You might have seen elsewhere that CAR was embedded in the Aston Martin pit
team at the weekend's 2010 Le Mans 24-hour race. Which meant we were well placed to pilfer one of the facelifted DB9s on display at the Aston customer hospitality unit at the French race circuit and drive it back to Blighty.A 'facelifted' 2010 Aston Martin DB9? It doesn't look very different!
Yes, let's call it the 2011 model year DB9. Aston types hesitate to use the word 'facelift', it's just part of the continuous improvement that's gradually spruced up the DB9 since launch back in 2003.
CAR bumped into Aston Martin design director Marek Reichmann in the AMR pits at Le Mans and he gave us the lowdown on the 2011 DB9. 'We are continuing the elegant feel of the DB9: there's a new front bumper, new side skirts, new colours,' he explained. 'These are mild changes – we've made 12,000 DB9s since launch and don't feel the need to start afresh. There are also plenty of under-the-skin changes.' Still looks the biz, then?
You bet. I've previously criticised Aston's current line-up for looking too samey and while I stand by that, there's no arguing with the basic building blocks of the Aston look. The DB9 set the template back at the 2003 Frankfurt show, but carries its years well. This is an elegant 2+2 coupé, and looks every inch the £122,445 sports car from every angle. I especially love the coke bottle swell to the hips that lends the DB9 a sprung, muscular feel.
What's new? The double-decker grille with (slightly tacky) perforated mesh low down is fresh, while the sidesills are recontoured with a more exaggerated 'hockey stick' kink said to be most visible on lighter colours and the rear bumper and lights are minutely different, too. Fresh wheel designs are available and our car came in a fetching silvery green.And what's new inside the 2011 model year Aston Martin DB9?
The interior of the DB9 is spruced up with some previously unseen toys and equipment. A Bang & Olufsen stereo with pop-up tweeters (think top-end Audi style) is now available at a steep £4000 or so and delivers crisp, clear tunes; it seamlessly mates with your iPod too.
The 6.0-litre V12 is unchanged, but fettling the details means that CO2 has been poleaxed by nearly 50g/km. The claimed carbon dioxide figure tumbles to 345g/km. Meanwhile the aluminium VH chassis is spruced up by the addition of Bilstein variable dampers; we've seen them on the DBS and Rapide, but it's the first time the DB9 has offered them in place of the regular Bilstein struts.How does the revised DB9 drive?
CAR picks up the fettled DB9 on Sunday night an hour after the end of the Le Mans 24-hour race. Click here to find out how Aston Martin Racing got on at La Sarthe. The car looks slinky and elegant, drawing admiring glances from most race-goers – a theme that's going to remain for our entire nine-hour drive back home. Owners of the countless TVRs, Porsches, Lotuses and more humble machinery making the annual pilgrimage nearly all give approving nods and smiles to the Aston. It remains a trigger brand for enthusiasts, of that I'm certain.Inside the Aston Martin DB9 (2011)
We step inside the latest DB9 and sink into the heavily bolstered, but plumply upholstered sports seats. One thing strikes me immediately. I remember driving one of the very first DB9s back in 2003 and, while the style and V12 oomph blew me away, I was surprisingly disappointed by the build quality. The leather-clad interior was roughly finished in places and some of the controls wobbled and rattled. Nice car, shonky quality, I surmised.
You can hardly level that criticism at the latest DB9. Back then, Aston had just set up its new factory at Gaydon and it's clear that great strides have been made to iron out those early faults. Perhaps chief exec Ulrich Bez seems has finally imbued some Germanic values on the production line, for this DB9 feels top-drawer. The leathers used are faultlessly plush, the fit and finish first-class. My travel partner senior designer Alex Tapley finds some of the centre console plastics a touch cheap, but really it's a fine ambience in here. 'Feels special, a real event car,' adds managing editor Greg Fountain.
Glitches? Not many. The B&O tweeters nestling by each A-pillar reflect in a strange, psychedelic swirl if you drive into strong sunlight. I find the steering wheel quite ugly, its airbag-shaped centre boss being too chunky for what is an elegant, classy cabin. And – we've been saying it for years and it's becoming truer by the year – that Volvo pop-up sat-nav is a disgrace; rotating screens are passé
in 2010, while the graphics, speed of operation and user interface are way off the pace.Fire up the V12! What's the new DB9 like on the open road?
Pull down the 'swan doors' on their slightly-lifting hinges (handy for avoiding low-flying kerbs) and slot the Aston glass key (I won't deign to call it an Emotional Control Unit, in Aston-speak) into the middle of the dash. The V12 bursts into life, just a brief bassy timbre hinting at what's to come. It's remarkably civilised at first. The DB9 is very easy to see out of, the mirrors providing a good view to side and rear. It's confidence inspiring in the extreme.
More than 95% of DB9s are ordered with the Touchtronic six-speed auto transmission instead of the manual option. There's still no gearlever and it's all the better for it in here. Push the D button high on the dash and the DB9 creeps forward just like a proper slusher. This gearbox suits the DB9's temperament – you can pootle around town or power down a back road and it always seems to be in the right gear.
A Sport button on the dash programmes the ECU to hang on to gears for longer, but we found the standard setting to be fine most of the time. You'll love the paddles though, which let you nudge into manual mode whenever the mood takes you. And this one really does over-ride the computer – you're in charge and it won't change up for you, though it will downshift if you're about to stall.And what about these new adaptive dampers?
We're familiar with this Bilstein set-up on the DBS and Rapide and the DB9 feels to benefit from the new suspension tweaks. Whether around Le Mans, doing the pilgrimage along Mulsanne or scooting along the autoroute, the 2011 model year Aston feels really planted and comfortable.
Sure it's firm rather than wallowy, but the suspension still soaks up bumps and crests with a velvet pliancy and an iron-like grasp on body control in France. Aston might still build a car that's nudging seven years old, but this continual improvement philosophy has enabled the engineers to slowly but surely improve the DB9 to a tee. Firming the dampers up with the Sport button works well in France, but on rougher UK surfaces you end up jiggling across bumps. This new system is standard-fit – we'd just leave it in standard setting most of the time.Is the DB9 a sports car or a GT?
The steering on the DB9 was a pleasant surprise too. The wheel is lightly weighted with just enough feeling from the front axle. Some sports cars confuse weight with feel and can become tiring after a while. The DB9 is tuned to fulfil its GT role with aplomb. We drove from 10am until 7pm with only brief stops for fueling bodies and cars, and felt unstrained by the end.And the V12?
Aston makes great play of the fact that the 6.0-litre V12 in the DB9 shares the same basic aluminium engine block and heads as the Aston Martin Racing B09/60 fighting in the LMP1 class at Le Mans. It's a fascinating genealogical link – the racer shrieks and wails and leaves an audio file indelibly stamped on your brain. It was one of the aural highlights of Le Mans, along with the waap-waap
of the Corvettes and the buzzing of the 911 RSRs.
Does the roadgoing DB9 have quite the same appeal? To be honest it's a completely different soundtrack, but I reckon the DB9's noise is just about perfectly cultured; this is a GT, not a raw racer and the refinement at lower engine speeds makes for a relaxed cruiser. Step on it and the V12 becomes rawer at around 3000rpm, just the thing to indulge in some tunnel tuning on the slog back from Le Mans. Mind you, road test editor Ben Barry took the DB9 for a run and found it disappointingly flat low down and at the top end.
He was referring to the low-down torque – peak torque lands at 5000rpm – and it's true you have to rev the DB9 to get the best from its performance. But a sports car with 470bhp is never going to be exactly tardy, is it? Nought to 62mph takes a scant 4.6sec. I reckon the DB9 is well judged, with clout when you need it and whispery quietness when you're wafting.What about the rest of the DB9?
It's a slick package – all who drove it were impressed by its all-round polish. There are a few problems though. The brakes are difficult to modulate at low speeds, with an unfortunate grabbing when coming to a rest. It's not severe, but enough to disturb your right foot and make you nervous in stop-start traffic.
And of course, those rear seats remain a joke for many customers. I remember when I worked at Autocar
we criticised them and Dr Bez sent us a photo of his young children in the back to prove they were useable. Back in the real world, they're best left to luggage or very young passengers. The boot's not a bad size though and we stowed plenty of our camping gear in the DB9.Verdict
The DB9 has been polished and polished – and is now at a shiny, sparkling zenith. The improvement in quality is especially striking (four or five years have passed since I last drove a DB9) and the driving dynamics continue to be subtly improved too.
'It's the best Aston I've driven,' concurs Ben Barry. 'I've not driven the Rapide yet, but the other Astons – including the DBS and Vantage – are nearly cars. There's something about the DB9. It feels like an event to climb into, it feels so special. I don't like the "long" dashboard that stretches way forwards to the windscreen and the V12 is curiously flat at certain speeds. But even so, this remains a special car.'
So there you have it. Not a perfect GT, but not far off either. It's very nearly five stars and this impressive V12 GT is living proof that Darwinism works.