Story by Jeremy Cato
Photos by Michael La Fave

Feature: Aston Martin on a roll  auto brands aston martin
Aston Martin DB9. Click image to enlarge

San Diego, California – John Walton remembers all too well the days of “what ifs,” “maybes” and “if onlys” – when he and his mates at Aston Martin would sit in a pub near the company’s old headquarters in the quaint English village of Newport Pagnell, wishing they had a Ferrari fighter. The very depths came in 1992, when Aston sold just 42 cars.

“Ian Callum (the DB7 designer) and I used to talk about what we would do if we just had the right cars,” says Walton, sipping a coffee at a roadside stop on Pine Valley Road on the way to Sunrise Highway and then ultimately Borrego Springs, a desert community three hour’s drive from San Diego.

Aston Martin has the cars now. The DB9, developed and launched thanks to a huge but undisclosed investment from parent Ford Motor Company for both vehicle engineering and a new factory headquarters in Gaydon, England, was launched last year and is a certified hit of an exotic sports car. Aston is heading for record-breaking sales of more than 2,500 units in 2006, once the second new Aston Model, the V8 Vantage – an eight-cylinder car based on the DB9 platform – hits showrooms. A convertible version of the DB9, the Volante, is now being launched in North America, as well.

Feature: Aston Martin on a roll  auto brands aston martin
Click image to enlarge

Walton himself now heads up Aston’s North American business unit and Callum, who designed the DB7 as an outside contractor, is now head of design at Ford Motor Company’s other luxury unit, Jaguar. The point is, with one new car on the road and a second higher-volume V8 model coming, the days of “what-if” and “if-only” have morphed into “how-will-we?”, and “we-better-had!” – as in, how do we make sure this risky venture into exotics proves itself as a real business, selling to real people the real Aston Martin cars. The painful era of dreamy maybe-machines sketched out on the back of a pub napkin are gone.

Feature: Aston Martin on a roll  auto brands aston martin
Click image to enlarge

Walton, a very pleasant Englishman in his mid-40s who looks like he could use more sleep as we set out for a day of test-driving DB9s in the California countryside, knows all too well the challenge ahead at Aston. In the very briefest of briefings the night before our drive, the centre-piece of his presentation was a chart laden with amazing, exciting exotic cars.

There were hard-core exotics on the left, such as the Lamborghini Gallardo and Ferrari F360. On the far right were coupes with more a Grand Touring or GT character – cars like Aston’s own DB7, Bentley’s Continental GT and the Jaguar XK8. By the way, a new XK based on the Advanced Lightweight Coupe concept is due next year, so another all-new entry will further clutter up an already crowded and growing market segment for die-hard auto enthusiasts and super luxury car connoisseurs.

Now smack in the middle of Walton’s chart was the DB9 ($223,450). He and his Aston confreres are convinced – or they are at least trying to convince a tiny handful of lucky journalists here to drive the DB9 – that their car rests right in the sweet spot of the segment. The DB9 is, the argument goes, sort of a super sport GT with a tiny back seat, thus the 2+2 designation.

This is where Walton and his boss, Aston Martin CEO Ulrich Bez (pronounced Bets) see the most action but also the toughest competition. Racy exotics priced between $200,000 and $300,000, with engines up to 500 horsepower, are arriving with startling regularity – not just from Aston, but also Porsche, Lamborghini, Bentley, Ferrari and even Ford itself with its GT.

All the players here seem almost too pricey to drive in actual traffic, where fender benders are possible, and they are all very fast, begging to be stretched beyond the speed limit. Some are also very hard-core, very basic high performance exotics, such as the GT with its bare-bones cabin and ultra-snug seats.

Feature: Aston Martin on a roll  auto brands aston martin
Click image to enlarge

The DB9, on the other hand, is powerful (the V-12 produced 450 horsepower), extraordinarily competent and laden with rich features – from the bamboo trim in the dashboard and doors (all sorts of wood choices are also available) to the pop-up navigation screen, soft leather seats and eardrum-busting sound system. The rear-drive DB9 does, indeed, sit somewhere between the GT and the heavier, all-wheel-drive Bentley Continental GT.

If I were writing the business plan for Aston (not that Bez would bother asking me), I would argue for a car exactly like the DB9. On paper, the specs for horsepower and all the rest are perfect. The styling is simply gorgeous, inside and out. It is the work of former Aston designer Henrik Fisker, who last year was audacious enough to tell me, “If this car doesn’t work, you can fire me because I’m responsible for how it looks.”

Fisker, also the designer of the extraordinary BMW Z8 sports car when he worked for the Bavarian automaker, hasn’t been fired, but he has left Aston to start his own exotic car company in Southern California. It will be worth looking out for his next creation.

Feature: Aston Martin on a roll  auto brands aston martin
Click image to enlarge

That will be then. For now we have the DB9 and as Walton and I exit Major’s Coffee Show and Diner, caffeine surging through us and ahead of us 100 miles of snaky mountain roads descending into dry, sandy and barren Borrego Springs, it strikes me that the successor to the DB7 is simply gorgeous.

Perhaps too much so, as it attracts the attention of a pair of burly California Highway Patrol officers cruising by on their Harleys. They stop and ask questions, pointing to the almost sinfully curvaceous shape of the DB9′s skin and the yawning Aston grille up front. I imagine they also take note of the potential ticket revenue our little band of six DB9s represents. I will remember to hawkishly watch my mirrors and scan for them far down the highway.

The DB9, of course, makes extensive use of bonded aluminum to keep weight under control. Still, the coupe weighs 1,800 kg with the automatic transmission that has F1-like paddle shifts flanking the steering wheel for manual control. In a pinch, you can accelerate from 0-100 km in a nifty 5.1 seconds and the top speed is 300 km/h. Of course, if you go there often you will wreck the 17.1 litres/100 km combined fuel economy rating. Then again, only a working class boy like me would worry about such a thing. Those who can spend a quarter-million on a sports car don’t worry about pump prices.

Climbing into the cockpit I notice there are no presets for where the doors stop. Instead, the doors stay open wherever they come to rest. Interesting and novel. Once past that distraction and settled into my leather seat, I imagine the painstaking hours of labour put in by the meticulous workers at the Gaydon factory.

Feature: Aston Martin on a roll  auto brands aston martin
Click image to enlarge

Aston offers a huge array of colours and materials for buyers and each car is customized to the individual’s particular tastes in colour and materials. Yes, you can buy a pink DB9, but who would want one? In any case, each car makes extensive use of hand labour to combine whatever type of chrome, leather, wood or bamboo ordered by the customer. All the cars, however, come with clockwork gauges, a crystal ashtray and a Start button at the top of the centre console. And there are even optional cupholders – a shocking concession to North Americans — though our tester is not equipped with them.

Feature: Aston Martin on a roll  auto brands aston martin
Click image to enlarge

Once we’ve turned the key and hit the starter there is a deep roar from the V12. Then we’re off, immediately working the six-speed gearbox by flicking the paddle shifters. It takes no time at all to grow accustomed to the paddle; how they work becomes intuitive almost instantly. The shifts themselves are smooth, nearly invisible. Naturally, if you are in a grand touring mood, the tranny can be set for full automatic operation.

Before we know it, we’re on Route 79 heading toward Julian, bobbing and weaving our way through dry mountain stretches, nimbly threading a narrow ribbon of asphalt called San Felipe Road, heading to Ocotillo, then onto Borrego Springs. The road stretches the car and its driver – me.

Feature: Aston Martin on a roll  auto brands aston martin
Click image to enlarge

But it is not difficult to be smooth and quick here. The steering has just enough boost, but not too much and it delivers good feedback. The suspension – independent double wishbones front and back – is tight but not punishing on roads which are not always smooth. The 50:50 weight distribution gives the DB9 perfect balance, which is much appreciated as we enter and exit wicked little corners with no shoulders and no runoff areas to the right. It is very difficult to unbalance this car.

But if there is trouble — if you hang the tail out too much on a nasty bend — a stability control system is there to prevent things from getting too serious, to keep the car in line. For the enthusiast, the system is programmed to allow a measure of throttle steering, so it is possible to power your way through a turn if you have the skill.

Feature: Aston Martin on a roll  auto brands aston martin
Click image to enlarge

For grip, the DB9 is shod with big 19-inch wheels and tires. Braking, the product of an excellent set of front and rear discs all ventilated and grooved, is sure, predictable and not so intrusive.

The DB9 is, in short, an outstanding piece. It should be, at this price, after having been so carefully conceived and manufactured, over such a long period of time, by dreamers such as Walton and Bez. Yet I still see room for improvement.

The throttle pedal, for instance, is too vertical, so over time it grows tiring, even irritating, to operate. The seats also lack support under the thigh, thus towards the end of a day driving I found myself squirming around, searching for a comfortable position. And there was no passenger grab handle, which is useful when you are sitting to the right of a driver exercising the DB9′s ample abilities.

But then, the DB9 is still a fresh model from a manufacturer coming back from that near-death experience of selling just 42 cars in one year. You wouldn’t expect Bez and his crew to get absolutely everything right, right away, would you?

Connect with Autos.ca