BARCELONA, Spain—If there’s a more beautiful new car on sale now, I don’t know what it is. I dare you to see one and not crane your neck to gawk. Aston Martin’s DB11 is a masterpiece.
What makes the DB11 even more special is that it really needed to be a masterpiece. This was the car that would make or break the relaunch of Aston Martin under CEO Andy Palmer’s leadership. His ambition is to put the company – which has for most of its 104-year history teetered on the brink of bankruptcy – on the same level as Ferrari.
It’s wildly ambitious, but consider what Palmer has already accomplished in only three years at Aston Martin: the V12 Vantage six-speed manual; the DB10 for James Bond; the multi-million-dollar Vulcan; the DB11; a bunch of Zagato special editions which all sold out; a parts-engine sharing deal with Mercedes-AMG; refinancing the company’s debt; partnering with Red Bull’s F1 team; and the $4 million Valkyrie, of which most (maybe all) 150 examples have already been sold. Aston Martin recently announced three consecutive quarters of profit, its first in a decade.
The DB11 V8 is important because it’s the first example of this new deal with AMG. Unlike the DB11 V12 which has Aston’s own twin-turbo engine under the hood, this car has the AMG twin-turbo V8 from the AMG GT and C 63. German engine, British car. How is it? Glad you asked.
Designer Merek Reichman had a pretty easy job. “Mostly, I took things off,” he said. The two central vents on the hood could go because the AMG V8 doesn’t need them. The little V12 badges behind the front wheels are gone too, of course. The headlights are smoked and—that’s it actually.
Unless someone at your country club is a real gearhead, they’re not going to know you bought the cheaper DB11. It’s beautiful no matter which engine you have under the hood.
The only car that might – might – steal away the DB11’s beauty queen tiara is Aston’s forthcoming new Vantage. Spy shots show it looking a whole lot like the DB10 that James Bond drove in his latest blockbuster.
Settling into a DB11 is like coming home. It feels right, from the way the seats hug you to the way the buttery soft leather feels as you grip the steering wheel. It’s more spacious than you imagine given the low roofline. There are back seats, but they’re only good for luggage. The view out is good, but the A-pillars can sometimes get in the way on tighter turns. You wouldn’t hesitate to go on a 10-hour cross-country cruise in this thing.
Aston Martin learned a few things from the DB11, which has been in the market since mid-2016. One of them was that some customers wanted a more unified look and feel in the cabin. Aston Martin makes beautiful brogued leather and wood trim, lovely chopped carbon-fibre that looks like marble, beautiful metal embellishments.
On the original DB11 they were all sort of thrown into the cabin. Some customers wanted a more harmonized look, so that’s now standard on all DB11s. There are fewer different materials across the dash and seats. It feels a little more cohesive, but no less impressive.
If you want two-tone leather and piping and your family crest sewn into the seats, well, of course you can still get that and more through Aston’s Q division—provided you’ve got a big enough bank account.
The infotainment screen and control system comes from Mercedes. It’s a vast improvement over Aston’s old, antiquated infotainment setup. If we have any criticism of the new system it could also be levelled at Mercedes. The control wheel is a tad laggy and a little fiddly. It’s not very intuitive – not as intuitive as BMW’s system – and there are a staggering number of sub-menus which you should not attempt to use while driving because they are distracting.
Mercedes does a considerably better job on engines than it does on infotainment. The twin-turbo 4.0-litre hand-built AMG motor is a gem. The turbos are inside the “V” for quicker response. Aston left the internals well alone, but developed its own intake, exhaust, wet sump and engine management system.
Power goes to the rear wheels through a limited-slip differential and rear-mounted eight-speed automatic gearbox. Rear-mounted? Yes, for better weight distribution, old chap!
Fire up the DB11 and the sound isn’t the earthquake rumble you get from an AMG, but a more high-pitch mechanical whirr that settles into a purrrrrrrr. From the first few corners, the steering is honest, mechanical. It filters out most cambers and bumps but still moves around ever so slightly in your hands.
The V8 is down about 100 horsepower on the V12, but put your foot to the floor and – ohhhh myyyy gooddddddd – you won’t miss the extra ponies. The V8 with 503 horsepower and 498 lb-ft of torque rockets the DB11 from zero to 100 km/h in 4.0 seconds, just 0.1 slower than the V12.
Aston updated the paddle shifters with less travel and a more solid mounting bracket, so they feel faster and more crisp. It’s a testament to Aston’s attention to detail.
Aston wanted the V8 to be the sportier of the two DB11s. Thanks largely to the smaller engine, it’s 115 kg lighter, which is a lot. You quickly feel there’s less weight over the front. (Weight distribution is now 49/51 front/rear, versus 51/49 on the V12.) The V8 holds a line easier and is slightly more nimble, reacting faster during quick direction changes. That has a lot to do with the fact the rear suspension linkage has been stiffened up laterally.
Less wayward motion at the rear makes the front feel sharper. On a narrow road this car flows with more precision, even on its softest GT setting. It’s especially impressive because Aston didn’t sacrifice any ride quality to improve handling; it’s just as cushy as before.
Don’t go thinking this is a sports car, now. It’s not. That will be the Vantage. This is a GT car, the best-handling one on the market. Much of the credit should go to Matt Becker, who worked at Lotus since he was 16, and was recently stolen away by Aston Martin to make its cars handle. Job well done, we’d say.
At $233,650 the DB11 V8 is only about $20,000 less than the V12. This makes the decision a very difficult one. The V12 grants bragging rights and likes to rev higher. The V8 handles better. My head says V8, but my heart still says 12.
Competitors? The old Bentley Continental GT wasn’t nearly as entertaining to drive, but Bentley recently unveiled an all-new version so we’ll have to wait and see how it stacks up. Ferrari’s Portofino is similarly new. Nobody’s driven it yet either.
With a German engine under the hood, the DB11 still feels like the brilliant British GT car it is. Maybe the purists who believe Aston Martin is only good when it’s losing buckets of money will be upset, but not us. It’s the greatest partnership since, well, peanut butter and jam, or hot days and swimming pools, or Demar DeRozen and Kyle Lowry.
Thanks to Andy Palmer, Matt Becker, Marek Reichman and the rest of the team in Gaydon, Aston Martin’s future is looking very bright indeed. We can’t wait to see what they do next.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.