As­ton Martin DBX

The DBX is the alien in As­ton’s range – it has never built a 4x4 be­fore. Should it have both­ered? We drive it in oth­er­wordly Oman to find out

CAR (UK) - - Contents - Words James Taylor Pho­tog­ra­phy Dean Smith

Enough hype – what’s As­ton’s DBX ac­tu­ally like to, you know, drive?

We turn off the road, onto a dusty trail that looks like it’s about to peter out into a dead end but sud­denly opens into a spec­tac­u­lar vista, like a stage from the Dakar rally crossed with a scene from The Mar­tian.

Climb­ing out of the DBX to marvel at the view, the heat hits you like open­ing an oven door. It’s win­ter here in the hills south-east of Mus­cat in Oman, but the air is a toasty 28ºC. The dusty, craggy land­scape is both alien and empty. There’s nei­ther a soul in sight nor a sound on the broil­ing air, save for whirring fans cool­ing the twin tur­bos within the en­gine’s vee, its cylin­ders switched off for the first time in hours.

The As­ton Martin DBX is caked with dust, its sticker-clad paint­work long turned matte be­neath count­less lay­ers of sand and grit. It’s been out here for 12 days straight, rack­ing up un­flinch­ing test miles. For to­day’s stint, CAR has been be­hind the wheel of As­ton’s first SUV for the first time, fol­low­ing last month’s pas­sen­ger ride at Sil­ver­stone with chief en­gi­neer Matt Becker.

This feels a very long way from dank Northamp­ton­shire. You half ex­pect to spot a lu­nar rover whirring across the hori­zon, but the only traŽc we get is the oc­ca­sional hard-charg­ing Kia Sportage or Toy­ota Land Cruiser. Oth­er­wise we’ve got the place to our­selves. A 542bhp all-wheel-drive As­ton Martin and an im­pro­vised spe­cial stage: it’s as much fun as it sounds.

Be­fore we get to the off-road­ing, we ex­pe­ri­ence the DBX in city traŽc – where the pre­mium SUV cus­tomer will ex­pect it to ex­cel just as much as its Range Rover, Bent­ley, Porsche and Lam­borgh­ini ri­vals.

The car I’m driv­ing, with Becker in the pas­sen­ger seat, is one of 70 or so pre-pro­duc­tion pro­to­types run­ning around the globe, in bak­ing deserts and freez­ing snows­capes and into crash-test bar­ri­ers, as As­ton read­ies the DBX for its first cus­tomers’ ea­ger clutches this spring. Becker tells me this par­tic­u­lar ex­am­ple is ‘about 80 per cent rep­re­sen­ta­tive’ as we bur­ble out of Mus­cat. Fur­ther, more ad­vanced test cars are on the way, be­fore the defini­tive pro­duc­tion ma­chines roll out of As­ton’s new St Athan fac­tory in the Vale of Glam­or­gan, hence the la­bel O Gymru – from Wales.

We sit in plump, sup­port­ive sports seats, be­hind a dig­i­tal in­stru­ment panel which will be con­fig­urable in the pro­duc­tion car but is fixed in this car. Var­i­ous ac­tive safety sys­tems are also not yet con­nected, the dis­play scrolling through a Rolodex of warn­ing mes­sages for ac­tive cruise, lane keep as­sist and the like that are cur­rently be­ing tested on other pro­to­types. What mat­ters to­day is the way this car drives.

Clear of the city we pick up speed and the steer­ing gets a chance to shine. As the roads get twistier it’s keenly re­spon­sive off-cen­tre, yet still mea­sured, and well in­su­lated from bumps while giv­ing you a de­cent re­port on the front tyres’ find­ings. There are two steer­ing weights to choose from: Com­fort and Sport. Sport is, Becker says, ‘about there’ in this pro­to­type, and feels good – the right mix of heft and feel. Com­fort will be made slightly lighter in pro­duc­tion DBXs for a lit­tle less re­sis­tance at park­ing speeds, based on feed­back from fe­male driv­ers. More so than pre­vi­ous As­ton Martins, the DBX is be­ing de­signed to tar­get women just as ⊲

A 542bhp all-wheeldrive As­ton and an im­pro­vised spe­cial stage: it’s as much fun as it sounds

The way the DBX be­haves be­yond its lim­its on low-grip sur­face mir­rors its high-speed han­dling: be­nign and pre­dictable

much as men. Fur­ther to which, the float­ing cen­tre con­sole in­cor­po­rates a stowage area be­neath with space to keep a small-ish hand­bag out of sight next to its wire­less smart­phone charg­ing pad.

The in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem isn’t fully up and run­ning in this car but will use a click­wheel and touch­pad combo, with sim­i­lar MBUX soft­ware to the cur­rent Mercedes E-Class – which is not as ad­vanced as the sys­tem fit­ted to newer Mercs. There is un­doubt­edly a dan­ger this in­ter­face will feel off the pace when the DBX joins the fray in a mar­ket heav­ing with buy­ers hun­gry for the lat­est and fan­ci­est.

Vis­i­bil­ity is spot-on. With the driver’s seat mo­tored all the way down to its run­ners, you feel prop­erly em­bed­ded in the car, al­most like you’re driv­ing a GT, yet you can still see the end of the con­toured bon­net over the curved dash­board, putting you at ease with the DBX’s bulk. A driv­ing po­si­tion that’s all things to all men and women is a tough brief but the DBX nails it.

Vis­i­bil­ity past the big D-pil­lars and through the shal­low sky­light of a rear screen is trick­ier, but so well po­si­tioned are the large, un­usu­ally pen­tag­o­nal mir­rors and so clear the re­vers­ing cam­era that ma­noeu­vring is no more tax­ing than in any other SUV.

Throt­tle re­sponse – from the same AMG 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 we know and love from the Van­tage, DB11 and var­i­ous Mercedes-AMGs – feels smoother than ever, and the gear­box like­wise. That too is Daim­ler-sourced, a nine-speed 9G-Tronic auto. ‘A torque converter like this is much bet­ter for off-road use than a dual-clutch trans­mis­sion or wet clutch, and for tow­ing too,’ ex­plains Becker. ‘The DBX is rated to tow 2700kg – with a wet clutch you can take 1000kg off that.’

As we leave the tar­mac to ex­pe­ri­ence the full breadth of the new As­ton’s abil­i­ties, the long wheel­base brings pre­dictabil­ity and the fast steer­ing means you rarely need move your hands from quar­ter-to-three re­gard­less of the car’s an­gle. And, best of all, so ac­cu­rate is the throt­tle re­sponse that the en­gine feels al­most nat­u­rally-as­pi­rated, long a pri­or­ity at AMG.

On these loose but fairly smooth sur­faces it’s child’s play to in­cite and main­tain a pow­er­slide, hold­ing third gear on the re­spon­sive man­ual pad­dles from cor­ner to cor­ner and dip­ping into the ea­gerly re­spon­sive en­gine’s 516lb ft re­serves. In steady-state driv­ing the DBX is 100 per cent rear-wheel-drive, but can bun­dle 47 per cent of its torque to the front when re­quired, via an ac­tive cen­tre diff sim­i­lar to that found in the Merc-AMG E63, from which a car­bon prop­shaft links to an elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled lock­ing diff at the rear.

‘We don’t have a Drift Mode like the E63, but you can slide the car,’ Becker says, en­cour­ag­ingly. That you can. The bal­ance is be­nign and pre­dictable, and Becker sug­gests the way the DBX be­haves be­yond its lim­its at low-ish speeds on a low-grip sur­face mir­rors its high-speed han­dling on tar­mac.

We’ll find out for sure in a mo­ment, but first there’s some rock­ier ter­rain to get across. The float­ing cen­tre con­sole’s gloss-black sur­face isn’t short of but­tons, among them a pair of drive-mode switches, one marked with an up ar­row, one down. Prod­ding from GT mode to Ter­rain or Ter­rain Plus raises the car on its stan­dard three-cham­ber air springs; push­ing the down but­ton for Sport and Sport Plus hun­kers the DBX’s springs ac­cord­ingly. Al­to­gether there’s 95mm of ride-height ad­just­ment (higher by 45mm, or lower by 50mm) for the air springs, which are paired with adap­tive dampers and mounted to dou­ble wish­bones at the front and a multi-link set-up at the rear.

Ahead of us are some wicked-look­ing ruts and rocks to tra­verse but ⊲

The front spring rates are too soft – As­ton prom­ises it’ll be sorted for pro­duc­tion

the DBX sweeps over them. That’s thanks to both a stiff struc­ture and eARC, As­ton’s take on elec­tronic roll con­trol. Elec­tric mo­tors al­low the car to op­ti­mise the roll bars on the fly, re­lax­ing for ef­fort­less wheel travel on rough ground and in­creas­ing the bars’ anti-roll con­trol at speed on smooth sur­faces. The Bent­ley Ben­tayga and Porsche Cayenne, among oth­ers, have sim­i­lar sys­tems but the DBX’s sys­tem is par­tic­u­larly pow­er­ful – as much as 1033lb ft of force can be ap­plied to each axle. Thus equipped the As­ton makes light work of the tough go­ing, al­most like a proper bushy-bear­dand-com­bat-trousers off-roader. Al­most. It’s no Land Rover, but the DBX can look af­ter it­self when the road runs out.

Rocks be­hind us, we lower the DBX into Sport Plus and de­vour the re­main­der of the gravel trail at speed, the eARC sys­tem keep­ing the body spook­ily com­posed over the rolling, rucked-up track. That same com­po­sure is ev­i­dent when we re­turn to tar­mac. On a fast, un­du­lat­ing road that could be a sec­tion of the Nord­schleife, the eARC sys­tem once again comes into its own, al­low­ing the DBX to cor­ner flat­ter than a Van­tage.

And in a straight line? Here the DBX has speed in abun­dance. The quoted max­i­mum of 181mph is en­tirely be­liev­able given the way the As­ton accelerate­s through its gears – not too shabby for a 2.2-tonne car, and a great sound­track to match. The su­perb AMG V8 sounds pur­pose­ful when you’re try­ing and sub­lime when the taps are fully open but set­tles to an un­ob­tru­sive bur­ble at a cruise. All cour­tesy of ex­haust valves; you’ll find no speaker syn­the­sis here.

There’s one dy­namic flaw at the mo­ment, which As­ton Martin prom­ises will be sorted for pro­duc­tion cars. The front spring rates are cur­rently slightly too soft. When turn­ing into a cor­ner at high speed, there’s more roll than is ideal and a rather abrupt sen­sa­tion of re­bound in the first phase of a cor­ner, which can rob you of a lit­tle con­fi­dence at speed. There’s also a sub­tle nod­ding mo­tion to the front sus­pen­sion at a cruise on bumpy roads. As­ton’s en­gi­neers have al­ready de­vised a cure for the air springs, which will be rolled out shortly. And oth­er­wise the DBX feels good – very good.

The body con­trol is unim­peach­able; in fact, As­ton has de­lib­er­ately en­gi­neered some roll in, so that the DBX doesn’t feel dis­con­cert­ingly flat in cor­ner­ing. Mo­tor­way re­fine­ment is ex­cel­lent. The win­dow seals are still be­ing fi­nalised, and As­ton Martin says there will be less wind noise on pro­duc­tion cars – although I reckon it’s fine as it is – and there’s very lit­tle road roar from this car’s all-sea­son tyres.

Fun­da­men­tal to all this is the im­mense rigid­ity of the DBX’s all-new alu­minium plat­form. Its 3.06 me­tre wheel­base is claimed to be the long­est in the class, but the over­all length is 100mm shorter than a Bent­ley Ben­tayga, and max­imis­ing rear legroom the goal. While the rear door aper­tures are rel­a­tively nar­row, once you’re in­side there re­ally is a huge amount of space: I’m nearly 6ft tall and with the driver’s seat po­si­tioned for me there’s very gen­er­ous knee­room be­hind. Head­room in the back is de­cent too de­spite the stan­dard-fit glass roof eat­ing into it.

It’s hard not to be im­pressed by this hard-work­ing pro­to­type, heat spilling from its brakes into the still-warm evening air as dark­ness draws in over the hills (its wa­ter tem­per­a­ture gauge hasn’t budged all day…). And it’s there­fore hard not to be full of ad­mi­ra­tion for the en­gi­neers work­ing to meet – and in some cases ex­ceed – the tough­est brief in As­ton’s his­tory.

There are still some rivers to cross be­tween now and March, but in the de­vel­op­ment of ar­guably its most im­por­tant car yet, they are leav­ing no stone un­turned. And rais­ing plenty of dust.

An­other day, an­other stick­ered-up pro­to­type hot-weather test­ing – camel’s seen it all be­fore

In a hurry to get to that Bond bad­die’s desert lair? Choose a DBX

Merc-de­rived in­fo­tain­ment isn’t a DBX sell­ing point – AMG V8 very much is

As As­ton con­tin­ues to flirt with F1, why not do the Dakar first?

No Drift mode but with great throt­tle re­sponse and deft chas­sis tune, DBX is happy to dance AS­TON MARTIN DBX PRICE £158,000 POW­ER­TRAIN 3982cc 32v twin-tur­bocharged V8, nine-speed auto, all-wheel drive PER­FOR­MANCE 542bhp @ 6500rpm, 516lb ft @ 2200rpm, 4.5sec 0-62mph, 181mph EF­FI­CIENCY 19.7mpg, 269g/km CO2 WEIGHT 2245kg ON SALE Now

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