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
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 trac 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 trac – 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