WORDS: DAVID LILLYWHITE | PHOTOGRAPHY: ANDY MORGAN, MAX EAREY
There’s never been any doubt that the DB11 is a decent car. Hold on, that’s unfair. It’s a great car and a huge step on from the DB9, dynamically better in every way. But it was never truly exceptional…
Maybe it relied a little upon the world’s love of the Aston Martin brand to excuse its dubious infotainment system, the awkward switchgear, its minor handling foibles and a slightly unfinished feel to the styling. Maybe it could have been better.
So what would its successor bring to the mix? From the start it was known that the DB11’s seamlessly fluid, turbo’d V12 would be removed from the mix, leaving only a tweaked version of the later-addition, Mercedes-AMG-sourced 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 as an option for the new car. Future emissions regulations have killed the V12.
There was talk of new electronic architecture, but we’d heard all that before with the use of AMG’s previous system, and that proved adequate but clunky by current standards. So maybe the new car would be a mere facelift of the outgoing DB11 V8?
Or maybe not, for the re-energised Aston Martin, now with increased funding from Geely, has torn through the DB11 with a gusto not seen for years. Sure, the new car, finally confirmed as a DB12 after a period of being referred to simply as the new ‘Super Tourer’, is clearly DB11 based. But my how it’s grown up.
When director of vehicle performance Simon Newton joined from Bentley (you can thank him for the brilliantly bonkers Continental GT Supersports), his first focus was to improve the accuracy and feel of the steering. That sounds easier than it proved, because the team’s quest for better feel involved improvement to the stiffness of the body structure, changes to the suspension and an all-new electronic control system, including an E-Diff. Modern cars ain’t easy.
Meanwhile, the design team, led by the returning hero Miles Nurnberger, set about adding an extra dash of specialness to the exterior and a complete revamp of the interior. The front track increased by 6mm, the rear by 22mm, but the width of the car at the widest point – the mirrors – is down a little and its length reduced. That’s something to cheer about already.
The resultant broader rear haunches give the car more substance and presence. So does the wider, deeper metal front grille – and for once without resulting in eye-popping ugliness. The grille was a necessity, due to the cooling needs of the upgraded engine, which we’ll come to later.
The resultant broader rear haunches give the car more substance and presence
The front lights are all new, with neat AI-generated patterns around the edges of the reflectors that control the dispersal of light from the LED projectors. New air ducts at the front, a revamped Aston Martin logo on the bonnet (the first model to carry the tweaked badge) and Aston Martin side strakes create a more sophisticated impression that’s greater than the sum of the parts. On the launch, ‘my’ car in the least flattering Neutron White looks especially good in the evening sun – and its eye-popping white and maroon interior trim seems to suit the surroundings.
Inside, the changes are more extensive – but we’ll come back to those, because there’s only so long that anyone can ramble on about a new Aston Martin without talking about how it drives. One last tease, though… the DB11’s V12 produced 600bhp and 516lb ft of torque. The AMR version managed 630bhp, and the later V8 528bhp. The DB12 is powered by essentially the same V8, but it’s been reworked and remapped to produce 671bhp and 590lb ft. That’s quite the increase, and results in a 202mph top speed and 3.5-second 0-60mph time.
And so, out onto the road at last – in this case around 250 miles of southern France’s beloved Route Napoléon, along with a few miles of the less inspiring A8 autoroute. Immediately the DB12 feels noticeably different from the 11; sharper and more involving, and yet riding better over rough Tarmac and beading.
Occasionally, just occasionally, the DB11’s front end would shiver and shimmy over imperfect road services, but the DB12 seems immune to this. On the launch of the DB11 in 2016, I remember the rear end giving a little lurch mid-corner – “as if the rear dampers were overwhelmed,” as I wrote at the time – although later cars seemed to have had that disconcerting trait dialled out. There’s none of that for the DB12 anyway.
As the route heads into the Alps and long straights are swapped for unpredictable twists and off-camber turns, the DB12 seems to hunker down to the task of keeping all four specially developed Michelin Pilot Sport 5 S tyres firmly glued to the road.
It all feels remarkably smooth, seamless and forgiving; even the most ham-fisted of inputs don’t phase it on the road. So simple to say, but the work behind that impression spanned the entire car, starting with stiffening the aluminium structure by seven percent, with particular attention paid to the engine cross brace, the front and rear undertrays and the rear bulkhead. If seven percent overall doesn’t sound like much of an increase, then note that there’s a 140 percent increase in suspension top-mount stiffness.
From that starting point of providing more stable attachment points for the dampers and the rear axle, Aston’s much-changed team of development engineers was able to work on improvements to the suspension. The big changes there are a relocation of the rear suspension pick-up points and all-new intelligent adaptive dampers from Bilstein.
In engineering talk, these Bilsteins give “a 500 percent increase in bandwidth of force distribution”. Or, to you and me, they’re much more adjustable, to the point that the engineers say they had to limit themselves so as not to try too wide a difference between softest and hardest responses. Along with the structural changes, they’ve allowed stiffer anti-roll bars for flatter cornering without diminishing comfort. The weight-saving (of 27kg total) option of the new carbon-ceramic brakes will also be helping the ride by reducing unsprung weight.
In real-world terms, the ride quality is a noticeable move on from the DB11’s. There are four modes: Wet, GT, Sport and Sport+, and in none does the car rattle or shake, although there’s only so long you’d want to leave it in Sport+ on rough roads.
The big difference, however, is in the steering response. It’s apparently the characteristic of the DB11 identified as most in need of improvement when Simon Newton took over engineering duties. Not that the DB11’s is especially bad; in fact, I remember from the launch that initial fears of it switching from the DB9’s hydraulic assistance system to a new electrically assisted steering set-up seemed to be unfounded.
But the DB12’s steering is noticeably more responsive and involving. Turn-in is sharp without feeling unsettling or skittish, and there’s much more feel through the steering wheel of what’s going on, without it squirming around – which wouldn’t suit the grand tourer (or even ‘Super Tourer’) nature of the car.
This is thanks to all those changes to the structure and the suspension, as well as the new electronic rear differential, or E-Diff, which can go from fully open to 100 percent locked in just a few milliseconds. There’s not much that the addition of the E-Diff doesn’t improve; it gives greater agility during low- and mid-speed manoeuvres (diff open), as well as much greater control in oversteer and high-speed lane changing (diff fully or partly closed).
This, combined with a new Electronic Stability Control (ESC) system that monitors body movement from sensors around the car as well as from a new six-axis accelerometer, makes for a much more nimble but safer car to throw around. The DB12 isn’t small and it isn’t especially lightweight, but it pulls the neat trick of feeling sporty whenever it’s asked to be.
The V8’s increased power helps too, of course, yet so does the 15 percent-lower (than the DB11’s) final-drive ratio, which effectively brings the eight ratios of the brilliantly capable ZF automatic transaxle closer together for a more exciting feel. There are paddles on the steering wheel to flick between the ratios – but on the road it’s usually better just to let the transmission do its own thing, because it rarely gets caught out.
Except… occasionally on my test drive, when the road opens up just long enough to allow a cheeky pass of the farmer’s Berlingo, the wallowing motorhome or even the local hotshot’s GTI, the transmission takes a split second to wake up and change down quickly enough. It’s a characteristic common to just about every modern auto out there, and much less of a problem than most – but it proves the worth of the paddle-shifters. Thankfully the V8 is torquey enough to cope.
That engine is AMG sourced but hand-built at Aston Martin. For the DB12 it features modified camshaft profiles, a lower compression ratio (surprisingly), larger turbos and drastically increased cooling – hence that much larger grille.
And that leads us into the looks, which are more aggressive and better balanced than the DB11’s. The wider rear arches and redesigned front splitter are the obvious changes over the DB11, but it’s the smaller tweaks that make the DB12 feel more resolved and grown up: the frameless door mirrors, the presenting door handles, the changes to the badging and the 21-inch wheel designs.
None of the exterior changes has anything on the redesign of the interior, though
None of the exterior changes has anything on the total redesign of the interior, though. What a difference it makes! Apparently there were discussions right up to launch on how many controls should be physical and how many operated by screen. It feels like they’ve got the balance right – and thank goodness that a plan to adjust seat positions via touch-sensitive controls on the display didn’t go ahead. We all need to fiddle with the seat regularly, don’t we?
The volume and temperature controls are physical, too, and suitably tactile, while the quality of the leather-clad interior seems to have gone up a notch. The infotainment is much slicker as well; in fact, the car is fully connected, allowing updates over the air. One niggle that seems to bother only me in modern cars is that the indicator repeat noise seems weirdly hollow and cheap, even above the lovely engine note, but everything else is so much better – including the side-to-side visibility thanks to the physically smaller door mirrors.
It all makes sense of Aston Martin’s new ‘Super Tourer’ tagline. I know this is a car that can be driven fast for hours on end, over hundreds of kilometres, because that’s exactly what I do from the Monaco starting point. Sometimes I try it in Sport+ mode, allowing the exhaust to blare and bounce off the rock walls and tunnels of the mountain passes. Other times I leave the transmission in automatic and the mode setting in GT, still pushing hard through tight turns and not overly bothered by the slight reduction in steering precision that the extra body roll brings about.
But mostly I leave it in Sport and just enjoy a still-civilised ride, sharp handling and reasonably un-embarrassing exhaust note. A violent rainstorm at the end of the long day even allows me to try out the Wet mode, which softens responses to (hopefully) keep this 1685kg beauty on the road.
My abiding memory of this first DB12 drive is of searing through the beautiful countryside, using the lightest of inputs to flow the car through the twists and turns of the Route Napoléon – and thinking this is exactly how a modern-day DB should feel. Aston Martin has been through difficult times, but it feels likes it’s bounced back higher and faster than anyone expected. Now to see how orders go, with prices starting at £185,000 and first deliveries in quarter three of this year.