► Aston Martin DBX review: a sports car on stilts?
► AMG V8 power, aluminium tech galore
► Is it good enough to save the company?
The very concept of an Aston SUV may feel oxymoronic but SUVs sell, particularly luxury SUVs – the Cullinan underpins Rolls-Royce’s contemporary range, and more than half the Bentleys sold last year were Bentayga 4x4s.
Now Aston Martin’s first SUV, the DBX, is with us. It’s been a long wait, the project one of the very first green-lit by ex-CEO Andy Palmer upon his arrival at Gaydon way back in 2015. Easier on the eye than either the Bentley or the Rolls, the DBX – as befits the badge on its nose – also promises an altogether keener driving experience, even as it also offers more practical transport (all-wheel drive, cossetting air springs, an embarrassment of interior space) than any Aston before it.
Are you actually meant to off-road in it?
Few will, but that won’t be because the car can’t. On loose, slippery surfaces the DBX’s intrinsic rightness – the high driving position and slim pillars make for excellent visibility, while the keen, direct steering (2.6 turns lock to lock) and rear-biased powertrain build driver confidence – make it as engaging off tarmac as it is on it.
Aston is offering three tyre options, a summer, a winter and an all-season Pirelli, and on the latter the DBX is unstoppable, powering up climbs on a surge of easy traction and even easier AMG V8 torque before hill descent control sees you safely back down the other side, the system selectively pinching brakes as it works to keep your speed at walking pace, rather than the runaway train physics would suggest it should be. With the air suspension jacked right up, ground clearance is mighty.
Is the DBX all the things most Astons are not, like quiet, luxury-car comfortable and up-to-date on the tech front?
It really is. The seats and driving position are supremely comfortable and visibility is excellent, Aston having used the open space of its St Athan site in Wales (where the DBX factory now stands) to mock up a toy town of junctions, roundabouts and crossings, around which early DBX prototypes tootled to evaluate such things as sight lines and unobtrusive pillars.
Interior space is generous in the extreme. Six-foot-tall second-rowers can sit comfortably behind six-foot-tall front-seat occupants. The quality of finish, too, from the brogued leatherwork to Aston’s new infotainment screen and steering wheel, is a cut or two above the Vantage and DB11. The Mercedes electronics deployed here (a generation ahead of the gear in the DB11, but one behind Merc’s new MBUX stuff) give the DBX tech such as adaptive cruise, autonomous emergency brake assist and, on the infotainment side, a bigger screen and Apple CarPlay connectivity.
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Adaptive cruise is handy (the two little DB5 icons that flash up when you’re adjusting the gap to the car in front is a lovely touch), though lane-keep assist and lane departure warning don’t seem keen to help. On the move, road noise – given that all DBXs roll on 22s – is well suppressed, the cabin eerily quiet apart from the whisper of wind around the wing mirrors and, under acceleration, the baritone efforts of the V8.
Talking of that V8, its performance coupled with the car’s comfort and effortlessness mean miles simply melt, the DBX shrinking journey times by making up time everywhere; away from every junction, with every opportunistic overtake, out of every roundabout.
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What about when you try a little harder? Fun to be had?
More than any previous big SUV has managed, believe it or not. Yep, Gaydon’s managed to create a kind of plus sized Porsche Macan. A miracle? Not when you look at the parts kit the DBX pulls together.
The platform is bespoke to the DBX and wrought in Aston’s beloved aluminium. It is also rigid, relatively light (kerbweight is 2245kg) and thrusts its vast wheels out to each corner of the car in search of fine dynamics and handsome proportions. For the rest of the all-important oily bits, the DBX cherry-picks an edit of big-ticket OEM stuff (the active centre transfer case, for example – to which Aston hooks up a carbonfibre propshaft! – is borrowed from the AMG E63 S courtesy of Aston’s Stuttgart connection; the electronics architecture and the infotainment also Mercedes-based) and the very best stuff from tier one suppliers, like ZF’s silken nine-speeder and roll-crushing electronic anti-roll bars.
Now, dream powertrain? A twin-turbo, 4.0-litre AMG V8 of course, because Aston Martins demand special engines, and AMG’s eight is a brawny, raucous, head-banging cad of a motor. And the whole lot’s then been developed by a small, motivated and agile team led by Aston’s attribute maestro Matt Becker.
We drive it first on a track, which feels ridiculous right up until the point – halfway around the first corner – when you realise that the DBX grips, rotates and communicates like no SUV before it. And on the road? Tighter corners aren’t the DBS’s forte – the laws of physics are not entirely immutable – but there’s grip to spare and impressive body control, particularly in the feistier drive modes (you cycle through these via up and down arrows on the centre console, the DBX rising and falling on its air springs as you do so).
Find some quicker corners, work the column-mounted shift paddles manually (gears five to nine are there to tame the V8’s thirst; third and fourth will see you convincingly through almost every kind of corner) and the Aston is simply breathtaking; impossibly agile, able to hoard scarcely believable corner speed and, via the steering, the drive-shuffling transfer case and active rear e-diff, capable of gliding through corners hard and fast and with an entirely unexpected tactility and interactivity, your right foot, working first the brakes and then the throttle, as involved as your hands, your brain and backside. Fun? Oh yes. Convincing as an Aston? More so than some of its predecessors, assisted of course by hardware they could only dream of.
Put aside your feelings on fast, luxury SUVs and applaud the DBX for what it is – a brief-nailing modern masterpiece that’s somehow both a consummate family car (practical, comfortable, spacious, quiet) and absolutely an Aston Martin. Full of character and more engaging to drive than we ever dared dream, rather than tainting the badge it wears the DBX actually makes it shine all the brighter.
Ultimately if Aston Martin joins the list of car makers who shone brightly in the automobile’s first century but couldn’t adapt to the challenges of its second, it won’t be because the DBX wasn’t good enough.
Read on for James Taylor's first ride from back in November 2019
We join a development test in the desert: a prototype ride
► Riding in Aston Martin's new SUV
► New DBX unveiled on 17 Nov 2019
► First impressions of Urus rival
The £158,000 Aston Martin DBX SUV represents a new market, an all-new platform, and a new production facility too; it will be produced at St Athan in Wales, not Gaydon.
No Aston has ever had to achieve more: not only accelerate 2245kg (more than Lamborghini Urus, less than Bentayga) from 0-62mph in around 4.5 seconds and top 180mph, but corner enthusiastically, grip securely, ride smoothly, encourage easy conversation at high autobahn speeds, wade through 500mm deep water, tow 2.7 tonnes and carry a 100kg roofload.
Its competitive set is tough, and Aston has benchmarked a long list of high-performance luxury SUVs: Bentley Bentayga, Lamborghini Urus, Range Rover Sport SVR, BMW X6 M, Porsche Cayenne Turbo.
To find out how Aston Martin's most ambitious project to date is shaping up, we drove a prototype DBX in the hot, rolling roads of Oman.
Aston Martin DBX prototype drive
Before we get to the off-roading, we experience the DBX in city traffic – where the premium SUV customer will expect it to excel just as much as its Range Rover, Bentley, Porsche and Lamborghini rivals.
The car we’re driving is one of 70 or so pre-production prototypes running around the globe, in baking deserts and freezing snowscapes and into crash-test barriers, as Aston readies the DBX for its first customers’ eager clutches this spring.
We sit in plump, supportive sports seats, behind a digital instrument panel which will be configurable in the production car but is fixed in this car. Various active safety systems are also not yet connected, the display scrolling through a Rolodex of warning messages for active cruise, lane-keep assist and the like that are currently being tested on other prototypes.We pick up speed and the steering gets a chance to shine. As the roads get twistier it’s keenly responsive off-centre, yet still measured, and well insulated from bumps while giving you a decent report on the front tyres’ findings. There are two steering weights to choose from: Comfort and Sport.
We’re told Sport is ‘about there’ in this prototype, and feels good – the right mix of heft and feel. Comfort will be made slightly lighter in production DBXs for a little less resistance at parking speeds, based on feedback from female drivers. More so than previous Aston Martins, the DBX is being designed to target women just as much as men. Further to which, the floating centre console incorporates a stowage area beneath with space to keep a small-ish handbag out of sight next to its wireless smartphone charging pad.
Throttle response – from the same AMG 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 we know and love from the Vantage, DB11 and various Mercedes-AMGs – feels smoother than ever, and the gearbox likewise. That too is Daimler-sourced, a nine-speed 9G-Tronic auto.
On loose but fairly smooth surfaces it’s child’s play to incite and maintain a powerslide, holding third gear on the responsive manual paddles from corner to corner and dipping into the eagerly responsive engine’s 516lb ft reserves. In steady-state driving the DBX is 100 per cent rear-wheel-drive, but can bundle 47 per cent of its torque to the front when required, via an active centre diff similar to that found in the Merc-AMG E63, from which a carbon propshaft links to an electronically controlled locking diff at the rear.
Prodding from GT mode to Terrain or Terrain Plus raises the car on its standard three-chamber air springs; pushing the down button for Sport and Sport Plus hunkers the DBX’s springs accordingly. Altogether there’s 95mm of ride-height adjustment (higher by 45mm, or lower by 50mm) for the air springs, which are paired with adaptive dampers and mounted to double wishbones at the front and a multi-link set-up at the rear.
Ahead of us are some wicked-looking ruts and rocks to traverse but the DBX sweeps over them. That’s thanks to both a stiff structure and eARC, Aston’s take on electronic roll control. Electric motors allow the car to optimise the roll bars on the fly, relaxing for effortless wheel travel on rough ground and increasing the bars’ anti-roll control at speed on smooth surfaces.
The Bentley Bentayga and Porsche Cayenne, among others, have similar systems but the DBX’s system is particularly powerful – as much as 1033lb ft of force can be applied to each axle.
In a straight line? Here the DBX has speed in abundance. The quoted maximum of 181mph is entirely believable given the way the Aston accelerates through its gears – not too shabby for a 2.2-tonne car, and a great soundtrack to match. The superb AMG V8 sounds purposeful when you’re trying and sublime when the taps are fully open but settles to an unobtrusive burble at a cruise. All courtesy of exhaust valves; you’ll find no speaker synthesis here.
What about the tech and interior?
The infotainment system isn’t fully up and running in this car but will use a clickwheel and touchpad combo, with similar MBUX software to the current Mercedes E-Class – which is not as advanced as the system fitted to newer Mercs. There is undoubtedly a danger this interface will feel off the pace when the DBX joins the fray in a market heaving with buyers hungry for the latest and fanciest.
Visibility is spot-on. With the driver’s seat motored all the way down to its runners, you feel properly embedded in the car, almost like you’re driving a GT, yet you can still see the end of the contoured bonnet over the curved dashboard, putting you at ease with the DBX’s bulk. A driving position that’s all things to all men and women is a tough brief but the DBX nails it.
Aston Martin DBX: early verdict
There’s one dynamic flaw at the moment, which Aston Martin promises will be sorted for production cars. The front spring rates are currently slightly too soft. When turning into a corner at high speed, there’s more roll than is ideal and a rather abrupt sensation of rebound in the first phase of a corner, which can rob you of a little confidence at speed.
Aside from that, it’s hard not to be impressed by this hard-working prototype, heat spilling from its brakes into the still-warm evening air as darkness draws in
There are still some rivers to cross between now and March, but in the development of arguably its most important car yet, they are leaving no stone unturned. And raising plenty of dust.
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