 8.4sec and over a quarter mile in 12.2sec – 0.2, 0.3 and 0.6sec quicker than the DBS respectively.

The DB9 from 2004 (a 1760kg car as tested, at a 150bhp disadvantage to the DB11) took 5.4sec to hit 60mph and 11.3sec to 100mph. That’s huge progress, whichever predecessor you use to gauge it by.

You may well care more about whether this new turbocharged engine sounds like a 12-cylinder Aston of old, of course, and also whether it responds to the accelerator in the same way. On both scores, there’s little to fear.

The engine starts with an ostentatious warble, and while it doesn’t gargle through the lower half of the rev range with quite the same dulcet richness as the old 5.9-litre unit even when S+ mode is selected, it gets beautifully vocal as the revs rise. Worry not: Aston V12s have for a long time sounded better than most, and this one still does.

Moreover, the DB11 also has the same broad and stout but ultimately laid-back, pleasingly unstressed kind of delivery you want from an Aston GT. Even when it’s at full stride, it doesn’t feel like it’s working too hard.

There’s no turbo lag to speak of except at very low revs, when the engine’s oomph can take a second or so to turn up, but neither is there a sudden and unprompted surge of torque as the revs pass through the meat of the range with the accelerator pinned to the carpet.

There’s just enough boost, in fact, to disguise the car’s mass very cleverly and make it feel fast at medium revs without announcing what’s going on in the car’s induction system at any point.

Aston’s choice of ZF gearbox can often seem unnecessarily keen to downshift as you delve into the accelerator pedal, but it’s more decisive as long as you pick a pedal position and stick with it. Its changes could be quicker in manual mode, but they’re always smooth.

RIDE & HANDLING

We expect a lot of modern GTs: that their handling is sports car-like and their body control taut, but also that they’re relaxing and long-legged on a long trip, as well as refined and luxurious.

That they must also bristle with charm and be an unmistakable driver’s car – at least when we’re talking about a big Aston Martin – means you end up with an impossible list of attributes to satisfy perfectly.

Slightly muted steering can leave you probing with the wheel to feel when the front tyres are starting to unstick. They certainly grip hard

Gaydon has wisely tended to aim for a position slightly off-centre with its DB cars – to make them bigger and better on pace, sporting allure and driver engagement than the competition, while settling for good but not outstanding scores in the driver engagement than the competition, while settling for good but not outstanding scores in the silken-edged departments where its rivals at Bentley and Mercedes are habitually strong.

In some ways Aston has clearly settled with that compromise here, but in other ways it has made the car an unmistakably more complete and competitive GT than any in its history.

The ride is extraordinarily good. Cycling through GT, S and S+ modes brings ever-firmer response from the car’s Bilstein adaptive dampers, but it’s the first of those modes that lends the car the amazing breadth of dynamic ability you’ll want from it most of the time.

Fairly soft springing makes for supple bump absorption at most prevailing speeds, but somehow those Bilsteins prevent the associated limp body control and lazy directional response that you might be expecting from even beginning to take root in the dynamic mix.

And so the DB11 corners keenly and flat. Its body breathes with an undulating surface, not pitching or heaving far enough to make the car deflect. The frequency of its movements is gentle and low, andthe suspension seldom needs more than one matching stroke of compression and rebound to return the car to a settled equilibrium.

Cornering balance – another way in which a heavy engine has got the better of many a big GT over the years – is also spot on.

The steering is a little lighter than we’d prefer, and likewise not as rich on feedback, but it’s very good for a first crack with electromechanical technology.

Cabin isolation in the car is less exemplary. An aluminium underbody presents any car maker with a challenge in snuffing out noise and vibration because the raw material is inherently conductive of both – and so it proves here.

The DB11 cockpit isn’t noisy but is far from luxuriously hushed. Bigger door mirrors, mandated by new safety regulations, contribute to a level of wind noise that’s inoffensive but not entirely becoming of a super-luxury GT car.

The DB11’s grip, speed, balance and composure around a circuit are all exemplary for what is a two-tonne car with testers aboard.

Its benchmark lap time was almost as close to that of the quicker Porsche 911 Turbo S we figured in 2013 as it was to the slower Bentley Continental GT3-R tested last year.

So good is the car’s control of its mass that you can drive it much harder than you’d think possible, and without having to manage the effects you’d imagine its weight and pragmatic suspension tune would present.

It turns in keenly even at very high speeds. The absence of roll does make you unsure of the remaining grip level, which the steering could also better communicate in extremis, but we never reached the point at which the front wheels began to run out of directional authority.

It’s more likely that the car’s steel brakes will call time on your track-day fun before that; after five laps of hard abuse, they needed cooling.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

The scheduling for the DB11’s launch gives it time to establish itself before the all-new Bentley Continental GT arrives next year.

The advantage should be enough to allow the DB11 to monopolise the spotlight and make its relative costs of ownership look more favourable.

CAP expects initial demand to keep DB11 prices quite strong but also that they’ll stay that way in relative terms

Right now, our experts suggest the Aston is a wiser buy than most of its rivals.

Heated leather seats, surround-view cameras, cruise control and an infotainment system with a wi-fi hub, DAB radio and a 400W stereo all come as standard.

Most will want to personalise their purchase, which is where Aston’s ‘designer specifications’ come in, combining certain colours, materials and trims as the company’s designers advise.

Choose from thick-pile carpets, personalised sill plates and ‘celestial perforation’ – which we take to mean an illuminated headlining.

If it was our money we would opt for either the alluring ‘New Heritage’ colour scheme (green with a silver roof and tan leather) or the ‘Intrepid Sport’ (orange paintwork, black leather and trim). We would also have the 1000W Bang & Olufsen audio system.

VERDICT

The Aston Martin DB11 has many more strengths to draw on than its predecessor ever did.

Considering the bold new look in particular, some DB9 owners upgrading into the new car might at first not recognise much of an inherited legacy.

Aston’s most vital GT car is also its biggest achievement. Outstanding

Then they’ll hear that inimitable V12 growl, get a taste of the outstandingly supple handling dynamism and long-striding, effortless acceleration, let the new-found cabin integrity and sophistication percolate into their perception and realise they’ve bought the car that their old Aston, and every ‘DB’ before it, was inexorably leading towards.

The DB11’s styling may not bowl you over like the DB9’s did a decade ago, but we’ll leave a pin in that for now.

What the big Aston has gained in terms of accessible performance, handling composure, damping sophistication and material richness is easily worth any loss of steering feedback and what it gives up to some rivals on cruising refinement.

We can think of no other GT car at its price point we’d rather drive. Even next to more exotic competition, the DB11 is well capable of holding its own.

However, in our top list the DB11 takes second spot ahead of the Bentley Continental GT Mulliner Driving Spec, Rolls-Royce Wraith and its stablemate the Aston Martin Vanquish S, but isn’t quite as compelling as the barnstorming Ferrari F12 Berlinetta.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Aston Martin DB11 First drives