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2017 Aston Martin DB11 Prototype First Drive

Cohesive, mature, and sophisticated, the DB11 is a harbinger of great things to come

Basem Wasefwriter The Manufacturerphotographer

APRILIA, Italy I'm moments away from climbing into a camouflaged prototype of the 2017 Aston Martin DB11 as it lopes at idle, and the anticipation is heavy. The DB11 is the brand's first all-new car in years, marking yet another make-it-or-break-it moment for the century-old company that, thus far, has been blessed with a seemingly endless supply of lives.

"We've never let anyone drive a car this early in the development process," one Aston Martin exec tells me, revealing a curious combination of caution and generosity. The final production version won't be ready for three months, but this car, which is internally referred to as a verification prototype, is two steps away from the end product. One source tells me it's "about 85 percent there." No pressure, Aston. Now, about that drive …

But First, Some Backstory

The DB11 is the first new Aston Martin under the watch of CEO Andy Palmer, marking one of the final nails in the coffin of the Nürburgring-racing, German-inflected reign of Dr. Ulrich Bez. The old boss was notorious for leaving his personal signature on driving dynamics, having been responsible for the development of icons such as the Porsche 993. Bez was also notoriously distrustful of newfangled technologies like hybrid and electric powertrains, not to mention forced induction.

Pressure to meet modern emissions and efficiency standards have redefined this newest Aston. The 5.2-liter mill remains a V-12 despite industry-wide downsizing, but the powerplant is Aston Martin's first-ever turbocharged engine—a twin-turbo at that. The big 12 produces 600 horsepower, but the real star of the statistics show is torque, whose peak figure of 516 lb-ft of torque starts at a piddling 1,500 rpm. As was the case with the DB9, the engine links to a rear-mounted eight-speed ZF gearbox.

Much of the new Aston's dynamics rely on the butt-o-meter of Matt Becker, the chassis and suspension guru who was recently pulled from a 26-year career at the now-flailing Lotus. "Andy told [head designer] Marek Reichman to make each model look different enough that his mum could tell them apart," Becker says. "He told me to make each car drive the way it looks." How does Becker interpret the DB11's appearance? Following a game of word association, he suggests the swoopy 2+2 is "purposeful, elegant, timeless. … It must be comfortable yet engaging." Fair enough, given the outgoing DB9's role as the brand's stately grand tourer. But, spoiler alert: Its performance repertoire has been significantly stretched, as well.

The bonded aluminum chassis formerly known as "VH" (Vertical Horizontal) has been completely reworked, but don't go calling it by its old label—the new architecture has yet to be named. Wheelbase has stretched by 2.5 inches and the engine moves rearward, yielding a weight distribution of 51/49 percent front/rear. Gone is the double wishbone suspension at both ends, replaced with a multilink rear setup intended to deliver a superior ride, thanks to the setup's reduced longitudinal stiffness.

The requisite interior upgrades are in place, with the most notable changes having been bestowed upon the long-derided infotainment setup, which receives a Daimler-sourced, Aston Martin-ized version of the Benz's COMAND system. A quick fiddle with the display car at the 2016 Geneva Motor Show revealed a refreshingly modern interface, though we'll reserve judgment until we can play with the final iteration. Our prototype is outfitted with a deliciously garish baby blue leather interior, which, we're told, was used due to extra hides that happened to be on hand when the car was assembled. Though a tad rough around the edges from the rigors of development work, our tester's inset wood trim and elaborately layered surface treatments (not to mention the exquisitely finished Geneva show car) suggest the production DB11 will raise the bar for lux interiors.

Seat of the Pants

First impressions begin with a push of the Start button, and at first blush the big V-12 isn't quite shy and retiring, though it lacks the distinct asymptotic bark of old free-breathing engine. Incidentally, a quiet-start option will offer even more hushed startups (and hopefully an available sport exhaust will deliver the opposite).

The off-the-line thrust of the turbocharged engine is supremely addictive. There's nary a sliver of perceptible lag before the engine spools and forward motion ensues, and none of the sensorial output that betrays the powerplant's forced induction—no turbine whistle, no lurchiness, no untoward deviation from the linearity of the torque. These are characteristics in line with the orderly, restrained side of the brand, not the raspy, racecar-like sounds emanated by the outgoing 6.0-liter V-12.

Manually shifting via paddles unlocks a startling amount of power: off-the-line torque is nothing short of stupendous, and at 3,500 rpm—essentially the middle of the rev range—there's a rising crescendo of power that sends the digitally simulated tachometer racing. The pull is strong until about 5,500 rpm, with the last few clicks tapering off in power. But the counterpoint to the abundance of torque is the alteration in acoustics: the sound of the DB11's turbocharged engine isn't as metallic, mellifluous, or melodious as its naturally aspirated predecessor. The old powerplant happened to be one of the sexiest sounding engines on the planet, one of the last naturally aspirated holdovers (along with Lamborghini) that stuck to its aurally audacious, deep breathing roots. Low and husky, the new V-12's sound still fills the cabin, but covers fewer frequencies. The pallet of sounds is less expansive, like an expensive blanket has been wrapped around the noisemaking parts.

The DB11 feels considerably quicker than its predecessor though as it pushes through the rev range (official specs estimate 0 to 60 mph in roughly 3.7 seconds, while the outgoing DB9GT did the deed in a claimed 4.5 clicks; the DB11 tops out at 200 mph). But within those last few thousand rpm (where perhaps a minority of Aston Martin owners will find themselves), there isn't quite the emotional, life-affirming sense of completion as the virtual needle kisses redline. But the thrust is also undeniably appealing, offering a pleading counterpoint to the slip in sensuality.

Progressing through driving modes is a solid tactic, so I start at the bottom rung of the ladder with the drivetrain in GT mode and the shocks on the softest setting. Asterisk No. 1: Damping settings are not final and the car's traction control system is only 70 percent developed, so Active Torque Vectoring, Aston's first-ever brake torqueing system, is not in place. Also absent in this tester is the understeer mitigation system, which will reduce plowing in the production car by cutting engine power.

Tackling the first sharp corner on Bridgestone's dry handling road course in the softest suspension setting is a formidable handicap, but considering the car's grand touring pretensions, these roughly two tons of mass comport themselves better than expected. Aston's first electronic power steering system (the latest gen hardware coming from Bosch) delivers surprisingly transparent feel, with a considerably quicker ratio (13:1 versus the outgoing 17:1). Turn-in offers reassuring feedback, and there's solid body control (though with noticeable roll) by mid-corner. The DB11's lengthy wheelbase makes itself evident in this configuration, especially with torque vectoring deactivated, and this relatively early tune of the traction control system feels overly conservative for GT mode. Power is cut dramatically mid-corner and upon exit, with the throttle clearly getting throttled by the computers in order to keep the car in line.

Tapping the steering wheel-mounted button to Sport and stiffening the dampers puts the car on a more aggressive trajectory, sharpening the throttle response and quickening shifts. There's still a bit of restraint dialed into the stability control system, which is incrementally reduced in Sport Plus mode. Finally, with suspension in its stiffest setting and traction control off, the DB11—at least in this preproduction state—comes into its own. The nose finds a corner easily, and though there's still an understeer tendency in slower corners, throttle jabs rotate the car and send the tail toward the exit, instigating easy power slides from the sticky-yet-progressive Bridgestone S007 tires.

A run at the course's wet track reveals solid grip from the Bridgestone rubber (the DB11 will come equipped with a standard summer S007 compound on 20-inch wheels, or an optional LM001 formulation for winter driving). Becker carves florid drifts in the wet and makes it look easy, but when I take a stab at the task, the still-in-progress damping settings and the aggressive rebound rates make the DB11 snap sharply back into place after the tail kicks out—a bit too exciting for my taste, especially since there's only one prototype on hand to play with.

Changing of the Guard

Beyond the novelty of being the quickest and fastest DB in history, the DB11 represents Aston Martin's most dramatic direction change since the VH architecture unified the lineup in 2004. The outgoing platform was both a boon and a burden, both streamlining design and production while drawing the models a bit too visually close together for comfort. The DB11 arguably represents the most crucial juncture in the brand's history.

The visual imprint is striking and elegant—everything you've come to expect from an Aston. But more significantly, this $211,995 grand tourer's bandwidth has been expanded significantly, encompassing a wider swath of the poshness and performance spider chart.

Is something lost with the introduction of turbocharging? Perhaps. One of the outgoing engine's great delights was its unlikely combination of raw sound and silky smoothness, offering an auditory respite that made other engines seem middling and characterless. But while many manufacturers have whacked away cylinders to meet tightening government standards, Aston has thankfully kept all 12 of its combustion chambers intact, retaining one of the last mechanical bastions of automotive excess. New technology has regained acres of ground that have been lost to the competition, and we suspect the stability control and torque vectoring refinements to the final product will also make the DB11 dynamically superior by leaps and bounds, making it feel both lighter and nimbler.

But far greater than its individual improvements is the sum of the DB11's parts. Cohesive, mature, and sophisticated, this new Aston Martin appears to be a harbinger of great things to come from the British manufacturer. We're on pins and needles to drive the production version and can't wait to see what comes next.

2017 Aston Martin DB11 Specifications

On Sale: November
Price: $214,820 (base)
Engine: 5.2L twin-turbo DOHC 48-valve V-12/600 hp, 516 lb-ft
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Layout: 2-door, 2+2-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
EPA Mileage: N/A
L x W x H: 186.6 x 76.4 x 50.4 in
Wheelbase: 110.4 in
Weight: 3,900 lb (est)
0-60 MPH: 3.7 sec (est)
Top Speed: 200 mph