Over the course of the automobile industry’s six score and 10 years, thousands of car brands have launched. Yet few have flourished, and today almost all have come and gone, save a handful. The car business is murder.
Faced with this fact of perpetual marque death, the coldhearted realist brigade has been content through the years to tsk, tsk, tsk. But car lovers mourn each loss. For there can never be too many car brands. With so few automakers left and barriers to entry for startups as plentiful as they’ve ever been, the sacrosanct, irreplaceable nature of the brand only becomes more so.
This is one reason we’re here to celebrate the new Aston Martin DB11 I just drove up and down the mountains outside of San Diego. I knew it in an instant: It’s excellent — a genuine across-the-board improvement over what came before it. And to the extent that the company’s survival rides on its products, it’s welcome news for fans of automotive diversity.
Once again with the launch of its new car, the fate of Aston Martin hung in the balance. And once again, the noble firm that’s been at death’s door more times in its long history than most—having been declared bankrupt seven times in the 20th century — has sprung back. Maybe we should wait for more data points. But as far as I’m concerned, the car is the most important data point. This one makes me think Aston is saved.
The danger on the eve of the DB11’s launch was all too real for a company imperiled following the nose-punch world financial collapse of 2008. Aston’s sales were steamrolled in its wake, leading to a lack of development funds for new models. Continued viability was uncertain yet again.
But help came in the nick of time, just as it did when David Brown arrived to rescue Aston in 1947 or when Victor Gauntlett turned up in the 1980s to save it. Or when Ford came to save the Newport Pagnell firm with teams first led by Walter Hayes then Ulrich Bez, the former BMW and Porsche engineering wizard. The beautiful, Jaguar XJS-based DB7 held Ford’s place. But the ambitious DB9 that followed featured a future-forward configurable aluminum spaceframe chassis. And it had its day, spawning many other models. But Aston sales halved between 2007 and 2013. The DB11, developed under the stewardship of Bez and his replacement, ex-Nissan executive Andy Palmer (hired after yet another cash-infusion/ownership shake-up), arrives not a moment too soon.
I remember driving a DB9 from Edinburgh to London with a high-speed detour to the Scottish Highlands with my sister AJ in 2005. Mighty impressive it was, representing the best of what Bez had brought to the company. But the DB9 was not without rough edges. Its chassis, while impressive in conception, wasn’t space efficient. The ride was harsh, especially over highway expansion cracks, and more unrelaxing road and tire noise was transmitted than seemed appropriate for the leather-lined cabin of a gentleman’s express. Steering felt less informative than a sporting brief demanded, and interior fittings — several pegs up from the DB7 to be sure but still making liberal use of Ford’s parts bin (such as Miata door pulls) — lacked the surprise and delight you’d want in something meant to be more special than mere Porsches and VW-era Bentleys.
Happily, the DB11 remedies most every shortcoming. With an entirely new aluminum structure, it feels more solid than the DB9 yet is barely heavier. It’s quieter and more composed over the rough stuff yet is capable of massive adrenaline injections, thanks to its Aston- (not AMG) designed 5.2-liter twin-turbo V-12. The engine is a model of velvety tractability, yet when all 600 horsepower are extended, it sounds as determined as the hounds of hell. Steering is sharper and livelier than in any front-engine GT we can think of, ride quality is superior, and roadholding is excellent. It’s satisfyingly nimble for a car so large. DB11 interior fittings are several pegs above those of its predecessor, and its fuel economy is dramatically improved. Oh, and it looks great.
All of which gives us hope for yet another platinum age of Astons. Before it all goes pear-shaped — again. Because it certainly could, given the crazy brand-killing world we live in. Until then, the good news is it didn’t take a jacked-up, cross-eyed, crossover parody of an Aston to give the brand hope for the future. That comes next.