Aston Martin DBX prototype review, test drive
Published on Jun 08, 2020 06:15:00 PM
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How does one begin to describe the significance of the Aston Martin DBX? Yes, it is the first SUV from the iconic brand in its 106-year existence, and when it goes on sale here in the second half of 2020, it will join the ranks of super SUVs like the Lamborghini Urus, Bentley Bentayga and Porsche Cayenne. Yes, the DBX is late to the party but it will unlock a new and broader customer base. The British sportscar-maker hopes to sell more than 4,000 DBXs a year and boost total Aston sales past the magical 10,000 mark. In fact, the DBX is the great white hope charged with reviving Aston Martin’s fortunes. This is the car that could pull Aston out of the abyss into which the company’s share price has fallen by 60 percent – in the midst of a very difficult global car market and the never-ending Brexit imbroglio.
Given the unabated global demand for SUVs and the juicy profits they deliver, the DBX is a tantalizing meal ticket for a company hungry for cash to expand its business. But, in the car business, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, especially when you’ve got formidable rivals with their large grilles open to gobble-up a large share of the very lucrative super-SUV market. Porsche invented the super-SUV segment and has been at it for 16 years now, and even Ferrari is finally thinking SUV – something which, not too long ago, was unthinkable in Maranello.
So the DBX has to be not just good but great, if it is to resurrect the ailing company. To give us a taste of things to come, we got to sample a prototype version last month in Oman. To make it clear, this wasn’t the finished product; the protos were lightly disguised, more by way of large sponsor stickers than a camouflage and an unwashed coat of mud and grime, collected over the course of the two-week-long media test-drive programme.
What was really surprising is that there was just one prototype, which all the journos shared (in batches, of course). There was no spare or back-up car, so if someone pranged this sole test car, that would’ve been it. I was comforted to know I was part of the last batch, so if I did anything stupid, I wouldn’t go down in infamy as the guy who wrecked a global media drive!
Dressed for the job
The matte-black paint, sponsor decals and caked mud hinder my view of the DBX, but under the bright Oman sun, the shape and a lot of the details clearly stand out. There’s, of course, the massive Aston grille, and you can’t miss the huge indents in the doors which break the mass of the car. In fact, the DBX looks much smaller than its 5,039mm length suggests but still has a fair degree of road presence, especially with the air suspension dialled up to its tallest setting.
The rear is its most interesting angle, with elements like the blade-like scuff plate and thin tail-lights that follow the contours of the prominent spoiler. Massive 22-inch wheels nicely plug the wheel arches and give the SUV stance to a car that has a coupé-like silhouette to embody the Aston DNA. It’s always hard for sportscar or luxury-car makers to design an SUV and yet keep their traditional look. The Cayenne, after 20 years, is no design masterpiece, and neither is the Bentley Bentayga nor the Rolls-Royce Cullinan. In that context, Aston designer Marek Reichman has done a great job by penning a pleasing shape, which, though not as in-your-face as the Urus, shows the restrained aggression of the brand.
The cabin is, again, Aston-classy, and though the hard-worked mule didn’t have the finish of a showroom car, you get a good sense of what to expect. It’s safe to say that cabin quality in the production car will be top-notch, and possibly the best in the Aston range, as the mix of sumptuous leather, soft-touch plastics and rich garnishes will be crafted with tighter tolerances at the new St Athan factory in Wales.
The DBX shares some bits and pieces with its sportscar siblings, with common design cues as well, like the gearchange push buttons on the dash, above the centre console. Aston, however, has missed a trick (or a generation) with its infotainment piece, by installing Mercedes’s last-gen system. It’s not a touchscreen and feels somewhat outdated, especially in comparison to Merc’s latest MBUX system; but expect an infotainment upgrade at some point during the DBX’s long life cycle.
What you don’t expect is a remarkably spacious interior, especially at the rear, where there’s ample legroom even for tall people. The seats are quite cosseting, there’s plenty of storage space around, including a useful area behind the centre console for a small bag, and a genuinely big 632-litre boot. The unlocked cabin space is the result of the 3,060mm wheelbase, which is as long as the gargantuan Kia Carnival. Yes, the DBX does hide its dimensions well.
The DBX also hides its 2.2-tonne weight well. It’s not a particularly heavy car by class standards but within the first few kilometres of driving, it feels much lighter than it really is.
Oman is one of the best places in the world to enjoy a car. This small sultanate has a delectable selection of roads – many of which would be perfect for a WRC stage (wonder why there’s never been a round of the rally championship here). Our route had very little traffic and all the ingredients to give any a car a solid workout: undulating terrain, a mix of surfaces, and all types of corners in the middle of the desert which look like they’ve been engineered just for you to have fun. The roads are demanding on the driver too, and an overturned truck – whose driver must have misjudged one of the many tightening radius corners – appeared appropriately (or inappropriately) on the side of the road, the moment I started getting a wee too confident with the DBX. I took it as a sign to dial things down.
Confidence. That’s what the DBX inspires in spades. It provokes you to go quick and doesn’t make you feel like you’re driving a high-riding behemoth. And that’s despite this prototype still being a work in progress. According to Matt Becker, Aston’s chief engineer who bravely rode shotgun with me, the suspension settings, steering feel and drivetrain software still need some further fine-tuning before the DBX goes into production.
The air suspension has as much as 90mm of travel across all modes. In Sport and Sport Plus mode, it drops by 15 and 30mm, respectively, while in Terrain and Terrain Plus, the air springs rise 15 and 45mm above the standard setting. In Access mode, the DBX squats down by 50mm to make getting in and out easy.
Becker admits that out of all the SUVs he’s benchmarked, it was the Cayenne that stood out for its dynamics. So has the DBX (even in this ‘beta’ form) bettered the technically brilliant Porsche SUV? In a word, yes. In fact, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is the sweetest-handling high-performance SUV I’ve driven. Firstly, the balance is spot-on, with the right amount of rear bias allowing you to deftly steer the car with the throttle. Thundering down gravel roads, the DBX can be chucked around playfully, especially in ‘Sport Plus,’ which biases the torque to the rear wheels and loosens the traction control system sufficiently, allowing you to indulge in some serious powerslides, James Bond style. The steering too is brilliant, and apart from a mildly inconsistent feel as you pile on the lock, it’s accurate, full of feel and complements the DBX’s agility. Don’t forget there’s still some fettling to be done, so the steering can only get better. There’s no four-wheel-steering, but honestly, you don’t feel the need for it. The DBX has a nice pointy front-end feel and changes direction with astonishing agility. The best part is that the sharp responses haven’t come at the expense of ride comfort. The overall suspension setup is on the soft side, and the pliancy and overall cushioning it offers – especially on the rutted and sharp-edged dirt roads on the route – puts the DBX in a different league.
Bodyroll? There’s not much to speak of, despite the soft setup. 48V active anti-roll bars don’t allow the DBX to tilt excessively in corners. The DBX isn’t as hard-edged as a Cayenne or as edgy as the Urus, and therein lies its appeal. It’s got comfort at its core which makes it a great cruiser adept at gobbling up vast distances on any surface.
To understand why the DBX has such brilliant dynamics you need to delve deeper. The magic sauce here is a bespoke, all-new, bonded aluminium chassis that will also underpin future Astons. The suspension points on the extruded chassis are beefed-up further and the result is very high torsional rigidity. In fact, this super-stiff chassis has allowed Aston’s engineers to run a softer suspension without compromising body control.
While the chassis is Aston’s own, the powertrain is from Mercedes-AMG. It’s the same compact M177 4.0-litre, twin-turbo V8 that powers other Aston sportscars and, of course, Merc-AMGs as well. Tuned to develop 550hp and 700Nm of torque, this iteration of the M177 may not be the most powerful but it won’t leave you wanting. Aston claims a 0-100kph time of 4.5sec and a top speed of 290kph, which is very quick. It’s just that there are quicker and more powerful SUVs, and the DBX isn’t quite in that ultimate league. Also, the chassis is so good, you feel it could do with even more power for greater thrills.
But that said, the engine provides enough entertainment. It’s got a strong mid-range and revs quite hard too, accompanied by a delightful roar, a touch higher than the characteristic deep-throated bellow of Merc-AMGs using the same engine. “We deliberately tuned the exhaust to give a unique, higher note that’s more in character with our brand,” says Becker. Lifting off the throttle is accompanied by a delightful medley of burbles, pops and bangs that adds to the drama.
The DBX doesn’t get the multi-clutch transmission (MCT) fitted on Mercedes’ AMG range but uses a conventional 9-speed torque converter, also from Mercedes. The shifts are pretty quick all the same, and the refined character of a torque converter is possibly better suited to the well-rounded DBX.
No doubt, Aston Martin’s first crack at an SUV has yielded outstanding results. Is it good enough to change the company’s fortunes, though? It’s the best-looking SUV in its class; but then looks are subjective. Where it clearly has an edge is in the ride and handling department. No other SUV steers with the same verve and fluency and, as mentioned earlier, the production version can only be better. It’s spacious and practical too, which will cater to the rational side of buyers. However, it’s how customers perceive an SUV from a traditional brand like Aston Martin that will ultimately determine its success. And in India? The company expects the DBX to double sales in this market when it goes on sale this year at an estimated Rs 4 crore.
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