Anyone who has worked through a springtime in Sydney will know that balmy, first-glimpse-of-summer weekday weather in the city while you’re locked in the office means only one thing for the weekend.
Not just spring showers, or conventional cats-and-dogs downpours. We’re talking Genesis, Chapter 7, but instead of the rain lasting a week and staying around for 40 days and nights, it’s a Saturday and Sunday event, clearing up just in time for everybody going back to work on Monday morning.
Football grounds turn into swamps that could house colonies of crocodiles, and roads become reminiscent of those marble water features found in lobbies of cheap hotels, their soul-destroying rivulets incessantly pouring across the surface, making them very skiddy indeed.
All of this is terribly bad news if you happen to have a high performance sports car to try out.
It was on one of those sunny weekday spring afternoons that Aston Martin confirmed the new DB11 would be available to test over the weekend. There was no need to check the weather forecast. I knew what it was. I’d be trying out the V12, twin turbo, 600 brake horsepower icon in mostly pouring rain.
As if driving a half-million dollars worth of car isn’t enough to make you anxious already.
But for the avoidance of doubt: nothing’s ever going to put a dampener on driving this thing. You don’t even need to sit in it to feel better about everything. Just laying eyes on it is enough. Behold:
After years of poor financial performance at Aston Martin, the DB11 has been turning things around for the great British car maker. Last August, the company reported revenue for the previous six months had doubled over same period the previous year, and profit had increased almost four times. This month, the company reported an increase of almost 60% in retail sales, with the number of cars sold at the highest level in nine years. And last week, it emerged the company is looking at an IPO which would value it around $A8.6 billion.
This is largely because the DB11 has seen “sell-out” demand, according to the company.
The car is the latest incarnation of the performance line named after David Brown, one of the early Aston Martin owners. The latest DB is the first in a series of seven vehicles Aston is planning to release between now and 2022, leading to a complete overhaul and expansion of the Aston Martin portfolio.
Pick-up was on Friday morning and, it being office hours, the rain wasn’t due until close of business. So there was a bit of time to get a feel for it in benign conditions, albeit on Sydney’s poorly maintained and heavily policed roads.
Some high performance cars – like, say, a sparkling Lamborghini or even an entry-level Maserati – introduce themselves with such braggadocio that the initial reception from bystanders is what Milo Yiannopoulis might expect at a meeting of undergraduate socialists.
An Aston Martin is different. For a super-car – and OK, it is British – it’s almost reserved.
Until you get up close.
Two shirtless middle-aged gentlemen joggers – a common sight in the Sydney CBD of a springtime – almost ran into it at some lights where I was stopped at the top of the queue. The engine was gurgling behind 50 Cent on the Bang & Olufsen sound system, though with the car poised patiently at the white line, a more apt track for the moment would have been something like Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
The joggers had the pedestrian light and could have crossed, but they knew what they were looking at. They started pacing up and down beside the car, exclaiming various things, and then one of them leaned towards the open window.
“Are you going to give it something when the lights go?”
A clear route onto the expressway? Check. No traffic? Check. Smooth dry road? Yep.
Oh, all right then. I punched it. The gurgle turned to a growl, and 50 Cent was apt again. Go Shorty, it’s your birthday.
Now the new DB11 does 0-100kmh in 3.9 seconds, but here’s the thing: I don’t know what it’s doing in the last 1.9 seconds of that. When you “give it something”, in two seconds flat it’s at 60kmh. On Sydney roads, that means slow down. The torque really kicks in around 30kmh, accompanied by a roar that’s all throat. I’m pretty sure it was worth the wait for Jogger Guys.
And the car wasn’t even trying.
Nothing about the DB11 is about trying. Sorry to bring up Milo again, but the DB11 is the antithesis of all that modern putsch – all blowhard show and noise – he stands for.
The car has nearly 1.8 tonnes of kerb weight without a gram of gauche. Brace for more compliments: the DB11 is a superb balance of power and style. Elegant. Considered. Coherent.
The driving setup
Sometimes the seemingly simplest features of high-end machines like this offer the most delight. For one, there’s a small indent on the back of the very top of the steering wheel: the perfect place to rest your index finger for fine-tuning your road position at cruising speeds.
Then there are the basic electronics controls. Everything’s on the left-hand side of the steering column, so you never need to think about where to find something: it’s all there by your left hand, in an intuitively arranged set of three pins. Like that groove in the steering wheel, it’s a design feature so simple and helpful that you wonder why every car in the world isn’t made like this.
Just opening the door – in either direction – is a treat in itself. You get in by pushing two small metal bars into the door, releasing the handle outwards; and you get out by wrapping your fingers into a beautifully-crafted steel lever shaped like an arrow head.
The centre console between the front seats has a retracting leather lid that hides away all of your paraphernalia and offers the perfect armrest while your right hand’s on the wheel, finger in the crevice, enjoying the ride.
The bonnet has a clamshell mechanism, opening forwards and up to reveal the astonishing-looking engine with its twin turbos mounted right on the front. This shows you how:
And here’s a top-down look at the heart of the engine and the turbos.
There’s no spoiler on the rear to interfere with the sweeping profile, but look closely and there’s a small fin hiding near the very back, which deploys at 120kmh to provide extra stability.
This is a car that has been properly thought through.
The boot isn’t enormous, but as you can see it does fit a ride-on Thomas the Tank Engine for a toddler plus its 60 track pieces ($50, Gumtree). It will easily take two medium-sized suitcases, and Aston Martin claims it will take golf clubs.
It falls down on some of the electronics features. It features Mercedes electronics and navigation, thanks to a deal that has also led to a Mercedes AMG engine in the V8 version of the DB11.
The voice recognition feature only worked correctly once when I was trying to get the car to figure out directions. This is a hopeless pass rate in a world where voice assistants like Siri, Alexa and Google are shockingly good at recognising complex proper nouns.
But nobody buys an Aston Martin for the voice recognition software. And you can always Bluetooth in your mobile with its Google Maps driving assistant anyway.
And there is one immensely redeeming feature: a small trackpad positioned just in front of the driver’s armrest which lets you use a light touch of your finger to scroll through options. Here’s where you’ll find this little marvel:
Skipping tracks on your music is just a matter of swiping left or right; selecting options involves touching it, like the clickpad on your laptop. So simple, so intuitive, and another of those features that makes you wonder why everyone else hasn’t done it.
The display screen also has some funky features such as the climate control, which allows you to customise airflow and temperature through a neat visual interface:
These aesthetic details are foil of course, for the drive itself. If you’re looking for a pure adrenaline drive, there are louder, brasher cars with more responsive steering and more challenging handling. A lot of the DB11 drive is about comfort.
And in an urban environment, you always know you’re not getting the complete experience, but it’s still a deeply satisfying way to get around, peppered with lots of moments of piercing excitement in the right kinds of corners or when you’ve got a little bit of road in front of you to and can open it up.
Could you take it to work every day? Yes. It’s not far enough removed from something like a Mercedes cabriolet, though it’s probably harder on fuel (I was tracking for around 250km with a tank in city driving) and a little tougher to get parts for if anything goes wrong.
Your senses are heightened when driving a car like this anyway, but doubly so on wet roads in a car that weighs nearly two tonnes and can get to 50kmh without you realising it.
So after the rain arrived on Friday evening, right on schedule, proceeding with caution became everything.
There may or may not have been a time I got it sideways in the wet. Without too many specifics, it may have been on Saturday afternoon at Woolloomooloo, turning the sharp bend up towards Kings Cross with a heavy foot.
And that evening, the handling proved itself again when I joined a motorway from a filter light. It turned out the road surface was much wetter than it looked and around 60kmh the car started aquaplaning for what couldn’t have been more than a small fraction of a second but made me age like the guy who chose poorly at the end of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
Let’s just say the traction control on the DB11 is looking out for you.
On Sunday evening at about 6pm – right at that time in the week when Monday usually starts casting its shadow – the rain stopped. I took the car out for an hour-long drive at twilight, out on the quieter, dry roads, and got to experience the full suite of Aston Martin pleasures on some open roads with varying speed limits and friendly traffic conditions and kicking it into Sports mode, which makes the car immediately tighten up in the handling and the engine find more growl.
There’s also a Sports-Plus mode, for the brave.
Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer says the DB11 is “not only the most important car that Aston Martin has launched in recent history, but also in its 103-year existence” – the theory being that it’s the cornerstone of a series of new models being released over the coming years under the leadership of Palmer, who joined the company in 2014 from Nissan.
I’m sceptical that the DB11 is the most important car in the company’s history. Cars that appeared in smash hit Bond movies like the DB5 in Goldfinger more than 50 years ago, or the new-look DB10 in Spectre – a car exclusively engineered for the Daniel Craig movie and which laid the platform for the DB11’s looks – surely carry much more weight in shaping the brand in popular culture.
But for a flagship car that needs to stand up against the intense competition in today’s high-performance category where flashy brands like McLaren and Lamborghini and Audi with its R8 have been rolling out a stream of impressive machines in recent years, Aston Martin has done what it needed to do with the DB11: build a car people are going to want.
It’s showing in the company’s performance. After years of financial trouble, a few months ago Aston Martin reported first half revenue almost doubling year over year to over $A700 million, largely thanks to DB11 sales. And underlying profit (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) almost quadrupled.
Perhaps Palmer’s reference to it being the most important car in the company’s history is about corporate survival. It’s turning the company around. And that’s good, but nowhere near as good as the experience of turning one of the DB11s around yourself, maybe while going a bit quick, even – (or, perhaps, especially) in the wet.
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