Let's say a clandestine organization asked you, for your country, to "take care of" an enemy of the state at tonight's performance of Tosca at The Met. And let's say this organization gave you the choice of any Aston Martin in which to conduct the evening. Which Aston would you choose? If you said the DBS, we hope you've arranged bail. You're getting caught. Quickly.
Despite its impressiveness, the DBS is just a little over the top. Driving it says to the world, "I'm rich (or I have rich backers), I'm sociopathic (or at least self-centered), and I kill people (or I've had them killed)." There's no denying this. Attempt to pull off your mission at the opera and you'll be fingered before the body hits the ground. "It was the guy in the suit and the DBS," the rattled, blood-spattered socialites will tell the authorities just before you're whisked off to a damp, underground bunker in a country created by the breakup of the USSR.
The better choice? The 2009 Aston Martin DB9 – even the Volante. It's got just enough gentleman to remove you from suspicion, but the faintest hint of evil to make fearsome things happen when needed. We had it for a weekend, yet despite the urge and a twitchy trigger finger we never got the chance to test out our "cleaning" abilities.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.
Although the Aston Martin DB9 has been around for six years, we never tire of seeing it. And two years on and after seat time in a number of other magnificent cars, the DB9 Sport Pack remains one of our favorite driver's car (that doesn't really have a trunk, but we'll get to that later).
Generally, we prefer coupes, but the DB9 Volante is no poor thing to lay eyes on, top up or down. The way the fixed-roof variant's greenhouse tapers into the tail and creates those voluptuous hips is part of the car's perfect completion. The convertible maintains those crucial lines in back, and the loss of the C-pillar doesn't make it less beautiful, only different. If you're a convertible person, this is a vehicle you'll always enjoy staring at.
The center console is a fabulous upgrade over the fussy interior of the previous model. The beautiful and far simpler aluminum-accented DBS theme raises the visual and tactile game on par with the rest of the cabin, and Aston makes – hands down – the most handsome seats in the business. They're as pleasurable to sit in as they are to look at. The dashboard dials are sparkling and intricate, but the speedo has too many hash marks for us to register things quickly, so we keep our eyes to the right on the tach and the inset digital gauge. The steering wheel is the only blunt instrument in the cabin, not counting the Bang & Olufsen stereo, which is more accurately described as blunt force.
Everything is swathed in cross-stitched leather, and it is, let us say again, beautiful. It's also snug. The steeply raked windshield terminates at a point not too far from your forehead. When the top is up you get the feeling of being secured in a leather-clad vault. When the top is down, one side of the vault is open.
Just like a snug pair of jeans, though, there ain't too much room to store things. Put anything lighter than a brick in the back seat and it's going to fly away. Up front you've got a glove box that's about the size of a mail slot, and a host of small, rectangular cubbies with attached elastic straps – as if you'd have eight pens and cell phones you needed to tie down.
Not that we're going to spend too much time focused on that – we have a convertible Aston and the Eden that is Southern California to play with.
Put the key into its slot on the dashboard, press it all the way in and wait. Rolls-Royce gets credit for the term "waftability," but we have to give Aston credit for the archetypal burble. It's perfect. The car comes to life with a bark and then settles into the most honeyed warbling in the automotive kingdom. If you have an errand to run, you want to give yourself five extra minutes so you can play with the throttle before leaving the driveway.
Flip the paddle into first and pull away, and the easy spooling of torque from the 6.0-liter V12 – 443 pound-feet of it – gives you the impression you can ride a trail of clotted cream from your parking spot into triple digits. Raw grunt on the go is provided by the 470 horsepower, and the two numbers together will get you to 60 in 4.8 seconds.
Our hierarchy of preferred transmission choices goes like this: six-speed manual, five-speed manual, any-other-speed-manual, bicycle, train, bus, blank, blank, paddle shifters, walking, a hand-operated cable, riding on someone's handlebars, blank, a donkey, an automatic.
At least, it did before we sampled Aston's improved Touchtronic unit. For the first time we found an automatic vehicle that delivers fully on the promise of paddle shifting. As with the DBS Volante we drove at Pebble Beach, gear changes are immediate and, especially of note, power delivery is seamless. No jerking, no waiting, no nothing but the shifting of gears and the acceleration of movement. Superb.
The best way to stay on top of your gearing, though, is not to watch the gear indicator in the dash; it's to pull the switch and lower the top and listen to the revs from the twin pipes. The cloth top, a tad on the busy side while descending, stows in a little less than a dozen seconds.
However, except for a little more A-pillar vibration when seriously tootling, it doesn't hinder the driving experience. Aston beefed up the strength of the shear panels by ten percent and added Bilstein shocks, and the combo makes for a remarkably stiff setup that neither skates nor shimmies. Our finding was that the stereo subwoofer would make the rearview mirror vibrate more than the lack of a roof, except on the meanest stretches of freeway.
Road noise with the top up or down was fine. We could carry on conversations easily with the top in place, even though there was a little wind noise around the A-pillar that made it seem like the windows wouldn't go all the way up. Chatting was slightly labored with the top down, but fine enough to get crucial conversations conducted.
Get off the phone and get to serious pilotage, and the DB9 follows orders like a loyal adjutant. Dr. Ulrich Bez brought his Porsche instincts with him to Aston, so turn-in is practically instant and the car won't be shaken loose from its line unless you go fruitbat crazy working the pedals. The Aston swallows mid-corner bumps as well as any coupe, and pulling out of a turn could even be more fun than diving into one only because you get to hear that burble-turned-bellow of the V12 chase you all the way. And if you should happen to come to a stop after some spirited driving, the vents on the hood exhale all that warm, vision-distorting air and give you the impression you've been flogging the dark-yet-willing heart of the beast.
There are three ways to approach an Aston: as a work of art, as a functional tool or as a driving proposition. As art, the Aston is museum-worthy, and as a driving proposition it is just about flawless. With the wonder of that Touchtronic transmission, we can't even complain about not having a proper manual with which to exploit the V12.
Yet when it comes to a usable, functional space, the DB9 – as a complete work, as one coherent piece made of many parts – has the most fascinating combination of quizzical inclusions we've ever come across in a single vehicle. Of course we can't speak for long term durability, but the craftsmanship on every Aston we've been in so far has been first rate. But the key we were given was plastic. We figure it was the spare, but it felt like something out of a Barbie playset and we had to look at it every time we wanted to lock the car or open the trunk because the tiny black buttons were nearly impossible to discern. Slightly more galling was the fact that when the key is in the center-mounted slot and the DB9 is off, you can't just push the key to reawaken the V12 beast. You have to take the key completely out and then reinsert. That's annoying.
Another key note: the glovebox door is electronically controlled. If you take the key out, the glove box won't open after a set amount of time. You have to put the key back in, wait a bit and then open it. The only problem: it works when it wants to. Again, annoying, but something a simple firmware fix should rectify.
Although we've beaten this point around the head, we still haven't got over it: the trunk isn't really a trunk, it's a carry-on suitcase. It would make more sense if you didn't pack a bag, but rather packed the trunk directly. Furthermore, there is not only no automatic feature to raise and lower the trunk, there is no hydraulic assistance and there's no built in handle on the underside to pull it down without touching the bodywork. It operates on manpower alone, with greasy fingers on paint. This is on the same car that features stitched leather around the seatbelt buckles, so we know Aston cares about details. But we've got to soil our hands – and engage in manual labor – to open the picnic basket between the rear fenders.
While the Bang & Olufsen stereo is the new word in aural satisfaction, the iPod integration leaves a bit to be desired. It works well until you want to play a single track, and then it's a chore to get it to stop playing and get back to the main menu. On the same token, we'd be much happier if Aston took a little money from its LMP1 project and got rid of all the Volvo references in its model line, namely with the switchgear and navigation screen. Here's an idea: Take the One-77 gear and fabricate it in plastic. Something. Anything. Just not Volvo. Not that there's anything wrong with Volvo switchgear... in a Volvo.
Although it might appear we've given the Aston a pasting, that's neither the case nor the intent. The foibles we've mentioned are – confoundingly – common to just about every car at that level, save for perhaps (are we really saying this?) Ferrari. Bentley's center console screen is a marvel, and not always in a good way. Rolls-Royce made "iPod integration" a bad word until the Ghost, now we're waiting for its new system to make the jump to the Phantom line. The Murcielago interior refuses to leave the (early) '90s. Getting directions into the Veyron's nav is easy as long as you have your Palm Pilot and plenty of time.
The trip here is that Aston has met the uncanny valley: the car is so close to "Could this be any better?" that the merest things begin to make you exclaim, "Oh dear God!" And because we know they can do it (have you seen the One-77?!), we wonder why they don't.
Ah well. The car is gorgeous. The interior is art. The stereo is brilliant. The driving is terrific. The soundtrack is perfect, and always played at the perfect volume. For the rest we could use The Supermodel Excuse, but we won't. We don't need to. Because everything we mentioned could be preceded by, "Well, if I really had to complain..." But again, we don't. And neither will your supermodel companion, for they're known to be favorably inclined to this particular car.
Quite simply, it rocks your world and those around you, and if nothing else, those quirks just give us improvements to look forward to on next year's model.
Best of all, the DB9 Volante can help you do the business and get away clean – and topless – which could save you a trip to some dank hoosegow after the final act. Take our word for it: there are much better ways to see Tajikistan.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.