2009 Aston Martin DB9 Volante First Drive
Home Run: More Power in the Same Elegant Wrapper
Ford saved Aston Martin from the scrap heap. And after so many years, and so many millions invested, it's a shame the Blue Oval isn't able to enjoy the fruits of its labor. Because Aston Martin is on a roll.
Aston was sold in 2007 to a private investment group headed by David Richards; think of him as Britain's version of Roger Penske. Serious car guy CEO Ulrich Bez remains at the helm. The model lineup is proliferating, including the upcoming Rapide sedan and a high-tech, million dollar plus flagship called the One-77. The marque is once again chasing an overall win at Le Mans, five decades after it last did so. And of course, Aston Martin remains the automotive clothier of choice for the world's favorite spy. Not bad for an outfit that, prior to Ford's involvement and Bez's guiding hand, had been at bankruptcy's doorstep too many times to count.
It's hard to believe the DB9 is now five years old, as is the strong, light, and flexible VH chassis architecture on which it's constructed. This model was the first modern Aston Martin to be built at the company's then-new Gaydon, England factory, and carries on the design themes established a decade earlier by Ian Callum's DB7 and seminal Vanquish. The DB9 still looks fresh and beautiful -- elegant proportions never go out of style. It forms the basis for the edgier, sportier DBS range and has received a makeover for model year 2009.
The last DB9 we tested (October 2005) struck as us pretty, yet somehow short of the expected magic. Its 450-horsepower V-12 was strong but lacked response and sounded a bit lifeless. The car didn't like to be pushed, the transmission temperature warning light flashing its objection often during hard mountain driving (on an admittedly hot summer day). Its shifts were none too responsive, either. So we were eager to give this updated version a go to see if these issues had been noted and addressed.
Our favorite spot for "new and improved" is underhood, and the DB9's spa treatment began there. The 5.9-liter V-12 remains architecturally unchanged, but gets a compression bump from 10.3 to 10.9:1. This, and a revised oil sump to reduce windage and internal friction losses, translates to an increase of 20 horsepower, plus 23 more pound-feet of torque. The additional torque shows up low in the rev range, where it does the most good. The transmission also has been worked over, via a new hydraulic control unit that enables quicker and more precise low-speed gear changes, so claims Aston Martin (recall our tranny-related issues above). Downshifts in Sports mode are rev-matched in the name of speed and smoothness.
Bilstein dampers are now standard, suspension bushings have been revised, and there are new upper suspension arms. The retune is designed to give the DB9 Coupe a sportier demeanor and improve overall refinement on the Volante. The previous seven-bar grille design has given way to a less fussy five-bar look, the side door mirrors are new (borrowed from the DBS), and you can select a new, optional 20-spoke, 19-inch wheel design. Torsional rigidity has been improved on the Volante -- important stuff on a convertible.
The rest of the work went on inside, incorporating several updates from the DBS. A new center console design features the DBS's glass-trimmed fob, which, when inserted into a slot, becomes the starter button. The (now-satellite instead of DVD-based) nav system screen is mounted high on the center stack and motors open and closed. Interior lighting has gone ambient and LED.
The Volante's convertible top is beautifully trimmed in Alcantara and fuzzy cloth inside and a rich, hearty cloth outside. It's a one-touch design, naturally, and fits the carriage nature of this car, as opposed to the trunk-eating retractable hardtops that have become so popular and can prove a design challenge. The softtop is now better insulated for reduced noise and recontoured for 25 mm more headroom. Everything else inside that's not Alcantara-covered is wrapped in super-high-quality leather. Park/Drive/Reverse buttons on the center stack replace a conventional shifter -- a little gimmicky, but cool -- and there are paddles on the steering column for manual control. Many aluminum trim pieces serve as eye candy; even the bezel around the makeup mirror on the back of the sunvisors is milled and polished alloy. It's a sumptuous, tactile cabin, as it should be in a car of this cost.
Send that glass-edged key controller home, and the V-12 lights with a whirr and a bark. It's not as guttural as in the Vanquish or DBS, but crisper sounding than the old DB9. The promised better response is there: This DB9 steps out smarter and harder. Accel is punchier in the low end, the shifts are clean and crisp, and trans response, particularly on the paddles, is much better than the example we tested originally. Mat the gas and you're met with a wonderful combination of intake moan and exhaust note. The engine sounds sweeter too; we'd wish for a bit less muffling, but if you want the louder, harder edged version, well, that's what the DBS is for.
Additional work is needed in the calibration department, as the DB9 exhibits more impact harshness than expected over rough surfaces. It's fine when the road is smooth, and we expect a little ride penalty in the sportier DBS, but there's more than usual here. It could be more supple without turning to mush. We don't recall cowl shake or body wiggle being a problem for the previous-gen DB9, and they're certainly not now. No shakes or tremors (just once, over a surface we know will make any chassis dance), and no squeaks or clunks from the convertible top either.
A few curious ergonomic foibles: There's no lip or handle by which to grab and open the trunklid. And the button to open the gas-filler door is up under the dash at about left-knee level. Why make something used so often so difficult to reach? And, of course, the rear seats are useless, but who cares.
Our 2005 tester stickered at $175,700, while this one costs $204,130, an average increase of $7100 per year. But if the numbers in your checkbook are still backed by lots of zeros, the updated, upgraded, uprated DB9 Volante will not disappoint. And if you fancy your Aston ragtop with even more protein and less fat, a new Volante version of the 510-horsepower DBS is just around the bend.
|2009 Aston Martin DB9 Volante|
|Price as tested||$204,130|
|Vehicle layout||Front-engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door convertible|
|Engine||5.9L/470-hp/443-lb-ft DOHC 48-valve V-12|
|Curb Weight||3900 lb (mfr)|
|Length x width x height||185.5 x 74.0 x 50.0 in|
|0-60 mph||4.5 sec (MT est)|
|EPA City/Hwy fuel econ||12/19 mpg (est)|
|CO2 emissions||1.35 lb/mile|
THEN AND NOW: ASTON MARTIN AT LE MANS
"Perhaps we're stretching ourselves a little bit too far, given the size of our company compared with our competitors and given the technical advantages the diesels have today," said Aston Martin chairman David Richards, "but Aston Martin is a challenging brand, one that has often punched above its weight. We thought our fans around the world would be disappointed if we ignored this opportunity."
In 1959, Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori drove an Aston Martin DBR1 to the marque's only overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, although the company has a rich history in the world's most epic endurance race. Aston is returning this year in celebration of that historic win, with a top-tier, two-car LMP1-category effort. "We've been to Le Mans with GT class cars successfully for the last couple of years. The ACO have been mildly closing the gap that the diesel cars have had, and we felt that maybe we just give it a go and see how we get on."
Aston Martin's LMP1 chassis is based on a highly evolved Lola prototype and will wear Gulf Oil's orange and blue livery so evocative of Le Mans in the 1960s and '70s. Significant is the powerplant, employing the block and heads from the production V-12 used in the DBS and DB9. This engine produces 650-700 horsepower in endurance race trim. The cars will be numbered 009 and, as one might expect, 007.
Can Aston Martin compete with the big-buck diesel programs of Audi and Peugeot? "It's a very adventurous undertaking," agrees Richards. "To get on the podium at Le Mans would be a dream, and we will have to have our fair share of luck. But endurance racing is so unpredictable. Weather, track conditions, traffic, you never know what's going to happen. If we have what I believe will be the prettiest car on the grid, and if it is the greatest sounding car on the track -- and I'm confident that with the V-12, it will be -- and if we have the support of the crowd and our fans from around the world, then we will have done our job well."