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Wednesday 8th December 2004


ASTON MARTIN DB9

Nauman Farooq samples Gaydon's most beautiful car -- ever

This most modern of all Aston Martins is quite possibly the best car the company has ever made. Take a tour of its new manufacturing facility in Gaydon, and you'll understand why. The whole facility looks very high tech, but that doesn't mean Astons have become mass-produced cars built by robots.

No, everything is still done by hand. The only robot in the factory is to apply the bonding adhesive to its complex body structure, and guess what, the robot is named 'James Bonder'. However the DB9's 6.0-litre V12 powerplant, essentially a detuned version of the Vanquish's motor, is now built in Cologne, Germany, at a facility strictly dedicated to building engines for all Aston Martin models.

Exterior

As impressive as the factory is, the biggest smile on your face arrives when you see the finished product at the end of the line. The DB9 is one of the most beautiful cars ever made.

Meet the man behind the design and you'll know why. Henrik Fisker, the design director for Aston Martin is one of those rare people who truly understands car design. Forget the visual overload philosophy of Ferrari or Lamborghini, beautiful flowing lines and soft curves is where it's at. If this car were a woman, it would be Catherine Zeta Jones in a flight attendant suit (see 'The Terminal' for reference), sexy and sophisticated.

Interior

That aesthetic appeal carries on to the interior too. This car is beautifully trimmed in wood, leather, and suede. It's also trimmed in aluminium, has a very advanced navigation system that's simply superb, computer readouts for just about every function, and the most beautiful instrument cluster of any car ever created, making it also very modern. Yet it remains a classic Aston.

What didn't I like? The boot is rather small for a car of this size, the back seats are only useful for Paris Hilton's chihuahua, the sun visors are small and largely useless, the mirror in that visor looks like it was bought from a poundsaver store, the Linn stereo system didn't quite impress me, and the steering wheel doesn't look quite right, it's just too blah for the rest of the interior.

But that's it for the complaints -- on every other account, this car is great, and its greatness starts as you hit the 'Engine Start' switch.

When the car is off, the 'Engine Start' button is crystal clear. Turn the ignition to the 'on' position and the switch glows red. Press it and it fires up that fabulous 6.0 litre V12 with a growl that would wake up most of your neighbours. Once the car is idling, that switch glows a soft blue hue.

Transmission

My press car was an automatic, just like all the DB9s currently rolling off the production line -- manual cars will enter production next year -- but what an automatic to have! You can either let the computer handle the task of changing the six forward gears for you, or you can select each gear yourself using the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel.

Manual control over an automatic gearbox is nothing new -- after all, Porsche's Tiptronic has been in use for over a decade. But the Aston version is not only quick and jerk free on up-changes; it beautifully blips the throttle on down shifts too. So that not only makes it better than those semi-manual gearboxes, like the ones found in the Ferrari 360 F1 or the Lamborghini Gallardo's e-shift on quick up-changes, but manages to retain the one single joyous feature of those transmissions: those beautiful down shifts.

And then there are the gear selector switches. Located round that beautiful 'Engine Start' switch, they not only look good but also free up a lot of space in the centre console. I'm surprised no one else thought of it earlier, especially since it's been available on buses for a long time. I think it really is the way of the future: mark my words, you will see this on mainstream cars.

So, now, to engage drive, press the brake pedal and select 'D' (or 'R' if you need to back up first) and now you're off to enjoy this beautiful car where it belongs, on the road.

Performance

It was just my luck that, after an almost perfect week's weather, it had to rain the day I had this car. Not to worry, the DB9 does make you feel very welcome, so off I headed to the nearest motorway to stretch its legs. Taking the off-ramp to the M40 north, I prod the accelerator. The car promptly catapults forward like a gazelle that's been stung by a mega-tazer, courtesy of that wonderful V12, with its healthy 450 hp and 420 lb/ft of torque.

Most of that torque is available from low revs, making the first few minutes with the car a steep learning curve as even a slightly eager foot on the sensitive throttle can send the rear wheels spinning, even with the traction control on, a phenomenon heightened by the rain-soaked roads.

Handling and braking

However, even wet roads cannot ruin your driving experience, since this car stays firmly planted to terra firma no matter what -- well almost. Those wide tyres -- 235/40 ZR19 front, 275/35 ZR19 rear -- can and will aquaplane over standing water, which lead to one heart-stopping moment. Thankfully, no tears at the end of this drama.

Because of the wet, I couldn't really push it in the corners to test its true handling abilities. The most I got to fling it around was around roundabouts where the steering was heavier than expected; obviously, I wasn't going fast enough.

The DB9's brakes are good enough to avoid most scenery-encountering incidents, although the pedal lacks initial feel, they work well.

Noise

No pain either, cause it is a very comfortable car to ride in. When you are taking it easy, it is quite comfortable. The comfort cannot be credited to the tires though. Those Bridgestone REO50's stiff sidewalls make the car shudder over broken tarmac and create more tyre roar than I like, spoiling an almost silent driving experience when you're just cruising around. The only other unpleasant noise entering the cabin was the windscreen wiper motor. Minor issues for sure, but something that should be looked into for future products.

However, to get your mind off any of those irritating noises, just shift down a couple of gears and stand on the throttle. Your eyes open up as the machine gathers speed at a remarkable pace, accompanied one of the best symphonic experience ever to be had in a car. Those exhaust pipes make a glorious noise and should be enjoyed to the full.

In the past, if you wanted an exhaust to sound this good, you'd have to buy custom pipes because the noise and emission regulations wouldn't allow it. But since the test for noise and emission is performed at 2,500rpm, Aston devised a neat trick. The exhaust has a butterfly valve, which cuts in between 1,500rpm and 3,000rpm. So, the car sounds great at start-up and at high revs, but when cruising, it's almost silent. So now you don't need customised exhausts, the stock system is plenty good enough as it should be in a car of this category.

So much so that, if you owned one, you'd be tempted to map out your daily route so it consisted mostly of tunnels. Maybe that's why the stereo isn't the greatest, prompting you to play your own live music.

Conclusions

So, what have we learned? The DB9 is sporty enough to do battle with the baby Ferrari and Lambo, and also luxurious enough to do battle with the Bentley Continental GT, and at £106,000, it's priced to fit in that company too.

So, which would I choose?

This is a tough one, I love the Ferrari 360 (haven't tested a 430 yet) for its sensory overload driving experience, but it is not comfortable on a long drive, because the noise drives you mad after two hours. I love the Lamborghini Gallardo for making even me feel like a competent driver on the track, but on the road, it is too capable, thus feeling a bit boring. And the Bentley Continental GT is a wonderful car for driving across big open spaces. Like Canada. But it's too heavy to be a sports car.

And the DB9? It's pretty enough to cause girls to stop and look, fast enough to impress your mates on any road or track, and comfy enough to act as a daily driver for most of the year. And although my time spent in the company of the DB9 was brief, anything less than an eternity with this car would seem short.

So when I win the lottery next week, I'm gonna get myself an Aston.