It's a good thing the 2020 Aston Martin DBX doesn't have four doors and a boot, because 'last-chance crossover' doesn't work as a headline. But that's what the company's first SUV effectively is, with sliding sales of the Brit sports carmaker's more traditional models and a share price that has tanked since last year's flotation.
The DBX has to sell strongly out of the gate if Aston is going to have any chance to deliver on the rest of its ambitious 'Second Century Plan'.
The DBX's importance to Aston is such that the company is carefully rationing bits of coverage ahead of the full drive next year. We'll get to see what the finished car looks like later this month, but before then, the company has released a single image of the interior – and also invited a small group of hacks to have a ride alongside Aston's chief engineer, Matt Becker, with CarAdvice among them.
Don't worry, this isn't going to be an attempt at a passenger-seat road test. We're too classy for that. But even without a steering wheel, it is obvious that the DBX is going to be both fast and – in the right hands – exciting.
Before joining Aston, Becker worked for Lotus – his father was the ride and handling boss there for years. It's nearly 20 years since I first sat next to him while he showed me what one of his projects could do when taken beyond the limits. In that case an Elise 111S, which Becker drove around most of the Hethel test track at the sort of jauntily sideways angles more often associated with ’70s rallying.
Two decades on, and I'm sitting higher in the prototype DBX at the dinky Stowe Circuit at Silverstone, and the car weighs more than twice as much. However, the yaw angles are similar, as Becker proves that the SUV can be persuaded into lurid slides on the wet surface.
All-wheel drive is a first for a road-going Aston, but Becker is keen to point out that the DBX is natively rear-driven, torque only heading forwards through a centre differential when it's needed to impose order, and with no more than 47 per cent able to reach the front axle.
It also uses the same torque-juggling active rear differential that makes the Vantage such an edgy steer, as well as a 48-volt anti-roll system. Throw in active air suspension with five different height settings and the finished car will be, Becker admits, the most technically complex vehicle he has worked on.
"Sports cars are easy," is his key learning, "you only have to make them do a few things really well, but with an SUV you have to make it do much more stuff. It's got to be able to do 300km/h safely, lap the ’Ring, head off-road, carry five people, and tow a boat or a horsebox."
Benchmarking was done early in the project and included a Cayenne Turbo, a BMW X6M, a Bentayga and a Range Rover Sport SVR, with Becker and his team driving them on both the Nürburgring Nordschleife and surrounding roads.
"My respect for this type of car increased enormously when we started to drive them properly and realised just how much engineering had gone into them," he admits. Later testing included a Lamborghini Urus, which Becker describes as "an absolute monster".
Beyond the ability to go sideways, track use confirms that the DBX has no difficulties in adding or removing speed, the 405kW AMG 4.0-litre turbocharged V8 bellowing when unleashed.
Becker says it managed a 4.5sec 0–100km/h time and an official 291km/h top speed, although the team has seen more than 300km/h out of prototypes.
Like the rest of Aston's range, the DBX is built using a bonded aluminium structure, a 2250kg EU kerb weight making it one of the lighter cars in its gargantuan segment. There is no doubting the seriousness of the forces at play here, but nor the way the DBX handles the punishment.
Becker says prototypes have gone around the Nordschleife in under eight minutes during regular testing; it sounds like the current SUV record of 7:48 – held by the Mercedes GLC63 S – is well within range.
Although you get to see the picture of the cabin, the prototype's interior was also wearing disguise panels. I can report plenty of room for front seat occupants and an acceptable amount in the rear, refinement is good, and there's a nice, bass-heavy V8 wuffle under gentler progress.
The engine's full 700Nm of torque is available from just 2200rpm and the nine-speed Mercedes auto ’box is happy to let it rumble along at low revs.
Once off the racetrack and onto some of the busy (and equally wet) roads of rural Northamptonshire, the biggest impression from my shotgun perspective is just how civilised even a not-quite-finished DBX feels, with little road noise (it is apparently the quietest Aston ever) and a plush-feeling ride on the air springs, even when Becker selects Sport and Sport Plus modes.
I also get a sense of the lack of body roll under harder cornering, the 48-volt motors able to apply up to 1400Nm of torque to the anti-roll bars to counteract lean; it's a similar system to the one in the Bentley Bentayga and Mercedes GLS.
Becker admits that Aston has actually opted to wind back the intervention to allow a small amount of roll, reckoning it felt too unnatural when keeping the car almost fully flat.
Back at Silverstone, the DBX gets to tackle a modest off-road course, demonstrating decent ground clearance and enough urge and stability to get both up and down a muddy bank. Becker admits that non-tarmac performance wasn't originally a priority, and has been pleasantly surprised by just how far into the wilderness the DBX can go.
"We originally focused on matching something like an Audi Allroad," he says, "but we've ended up with something as good as a Porsche Cayenne."
The reason for the prowess is both the active ride height – which can go up by 50mm in the switchable Terrain 2 mode – but also the clever differentials' ability to get torque to the grip generated by the prototype's Pirelli Scorpion all-season tyres.
It certainly feels as competent in the slippery stuff as it will ever need to be.
By the time we get back to Aston's Silverstone engineering centre, I've had 40 minutes in the car. I can't claim to have made any journalistic revelations, but the DBX does seem to feel as fast and dynamically secure as its key rivals, and maybe a bit more playful on the limit.
Will the reality be good enough to turn Aston's fortunes around? That's the many-million-dollar question.
Editor's note: The DBX will be revealed on November 20, and we'll aim to have full Australian details to go along with the news. Watch our for an interview with Aston boss Andy Palmer, too.