Wheels: Along the Same Lines

Visually and mechanically, Aston Martin’s new and striking DB9 seems to offer no compelling reason for its purchase over the apparently similar, somewhat senior, yet still extraordinary Vanquish. Unless, of course, one feels compelled to save around $70,000 by buying the 2005 two-seat DB9 instead of thumbing out $230,000 for a four-seat Vanquish. Other than the dollars asked and derrieres accommodated, most everything else about the two cars is either a wash or a cat-whisker’s difference.

When viewed from behind, both display identical heavy hips, clipped triangle rear side windows, narrow red lenses that curl around the corners, and twin tailpipes as wide as beer tankards. Their hoods share power bulges, and both have headlights enshrined beneath Plexiglas that follows the form of the fenders. The grilles remain the same ovoid rectangle made famous by the DBR1 that Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby raced at Le Mans and the DB5 that James Bond drove in Goldfinger. Both silhouettes crouch low and are as smoothly curved as centuries-washed river rocks. They are unmistakably British and patently Aston Martin.

Even performance, typically the final arbiter, does not help separate this couple. The Vanquish attains a top speed of 190 mph, while the DB9 is all of 4 mph slower. And if the seat of anyone’s pants can measure a one-tenth-second difference in zero-to-60 times—4.9 seconds for the Vanquish versus 4.8 for the DB9—then he probably has a radar gun in his back pocket.

Ulrich Bez, Aston Martin’s chief executive, listens politely to these observations. He does not seem thrilled by them, but then, the blunt, free-thinking, fast-driving Bez is the company’s passionate protector. This is also year four of the five years he vowed to Ford that it would take him to have Aston Martin off its stretcher and into profitability. Bez’s five-year plan also called for Aston Martin to become elevated from a boutique carmaker to a global automobile builder with a full range of high-performance, luxurious, and exclusive vehicles in production or in gestation by the end of 2005.

“Put them together,” says Bez of the DB9 and Vanquish, “and everything is different, but while speaking the same language. Like father [Vanquish], like son [DB9], they are from the same family. The Vanquish is so grown up, so muscular, so adult. It’s a car with a very high presence, not understated, maybe showing off a bit. Driving it demands your full concentration. The DB9 doesn’t do that. It is more elegant, has a higher usability factor, and it tends to catch the younger buyer.”

If exclusivity is a personal priority, consider this: Aston Martin produced only 300 Vanquish coupes last year and is planning to whelp only some 2,000 DB9 sports cars—although those are lofty production numbers considering Aston Martin crafted fewer than 50 cars in 1987 at the time of Ford’s purchase. 

Bez, who owns a dozen watches and typically travels with a Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox strapped around his wrist, often uses fine timepieces as metaphors for Aston Martins. Would you care, he asks, if your lady gifts you with a Calatrava or a Travel Time, as long as it is a Patek Philippe? “So you are not buying a Vanquish or a DB9,” he explains. “You are buying an Aston Martin.” Nor, he is quick to add, are you buying a mutt, such as a Gucci or Armani timepiece that in reality is some other company’s mass-produced watch with a high-end label slapped on it.

Bez is canny and polite enough not to be prodded into naming the pretender automobiles, but his message concerning the building of modern cars is obvious: A Ferrari body and badge have an in-house relationship to a Ferrari engine and the majority of the car’s components. Such purity is highly attractive to certain buyers. Yet other carmakers choose to curtsy to cost reductions and mass production and borrow complete engines, entire chassis, bodies, and transmissions from their family of companies—sometimes even from those outside the family. Or have we forgotten the days when Land Rovers had Buick engines and Rolls-Royce used GM transmissions?

Bez concedes that the DB9 most certainly includes clips, fasteners, and other odds and ends from the parent company’s parts bins, and that somewhere within the DB9 a firewall widget from Jaguar could well be sitting next to a hose gizmo from a Lincoln Town Car. He also acknowledges that Aston Martin has borrowed ultrasonic welding technology from Ford and crash-test data from sibling Volvo because such research is “not [financially] feasible for a 5,000-car-a-year company.”

But the DB9’s engine was refined from one that powers the DB7 it replaces and the Vanquish that took the mighty motor to a higher stage. The bonded aluminum body is completely Aston Martin. And although the DB9’s 6-speed ZF transmission, gearbox, bejeweled instrumentation, and other significant parts are from outside companies, each system has been built to order or heavily tweaked to Aston Martin’s specifications.

All of which, concludes Bez, gives Aston Martin a degree of pedigree and exclusivity certain to stir, if not shake, many of today’s other builders of high-performance, high-priced luxury sports cars. It is a viable belief, for the DB9 delivers the type of performance promised by its appearance, then adds unexpected pace and handling plus a stream of nuances and neat touches. Together, these create the sense that this is the perfect car for flooring it past farms and barns—with maneuverability to spare for the odd sheep dozing on the center stripe—flogging it across mountain passes while seated comfortably behind a normally aspirated V-12 that will not choke on the thin air, and then toddling smoothly between stoplights and among afternoon traffic without a hint of throttle lurch.

We challenged precisely that trio of scenarios during a daylong playtime with the DB9 in the hills and gorges of Provence above Nice in the South of France. On or off center, at speed or dawdling, the steering is perfectly weighted. The Brembo brakes are big, even, and powerful, with stopping power to spare for drivers who play chicken with their turn-in points.

From rest or in that black hole between 70 and 100 mph, where so many cars are handcuffed, the DB9 turns on the torque in a wink with a transition that is satin-smooth. Manual shifting is by paddles, which are perfect and even programmed to blip the throttle for downshifts.

Automatic drive is available at the touch of a dashboard button (with companions for park, reverse, and neutral) and delivers a lesson for everybody else in this sophisticated business of transmitting power through gears to wheels. Almost every car manufacturer has perfected paddle shifting, but for so many European car builders, developing a smooth, powerful, intelligent automatic mode seems to be a more difficult task than finding an acceptable hamburger in Leeds. Aston Martin, by attaching a torque converter to its automatic transmission, has finally stomped on that demon.

The lines of the DB9 are traditional and elegant, and they wisely plagiarize memorable Aston Martin classics. After all, apart from some ugly blobs in the 1970s, Aston has been designing nothing but beauties since the DB2s of the ’50s. The DB9 interior—particularly the cluster of four three-dimensional, Tiffany-bright gauges on a highly polished aluminum background—reflects quality, discretion, and perfect positioning. Aston has even added a throwback: a throw-off hand brake that will be familiar to those who once drove Morgans and T-Series MGs.

The DB9’s arrival this summer could signal that Aston Martin’s recovery is close at hand, and full rebirth should occur once the company tops 3,000 cars a year. With a convertible DB9 Volante in production and a smaller, less expensive V-8–powered coupe plus a revised Vanquish in the wings for next year, that production goal could be attained within a matter of months.

But with the DB9 following the DB7, the question remains: Did someone lose count and forget to build a DB8? “No,” responds Bez. “The DB9 is so different from the DB7 that we wanted to set it completely apart.” Then he offers an alternative, more pragmatic explanation: “If we had called it the DB8, people might have thought it had a V-8 engine.” 


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