I always suspected this was a landmark engine just waiting to reveal itself when sampled in the DB11; and heavens to Betsy, it’s good
These cars have defining, emblematic influence, too, on the character of the companies that make them — to the point that to fail to renew these cars would look like an act of wilful self-harm. These are cars that the industry responsible for them genuinely needs, I reckon — as archetypes, standard bearers and beacons by which to navigate.
So, is 'the big Aston' — the large, fast, beautiful, desirable, soulful and sporting GT coupé, made as only Aston knows how — part of that rarefied group? Perhaps not quite; not yet, anyway. But it could be. Should be, I’d venture, after we all get to know Gaydon’s latest 12-cylinder flagship ‘Super-GT’, the new DBS Superleggera — because I’m not sure I’ve ever driven a better example of this singularly wonderful breed.
The reasoning behind this latest shift in nomenclature feels more permanent than Aston’s old naming mood swings, however. And that’s because there is room for both a new Vanquish and a new DBS in Aston’s life-giving new ‘second century’ business plan — the former name due to be moved to the company’s first mid-engined, series-production supercar due to enter production in 2021 as an alternative to the Ferrari 488 and McLaren 720S.
Leaving the linguistic discussion to one side, I’m not sure a car weighing a shade under 1.7 tonnes without fluids counts as ‘very light’. But then, as explained, the DBS Superleggera is ‘the big Aston’. It earns its model name with a mix of lightweight body panels, more than 80% of which are made out of carbonfibre composite.
Underneath that weight-saving skin is the same aluminium platform technology that underpins Aston’s other ‘second century’ models — the DB11 and Vantage. And it’s the former with which the DBS has the stronger links, sharing a wheelbase in particular, although the DBS stretches the lesser model’s axle tracks to its more sporting ends and gets 21in wheels and carbon-ceramic brakes as standard. Otherwise, most of the DBS’s suspension and steering hardware is common with the DB11’s (although it’s differently tuned), while the 5.2-litre twin-turbo V12 engine is common also.
And as regards the last item in that list, Gaydon has at last fully uncorked its turbocharged V12 to liberate 715bhp and 664lb ft of torque for this car. That act required only a new ECU calibration — the new ‘Cologne’ V12 having apparently been capable of those outputs from its first fitment into a DB11 in 2016. Imagine that.
The extra power and torque have obliged Gaydon to fit greater cooling capacity, however, as well as the strongest automatic transmission ever used on a series-production Aston: an eight-speed ZF unit that, similarly to the Vantage, sits between the car’s rear wheels in a transaxle layout. Downstream of that, the DBS Superleggera eschews the Vantage’s electronically controlled e-diff for a conventional mechanical limited-slip differential.
The DBS Superleggera’s cabin feels a bit like a backwards step for Aston, although this is partly the result of my road tester’s perspective and may very well not figure at all for an owner. The trouble is, the Vantage showed us a willingness on Aston’s part to adapt the fascia design of its cars, model by model, to suit their particular briefs and purposes; you therefore quite reasonably expect a dashboard layout you haven’t seen before from the DBS. However, what you get is a DB11 fascia but for some colour, trim and upholstery tweaks.
A Vantage is, of course, a £121,000 car, and a DBS Superleggera… isn’t. And so, having admired the gently muscular, sharply tailored and cleverly distinguished exterior of the car, it may be with an air of deflation that you take in the car’s undoubtedly lavish and enveloping cockpit. Or, if you’ve never laid eyes on the interior of a DB11, it may very well not be. The DBS Superleggera’s seats are certainly more comfortable than a DB11’s in this tester’s opinion and it lacks the material richness you expect of a £200k car in only a handful of places.
While we’re developing the theme — what kind of real-world pace do you expect of a £200k Aston ‘super-GT’ in 2018? The Ferrari 812 Superfast, which, among many, many other brain-frazzling feats of sheer accelerative brilliance, only needs 4.9sec to surge from 50-100mph in fourth gear; and the 812’s pretty short-geared, remember. A Porsche 911 GT2 RS needs 5.1sec for the same in-gear sprint. This new shaft-snapping Aston? It's 4.5sec, says chief engineer Matt Becker.
That’s what 663lb ft of twist from 1800rpm achieves; the kind of simple, near-instant low and mid-range thrust that makes mid-sized-SUV-level kerb weight just melt into irrelevance and steep Alpine passes seem as good as level for all the difference they make to your explosive forward momentum. I always suspected this was a landmark engine just waiting to reveal itself when sampled in the DB11; and heavens to Betsy, it’s good. It sounds melodic at times, and deliciously loutish and rough-edged at others. Always authentic, though — even when it’s burbling and popping on the overrun through Aston’s bespoke exhaust tuning.
And having gained that readiness to kick you very firmly in the joy department from well below 3000rpm, it retains the uncanny ability to wind on the revs with an elastic vivacity above 5000rpm, too, pulling all the way to 7000rpm really freely. It’s a slight shame that the transaxle gearbox doesn’t always match it for smoothness and slickness of manually cued shift speed, but its moments of clumsiness are few and far between, and I suspect they'll get even rarer and fewer the longer that Aston has to work with this new 'box.
There can be no doubt that the company’s mastery of what we might think of as its second century technology armoury — the power steering, power braking, adaptive damping and stability control systems it’s been working with since it embarked on DB11 development — has blossomed with this car. The DBS Superleggera's controls all feel highly polished and perfectly tuned, and so it feels like a car equally strong for the qualitative aspects of its driving experience as it is for the plainly quantitative ones. The steering has just the right weighing to suit its medium-fast directness, and it’s wonderfully natural and tactile, communicating front axle load better than any electromechanical set-up I can think of. Its brake pedal has strong, reassuring initial bite but feels progressive as you add pressure.
As for that Goldilocks blend of suppleness, support, stability, response, balance and body control that’s so hard to describe but so important to find in the chassis of a big, continent-crossing GT car: it exists in the DBS Superleggera as plainly as blondie herself aspired to with that famous ursine trio.
While it’s a fairly big car, the DBS Superleggera doesn’t feel it on the road, possessing the precision and directional agility you expect of a proper sports car. Tuck it in tight and fast to a testing corner and it has fine body control and assured grip levels, too. The car’s key dynamic compromises — of keen but progressive handling response and of tautness in the primary ride but also pragmatic suppleness and absorbency — are measured to perfection and make the DBS Superleggera an intuitive delight to drive quickly on any road you care to tackle. And its superb balance of grip, matched with the unchanging simplicity of the relationship between its mechanical slippy diff and its rear contact patches, allow a cornering attitude so deliciously, judiciously adjustable that I’d defy any keen driver not to discretely and safely explore how tamely — or indeed luridly — it can be throttle-steered.
Is the Superleggera the ultimate DBS?
Aston is returning to its happy place with the DBS Superleggera. It is doing what it does best and making the kind of world-class, time-honoured, grand touring driver’s car it has made so well for decades — but this time hitting a new level of real-world performance, driveability, dynamic sophistication and involvement in the process.
Suffice to say, this tester isn’t minded to deny the DBS Superleggera due recognition on the basis that it hasn’t got its manufacturer’s own infotainment system or wiper controls. Aston will do plenty of things, and make plenty of cars, that it has never made before over the next few years, and we should expect it to make a few mistakes along the way. Some of those cars may not become a permanent part of the showroom catalogue.