The Aston Martin DBX’s design has been signed off on and the manufacturer’s radical move to enter the SUV segment from late 2019 is expected to transform the fortunes of the 104-year-old firm, which has been declared bankrupt seven times in its fluctuating history.
The DBX will rival the Bentley Bentayga, Lamborghini Urus, Maserati Levante and top-end Range Rovers and Porsche Cayennes in the luxury 4x4 segment. However, CEO Andy Palmer says the DBX will stand apart from them “because it has not sacrificed any beauty to achieve its practicality or performance”.
The SUV project was envisioned by Palmer before he took up his role at Aston Martin in 2014 and it was officially kick-started on his fourth day in the job. “When you are talking about running a company like Aston Martin, you talk through your ideas with the owners before you are hired,” said Palmer. “My message was simple: if Aston Martin wants to survive, it must do a SUV.”
“On my fourth day [as CEO], I got to spend some time with Marek [Reichmann, head of design] and I told him I wanted DBX. That was in October and I told him I wanted a concept car ready to show in Geneva by the following March.”
“He and his team responded magnificently. One of the many beauties of Aston compared to a large car company is that we can move quickly. If something is agreed, we can leave the room and start working on it immediately, without the need for multi-layer presentations. It’s invigorating and I think we are starting to unlock the benefits of that now. I hope the Aston of today has a swagger — but never arrogance — that it hasn’t had for some time.”
The DBX concept was revealed at Geneva in 2015 as a two-door, four-seat model powered by electric motors mounted inboard of the wheels and powered by lithium-sulphur cells. The car featured several other high-tech concept flourishes, such as an F1-style kinetic energy recovery system (KERS), in order to emphasise that it would be at the cutting edge of powertrain technology when it was launched, but Reichmann and his team also made a point of highlighting more practical elements, such as cabin and load space.
Confirming that the design has now been signed off and the build of pre-production test mules is under way, Palmer indicated that the final car will carry much of the DNA hinted at by the concept.
He said: “There are aspects of the car that have changed dramatically — perhaps none more so than the fact that it is now a four-door — and, on a comparison basis, you will be able to pick out many details that have been modified. But in terms of the pure lines and the fundamental core principles of the car, you’ll recognise them.”
Reichmann suggested the roofline will have to be much higher than that of the concept in order to give the production car an extra layer of practicality. A sketch of the final car’s silhouette has also been released.
The DBX will be built on a new bonded and riveted aluminium architecture that is closely related in principle to that used by the DB11. There had been speculation that Aston would lean on part-owner Mercedes-Benz for its chassis technology, but Palmer said Aston preferred to make use of its own expertise, albeit turning to Mercedes for some sub-systems and V8 power, as it will do with all of its next-generation vehicles. The DBX will also be the first Aston to be sold with four-wheel drive, although it’s not clear if every model will have the function.
Range-topping power will come from Aston’s 5.2-litre V12, which will be retuned from the 608hp and 700Nm unit found in the DB11. There will also be an AMG-sourced 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 that makes 510hp and 675Nm and — in time — an all-electric powertrain that will be developed as proprietary technology by Aston with the input of Williams Advanced Engineering. Palmer has ruled out diesel versions of the DBX.
However, Palmer confirmed that a hybrid version of the car will be developed, but it will not feature plug-in hybrid technology because research suggests luxury car buyers do not consider the experience to be premium enough.
This revelation raises the possibility of Aston using the high-performance powertrain from the Mercedes-AMG GT Concept that was revealed at the Geneva motor show this year. Its hybrid unit combines AMG’s twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 with an electric motor to deliver a combined 811hp. In the GT Concept, that equates to a 0-100kph time of less than three seconds, although the DBX will be heavier. The battery is charged as the car is being driven, both through brake energy recuperation and with the aid of the petrol engine.
However, Palmer also highlighted the learnings the company had made while developing the hybrid KERS-style system with Red Bull Technologies for the Aston Martin Valkyrie hypercar, suggesting the firm could use a modified version of that instead of turning to Mercedes.
In terms of ride and handling goals, Palmer highlighted the characteristics of the Porsche Macan. “It is probably dynamically the best car in the SUV category,” he said.
The interior of the DBX is set to take a new approach, with the design team having to focus more than ever on practicality. “There are certain issues you can’t compromise on that perhaps we haven’t given such credence to in the past — ingress and egress, for starters, and whether it is a car you sit on or sit in,” said Palmer. “DBX is a revolution for Aston Martin in so many ways, and that has meant that we have had to adapt our way of thinking in places.”
“We have one rule that never changes, which is that we don’t trade off beauty. But if you want the design to reflect its 4x4-ness and to deliver the sort of utility that customers expect from these cars, then you have find ways to achieve that. A 4x4 needs to be big, it needs to convey safety and security and yet it also needs to be easy to get in and out of.”
Aston has created focus groups of existing customers to provide input, including the much-vaunted female focus group, which was instigated on Palmer’s suggestion as soon as the concept car was revealed after it emerged that just 3,500 of the firm’s lifetime sales of 70,000 cars were to women.
“Some very special customers have seen the car to help guide our thoughts and provide feedback,” said Palmer. “They are our jury and our anchor points to what we want the car to achieve.
“The female jury has been particularly fascinating. This is not an Aston Martin that is exclusive to any one type of buyer and these groups really help us get into and understand some mindsets that we have never focused on before.”
Preparation for DBX production at Aston’s new facility at St Athan in Wales is well under way. As well as building all large Astons, the site has been earmarked to become the firm’s centre of excellence for electrification and cyber security. Customer and staff reception areas have been built and work on three hangars being repurposed into the manufacturing plant is in full swing. At launch, 750 new employees are expected to work at the plant.
St Athan’s role in Aston’s growth will be pivotal as the firm chases six new model lines in the next five years: the new Vantage this year, the Vanquish next year, the DBX in 2019, a mid-engined supercar in 2020, the Lagonda saloon in 2021 and a Lagonda SUV in 2022.
Earlier this year, the firm posted a first-quarter profit for the first time in a decade, boosted by sales of the DB11. Aston has posted an annual loss since 2011 and sold 3687 cars last year. Insiders predict that figure could rise by as much as 30 percent this year and Palmer has cited annual sales of around 7,000 sports cars. However, he hopes that figure could, in time, be doubled with the DBX, as well as being boosted by the Lagondas.