If you’re having a bad 2020, spare a thought for Aston Martin. Since the start of the year, James Bond’s favourite car company has lurched between crises more frequently than a soap opera. The British sports carmaker has lost CEO Andy Palmer and come close to running out of cash.
Sales have tanked – down 41 per cent during the first six months of the year – and the company’s share price has come close to sliding off the bottom of the graph, losing more than 90 per cent of its value since its ill-fated IPO in October 2018. It’s no exaggeration to say that if the new 2021 Aston Martin DBX isn’t a resounding success, it could take the whole business down with it.
CarAdvice drove a 90-per-cent-finished version of the DBX late last year in Oman, which was impressive, but the production-spec version is still heading for one of the toughest segments going, up against both the facelifted Bentley Bentayga, but also the Lamborghini Urus.
The DBX’s media launch was originally meant to be held in Palm Springs in April, but then COVID-19 struck and forced both a delay and a move to the less glamorous environment of Silverstone in England, just prior to the F1 double-header. I got to drive the car on Aston’s private Stowe track there and the racetrack’s off-road experience centre, and I then got to take it away for an unrestricted drive for the next 24 hours.
Let’s start with the good, which is most of it. Shorn of its disguise cladding and in its final form, the DBX is a seriously handsome beast, and without the 'for an SUV' asterisks that often get applied in this bit of the market.
Marek Reichman’s design team has made full use of the proportional freedom given by the creation of the all-new bonded aluminium platform the car sits on, and it looks both lower and sleeker than its obvious rivals. It's shorter than both the Urus and Bentayga, but sitting on a longer wheelbase.
The styling team have managed to bring in plenty of details from Aston’s sports cars without turning it into a ramped pastiche. You’ve got to admit it’s pretty svelte by the standards of its hulking segment.
Aston has followed a similar approach in the cabin, although not quite as successfully. The design is meant to make it feel more like a sports car than an SUV, meaning lots of curving, organic shapes and – from the command seat – a view forwards that is pretty similar to the one you’d experience in a DBS, although while sitting the best part of a metre higher.
Materials feel plush, fit and finish are good, and it is impressively roomy both front and rear. This is the most spacious series-production Aston for rear seat passengers since the William Towns Lagonda sedan of the ’70s.
But it is a bit short on both bling and kit. The DBX gets digital instruments as standard, but the 12.3-inch screen in the centre of the dashboard sits within an oddly shaped binnacle and, as we noted with the prototype, immediately surprises by not being touch-sensitive. (I knew it wasn’t before getting into the car, but the instinct to use fingers rather than the turn-and-click control wheel was still overwhelming.)
That’s because Aston’s deal with Merc only runs to the last-generation 'STAR 2.3' Comand infotainment system. The main UI isn’t great, and I also noticed a fair amount of lag when making some inputs, and also when changing between drive modes.
The lack of tech continues in other areas. The DBX doesn’t get any trick rotating screens, gesture controls or crowd-pleasing gizmos like smart reconfigurable interior lighting. It’s also lacking some of the active safety systems that normally come standard on cars costing a quarter as much, nor is there even the option of piloted cruise. The DBX can maintain distance and warn when it is leaving a lane, but it won’t actively steer itself.
The seat frames are carried over from the DB11, and don’t feel ideally suited to a taller SUV. The only comfortable position I could find was lower and more reclined than I would have chosen.
And that’s pretty much all the substantive criticism dealt with. Because when it comes to the driving, the DBX really is something special. The off-road drive only took a few minutes, and did little but prove that the DBX is as talented away from tarmac as it will ever need to be.
The adaptive air suspension allows height to be increased by up to 50mm in the loftiest Terrain Plus mode. The Aston proved capable of scrambling over modest obstacles, and then powering its way up and down slippery gradients without undue drama or expensive noises.
The test track was more exciting. The baby Stowe Circuit is only 2.6km long, but it features a decent selection of medium- and low-speed corners. The DBX gets both a 48-volt active anti-roll system and a torque-biasing rear differential as standard, with the switchable dynamic modes allowing these to substantially alter the character of the car.
In the softest GT mode, the DBX felt as soft on-track as you’d expect a sizeable SUV to be, with lean under cornering loads and an entirely unsurprising tendency to push its front end wide in tighter turns.
Switching to Sport pretty much eliminated the body roll, and created a much more rear-driven sensation as the back axle takes on a much more active role in the car’s cornering attitude. Sport Plus takes it even further, with an angry exhaust note, much sharper throttle response, and partially deactivated stability control that turns the DBX into a big, unfrightening drift machine. It’s the sort of behaviour that would be impressive in a 1200kg sports car. In something this shape and size, it feels close to magical.
Time on-track is fun, but the real test comes when I leave Silverstone and start a 500km cross-country route I’d chosen to test the DBX’s abilities on a variety of English roads. From busy motorways to the bumpy tarmac that crosses the empty wastes of Exmoor in Somerset.
The AMG-sourced V8 engine actually impresses more when asked to do less. Although always tuneful, the motor has a 405kW output – 45kW less than the same motor makes in the Mercedes-AMG GLE63 S – which means that it’s one of the slower vehicles to use this powerplant.
There’s enough sound and fury when it’s fully unleashed, although the torque converter ’box isn’t as sharp as the wet-clutch transmission AMG uses in most of its applications. But under low-intensity use, the V8’s effortless muscularity makes it adept at relaxed cruising, with solid acceleration never more than a flexed toe away.
Onto the narrower and more demanding roads of Exmoor, the DBX immediately feels its width – it’s a substantial two metres across – with the left-hand drive of my US-spec test car (built for the original launch) limiting confidence further on the blind crests and bends. But over savage undulations and rollercoaster compressions, the chassis proves itself hugely accomplished. The combination of its soft air suspension and no-nonsense dampers does an outstanding job of keeping the car’s considerable mass under tight control.
Even when the rain started to fall hard, the DBX continued to find impeccable traction on Pirelli P-Zeroes, the chassis parrying everything the road could throw at it with effortless disdain, and the steering staying deadly accurate as speed and loadings increased.
The common belief about SUVs is the one that has been passed down on tablets of stone since axles were live and hung between leaf springs: that they’re compromised – permanently flawed on-road so they can (rarely) be good off it. But that’s not the case with the DBX, which isn’t just fast and accomplished for an SUV, but for an Aston. I’m pretty sure none of the company’s rear-driven sports cars would have been able to stay with it in the sodden conditions.
Aston did the DBX the hard way. Creating a platform when it could almost certainly have shared one. Constructing a new factory to build it and pretty much bankrupting itself in the process.
On first impressions, the finished product is exactly what the company needs. Things could still go wrong, but if future historians are looking back trying to trace the start of Aston’s resurgence, the DBX looks like the most likely origin.
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)
Consumption: 14.32L/100km [NEDC]
CO2: 269g/km [NEDC]