Can you hear a roulette wheel spinning? That’s not a Bond reference, despite the impending cinematic outing for Aston’s most famous licensed-to-kill brand ambassador. Rather it’s a comment on the future of the company itself.
Indeed, to cross the streams for a while longer, the title of 007’s 25th outing – No Time To Die – sums up Aston’s predicament alarmingly well. The British sports car maker has sliding sales, slipping profits, and a slumping share price. It has pretty much bet the house on the success of the 2020 Aston Martin DBX.
Which is why the company is taking the launch of its first SUV so seriously. CarAdvice got to travel to Oman to experience a prototype version in December, although we had to hold off on giving driving impressions until now.
The trip was before things got tense in the region – Iran is just across the Gulf of Oman – and also prior to the country entering a period of mourning when Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said died last week.
Oman itself is a superb place to experience any car, and capable of making something much less exotic than the DBX look ready for adventure. But while prototype drives are often brief and restricted to environments chosen to make the model look like more fun than it will end up being – hence the number held on frozen lakes – this was a proper turn in the new car, with a 100km route including sand, gravel, and a fair amount of tarmac.
Being what's called a ‘1PT’ level prototype meant the test car was part of very early assembly at Aston's new St Athan factory in Wales, but dynamic settings were still not quite finalised, build quality was unrepresentative of what buyers can expect, and the digital dashboard was doing a convincing Christmas tree impression as it constantly reported faults from uncalibrated sensors.
I also got a passenger for my drive, Aston's chief engineer Matt Becker riding shotgun. The former Lotus handling chief admits that the DBX has been the biggest and most demanding project he has ever been involved in.
I got a chance to ride with him in a similar mule in the UK last year, but for this one we've swapped seats, Becker watching me drive and trying not to look too nervous.
While not as nice as a finished car, the DBX mule's cabin gave a good impression of what the production version will be like, although with nicer leather and tighter tolerances. Beyond sitting much higher, it has much in common with the company's sports cars, sharing both switchgear and the same design ethos.
It does feel Aston-y, and the natural seating position is much more reclined than it would be in a more typical SUV. There's good room in the front and reasonable space in the back – Becker boasts the DBX has more rear leg room than a Cayenne – and the standard full-length panoramic roof makes the cabin feel light and airy.
Not that it is going to be the sort of toy shop that luxury SUV buyers will find elsewhere in the segment.
Compared to cars like the Bentayga and Urus, the as-launched DBX is going to be short on tech, with one big disappointment being that it is running Aston's version of Merc's last-generation UI system. That means the big 10.25-inch screen in the middle of the dashboard isn't touch-sensitive, requiring inputs through the touch panel and click wheel between the seats. Old school.
Once moving, the news turns better and – pretty much – stays good. The DBX's AMG-sourced 4.0-litre V8 is in a relatively gentle state of tune making 405kW – 45kW less than the same engine in the Mercedes-AMG GLE 63S produces. Yet although it falls short of its ludicrously quick segment's bragging rights on paper – with a claimed 4.5-second 0–100km/h time – it feels Aston-fast on the road.
The engine has huge low-down brawn, the peak 700Nm of torque arriving at just 2200rpm, but also pulls savagely to its 7000rpm redline when allowed to do so.
It sounds great, too, burbling under gentle use and snarly once stick gets applied. There are pops and bangs in the punchier Sport and Sport Plus dynamic modes, but not too many. Becker says these are actually programmable in the Bosch engine management software.
The DBX doesn't get the wet-clutch MCT transmission that Daimler uses for its own AMG models, rather a conventional torque converter version of Merc's nine-speed ’box.
Becker says using the MCT would have meant a much lower towing capacity, and although the gearbox's responses don't feel quite as snappy as the changes in a V8-powered AMG, it is still impressively fast for a pure auto. Becker also stresses that the prototype's gearbox software isn't final.
The DBX's big strengths look set to be refinement and its ability to both find traction and – when the mood takes – play in the grey area between slip and grip. The prototype was wearing 22-inch Pirelli Scorpion all-season tyres, but still managed to extract impressive adhesion from Oman's dusty tarmac.
But while it turns accurately and hangs on hard, the fundamental rearward bias of the all-wheel-drive system is always evident, even in the gentlest GT dynamic mode.
Changing up to Sport or Sport Plus and pushing harder makes the back-axle preference more obvious, and proves the DBX is impressively keen to turn for something this size and shape. An active rear differential helps out by biasing torque across the back axle.
Gravel roads are outrageous fun. The chances of DBX owners choosing to use their $357,000 toff-roaders as putative WRC cars are slight, but if any choose to do so, they will find that the Aston can be persuaded into lurid oversteer angles on low-grip surfaces without effort.
The all-wheel-drive system responds to slip by moving torque forwards, countering and self-correcting smaller slides. But at max attack it can be turned into a big, matey drift machine.
Relevance to the real world: precisely zero. It’s still a neat party trick.
My initial impression of the suspension was that it was surprisingly soft. The DBX raises its nose under hard acceleration, and the standard air springs prove themselves pillowingly pliant over rougher surfaces. But these are combined with both no-nonsense active dampers and a 48-volt electric anti-roll system, both of which work together to maintain impressive discipline over pretty much anything I could find to throw the DBX at.
Rough gravel tracks, even the sort of washboard ruts that turn traditional off-roaders into tumble driers, were digested without complaint; a point made by spending time over the same tracks in the rented Toyota LandCruiser that Aston was using as a support vehicle.
It’s equally well behaved at higher speed on tarmac, with tight body control and the magical anti-roll system – with electric motors applying up to 1400Nm of torque to the anti-roll bars – cancelling pretty much all lean under hard cornering.
Aston claims the DBX has less body roll than a Vantage, and after throwing it down a mountain road, that sounds both impossible and right at the same time.
Let’s not go overboard here: the DBX isn’t a sports car under any generally accepted definition of the term. It feels less big and heavy than it is, but it is still the tallest and pudgiest thing that Aston has created, and that considerable mass takes effort to start, stop and turn.
But on first impressions it does seem to be a promising performance SUV – one that both looks better than most of its rivals, and drives with better agility as well. It’s not the sort of car that anyone is likely to choose to go any distance into the wilderness, but it can get as far off-road as any buyers are likely to want to take it.
Arriving at the luxury-SUV party behind key rivals has also spared Aston much of the existential questioning the Bentayga, Cullinan and Urus had to deal with when they first came out.
Is this the right thing for Aston to be doing? In terms of giving customers what they seem to want and raising the cash to keep the company in business, absolutely.
Given what’s at stake, you don’t need to like the idea of ultra-luxe SUVs to hope the DBX succeeds.
Aston Martin DBX basic specs
Engine: 3982cc, V8, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power: 405kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 700Nm @ 2200–5000rpm
Top speed: 291km/h
Weight: 2245kg (EU DIN)