The differences between a sports car and a car are subtle but undeniable. In the way it looks, the way it sounds, and the way it feels, a sports car telegraphs a message of outright performance. If you drive a car to its absolute limit down a challenging road and find yourself grinning from ear to ear, chances are you’re in a sports car, something like a Lotus Elise or a Ferrari F430. A GT car’s mission, on the other hand, is to provide effortless performance, driving pleasure, and comfort over long journeys driven at triple-digit speeds. During a drive from, say, London to the south of France, you should be able to remain relaxed yet inspired behind the wheel, while your passenger should feel pampered and at ease. Aston Martin does GT cars as well as any automaker. Its DB9 coupe features a powerful twelve-cylinder engine, a cosseting cabin, and gorgeous, understated styling. But now Aston has a new top-of-the-line model, the DBS. So, is it a GT, or is it a sports car?
When you first glance at the DBS–and at its spec sheet–you might think that it’s a full-on sports car. After all, the DBS is adorned with all the typical sports car styling cues, including scoops and vents and a carbon-fiber front splitter and rear diffuser. European buyers can even specify sport seats with a carbon-fiber shell that help the car shed an additional 44 pounds. The DBS’s V-12 sends 510 hp–60 hp more than the DB9–through a six-speed manual gearbox. To help stop it from its nearly -mph top speed, the DBS gets carbon-ceramic brake rotors, a first for a roadgoing Aston. At the Frankfurt auto show in September, Aston Martin CEO Ulrich Bez bragged about the DBS’s lap times around the Nrburgring. Despite all the exotic hardware, however, when we saw the new DBS at Frankfurt, we couldn’t stop thinking that it looks pretty much like a DB9 with a body kit. A rather good-looking and superbly executed body kit, to be sure. But perhaps our first drive of the top Aston would dispel such notions.
Slide the DBS’s substantial sapphire and stainless steel key–sorry, the Emotion Control Unit, as Aston Martin insists on calling it–into the slot above the radio and hold it in for what seems like an eternity. The V-12 lights up, and you’re greeted with an intoxicating exhaust note–part deep bass, part metallic riff–that makes you want to search out every tunnel within 100 miles just to hear the sound reverberate against the walls. Blip the throttle a few more times, and you’ll be hooked. Dip the light clutch, notch the comically large shift knob into first gear, and pull away. As you ease into a pace where you’re driving at seven- or eight-tenths, the sound of the V-12, the incredibly strong and responsive brakes, and the precise gearbox tell you that this is one impressive car. But when you really push the DBS on twisty and bumpy roads, the Aston shows that it’s not the true sports car you were led to believe it would be. Sure, the twenty-inch Pirellis provide massive amounts of grip, but no matter what setting you choose for the adjustable dampers–another first for Aston–body control is lacking. The DBS feels big and heavy, not light and lithe, when you really hammer it.
Our disappointment with the DBS’s behavior on France’s back roads was just settling in when we came upon the entrance to the autoroute. This is where the Aston comes into its own: at 130 mph and beyond through the smooth sweepers of the French highway system, the DBS’s V-12 calls on gloriously deep torque reserves yet revs freely to its 6800-rpm fuel cutoff. The steering and chassis both feel perfectly calibrated for such conditions, and it becomes evident that the DBS is an extremely good GT car. But so is the DB9, which costs a cool hundred grand less than the DBS, and therein lies the rub. If you need more proof of the DBS’s GT character, look no further than the fact that Aston Martin will offer the DB9’s smooth automatic transmission as an option later this year.
If we could build the ultimate Aston Martin, we’d plug the engine and the exhaust system from the DBS into a standard DB9, a car whose subtle, elegant styling perfectly reflects the character of an Aston. But there are surely some Aston Martin buyers who want a car that is more extroverted, and the DBS fits the bill. There also is no doubt that the DBS is a good (read: profitable) short-term business move for an automaker that is now independent of Ford. We’re all for Aston Martin’s future profitability, we just wish the DBS were less of a bejeweled DB9 and more of a true flagship for the British company, especially for $265,000.
Q&A : Marek Reichman, Aston Martin design director
What are your favorite details on the DBS?
My favorite view of the DBS is the rear-three-quarter view, because the car looks so powerful. The car’s width is accentuated by the carbon-fiber rear diffuser. Your eye is drawn to the corners and to the track and width of the car. Looking at it from the front-three-quarter view, you can see the crease line of the fender, which accentuates the tire and wheel size and shows the DBS to be very muscular. It has the definition of an athlete or a race horse at full speed.
It seems as if you’re moving away from the DB9 shape. Do you want a new design direction for Aston?
An Aston Martin will always look like an Aston Martin, because the grille shape is so prominent and the face of Aston Martin is so prominent. But you’re right, we are taking evolutionary steps toward a different shape. This [the DBS] is the first time we’ve shown the car’s overt power. It’s not quite brutal, but it’s not all about elegance anymore; it’s actually portraying the powerful state of an Aston Martin. I think this is the first time that’s really happened since the DB4 GT Zagato.
What is the significance of your new design studio?
It’s huge. We’ve always been in rented accommodations. Although it’s fabulous to be in someone else’s house, you can’t put the furniture where you want it or paint it the color you want. This is our own studio. It’s confirmation from the new shareholders that they believe in design, and Aston Martin is all about design. Aston Martin is organized so that we can do things very quickly and very efficiently. It says to everyone on the team that they [the new owners] believe in the future of Aston Martin. I’m over the moon, I’m so excited.
How does the Rapide fit into all this? Will it be a true four-seater?
It’s a four-door sports car. I can fit in the back of the car, although I’m not sure whether I would want to be there for a five-hour journey. But it’s not a sedan, it’s a sports car. And, yes, there are compromises, but it will be more usable than our DB9. You can fold the rear seats down and actually carry more luggage. We’ve been in the studio refining and developing it. When the production car finally comes out, you’ll see a difference from the show car. You’ll see that it is the next generation of Aston Martin.