It's not often that the harsh reality of geopolitics clashes with the softer art of automotive PR. But Oman's proximity to Iran makes me profoundly glad that I travelled there last month to drive a prototype DBX, well before things started to kick off in the region.
Beyond the risk created by a presidential finger hanging over a big, red button it's a wonderful place. Indeed, for a location that conveys both glamour and adventure, little comes close to this Arab Sultanate. Within an hour of Muscat is spectacular coastline, stunning desert and the sort of rugged mountain vistas that got me humming the Indiana Jones theme. Aston couldn't have picked a better place to make the DBX look heroic, even in the form of an early build prototype wearing another in the company's series of shouty wrap designs.
Of course, the "pre-drive" of a hotly anticipated new car is more of a snack than a filling meal, often short on driving time and with plenty of provisos about non-finished specification to head off any perceived criticism. But this was far more than the sort of frozen lake jolly often used to make a car seem more fun than it will turn out to be; I got 100km on a mixture of gravel, sand and - most importantly - tarmac. Beyond a polite request not to crash, reinforced by the presence of Aston engineering boss Matt Becker in the passenger seat, I was pretty much free to do what I wanted.
Despite having swapped sides with Becker, much was similar to the ride in a similar prototype I scored back in November, although the cabin had lost the disguise panels it was wearing in the UK. Aside from the raised eyeline it does feel genuinely Aston-y, with plenty of familiar switchgear and componentry. The natural seating position is more reclined than in a more traditional SUV, if more upright than in a Vantage or DB11.
We'll have to wait to experience a final production car to pass meaningful comment on quality. It would be unfair to criticise the prototype for the dashboard's Christmas tree impression - flicking between warning messages from various uncalibrated sensors. Becker also stressed that mules are never given the high-grade leather of full production cars. One criticism can be made, though: that big screen in the centre of the dash isn't touch-sensitive, running an older version of Merc's infotainment system, meaning all inputs are made through the click-wheel and touch panel between the seats. Something which is going to cause a degree of confusion to any buyers coming from cars with more modern UI systems.
As with our ride in the UK, the DBX feels Aston-fast. The AMG-sourced 4.0-litre V8 is in a relatively gentle state of tune, with 542hp - 21hp less than the Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 makes in standard form, and 61hp less than the 63 S. On paper, the DBX is well off the segment's bragging rights - the fastest GLE dispatches the 0-62mph benchmark in just 3.8-seconds, seven-tenths inside the Aston. If it matters the Urus, W12 Bentayga and Porsche Cayenne Turbo are all quicker, too.
But the engine's combination of brawn and zing feels entirely adequate, even when making proper progress. The V8 is effortlessly muscular low-down, with peak torque arriving at just 2,200rpm - and delivered uninhibited in every gear. Driven gently it burbles like an Aston should. But it's also more than happy to sing, pulling with unfading enthusiasm all the way to the 7,000rpm redline - 500rpm beyond where peak power arrives - with the soundtrack turning angry and snarly when stick is applied. There are some pops and bangs on a lifted throttle in both the Sport and Sport Plus dynamic modes, but not too many; Becker admits these can be programmed within the Bosch engine management software.
While AMG models combine this engine with the MCT speedshift transmission - which uses a wet clutch - the DBX has the more normal torque converter version of Daimler's nine-speed autobox. Responses aren't quite as snappy as they doubtless would be with the MCT - although Becker says the gearbox calibration isn't finalised yet. Even so, the DBX's changes under harder progress are still impressively quick for a pure auto. Gearbox refinement is also excellent at the sort of low-tenths progress Astons are also expected to deliver.
More noteworthy is the DBX's ability to find traction while also allowing a driver to explore the grey area between grip and slip. There was never any chance that a chassis signed off by Matt Becker would be lacking a playful side, but the Aston's compromise between dynamic security and the ability to throttle-tweak the cornering line is still pretty special for an SUV. Despite wearing Pirelli Scorpion all-season tyres the prototype found plentiful adhesion on tarmac surfaces, but even in the gentlest GT dynamic mode it feels rear-driven at everyday speeds. Switching to the punchier modes, or pressing harder, makes the back axle bias more obvious, the DBX feeling impressively keen to turn for something this size and shape (with the active rear differential biasing effort across the wheels.)
On the loose it becomes more fun still. While few DBX owners are likely to be found fanging their cars sideways on dirt roads, the big Aston can be persuaded into impressive slip angles on slidy surfaces without effort, even the half-on Sport stability control mode allowing impressive slides. The powertrain's tendency to shunt torque forwards when rear slip is detected makes it hard to hold drift angles for long, but on an empty and well-sighted bit of higher-speed track Becker takes over and pretty much turns the DBX into an oversized, V8-powered WRC car, raising clouds of billowing dust. Relevant? No. Fun? Yes.
Once back in the driver's seat, the DBX's clever suspension is the next starring feature. Standard air springs allow for a fundamentally pliant ride, even when asked to digest the sort of set-frequency washboard ruts that turn the most capable off-roaders into tumble driers. But the combination of quick-acting active dampers and a 48 Volt anti-roll system means the soft settings don't come at the expense of chassis discipline, with the motors applying up to 1,400Nm of torque to the roll bars to counteract body lean. It's not a new idea, but it does seem to work particularly well on the DBX, which stays near flat under even sizeable lateral loads. A measure of how hard the system is working comes when it briefly fails with a different journalist driving; I'm following as passenger in a Land Cruiser support vehicle and the DBX suddenly starts to lean like a hard-driven 2CV.
Beyond confirming the air suspension will indeed increase ride height I didn't do any serious off-roading. Fully raised in Terrain Plus mode there is up to 9.25-inches of ground clearance, which should cut down on expensive crunching noises. Other stuff? The brakes didn't fade under hard use, pedal feel is good and there's no e-booster to muck up sensation. Steering is similarly weighty, and although there isn't the level of sensation that comes with one of Aston's sportscars, the electric assistance still feels chatty by SUV standards.
Interior space is surprisingly good, the DBX being one of the few toff-roaders that looks smaller than it actually is; even with the front seats dialled to accommodate a sizeable bloke there's room for another to sit behind, not something you can say about any other recent Aston, including the four-door Rapide. The standard panoramic glass roof is also a great feature, one that transforms the cabin when the blind is motored back.
Although Aston started work on the DBX before any of its rivals appeared, it is set to enter what is already a well-stocked segment when sales start later this year. From the company's point of view, that's a good thing - it's not only proven that there is considerable demand for cars like this, but it also means that most of the discussion about whether this is a direction luxury car makers should be going in has already been had. And, at risk of a flaming, it's a debate that is pretty much over in terms of the hard-to-fault logic of going where the money is. Given what's at stake for Aston's future, you don't need to like the idea of posh SUVs to hope this one succeeds.
SPECIFICATION - ASTON MARTIN DBX
Engine: 3,982cc, V8, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic, rear wheel drive
Power (hp): 542 @ 6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516 @ 2,200 - 5,000rpm
Top speed: 181mph
Weight: 2,245kg (EU DIN)