Aston Martin DBX | PH Meets

Different decade, familiar perspective. It's almost 20 years since I first sat next to Matt Becker as he demonstrated how one of his projects could be made to behave beyond the limits of lateral grip. That was a Lotus - an Elise 111S from memory - and the playground was the track at Hethel, the car's modest power output sufficient for the sort of yaw angles that had me looking at straights out of side windows.

Now the venue is Silverstone's dinky Stowe Circuit in a prototype DBX which weighs more than twice as much and has almost four times the power. But from the loftier perch of the Aston's passenger seat it feels equally sideways, and although Becker and I are both bigger and balder there's a similar amount of laughter in the cockpit. "You never get too old for this," Becker admits, "well you do, but you don't stop anyway." In the back seat photographer Dean Smith is having less fun, trying to get a shot to show how easily Aston's chief engineer is coaxing this sizeable SUV into big, lazy slides and then holding them on the rainswept surface.

It would be hard to over-estimate the importance of the DBX to Aston right about now. The company has been suffering from both sliding sales and a slumping share price since its flotation last year; the DBX has to sell strongly for Aston's ambitious 'second century' plan to have any chance of succeeding. That means a series of hype-building PR activities all the way to the start of customer deliveries next year, with the opportunity to ride in a prototype with Becker one of the early ones - niftily timed to coincide with confirmation of the Β£158,000 starting price.

While there was no chance of me saying no, I acknowledge that little of significance is normally learned from the passenger seat of a non-finished car. This certainly isn't going to be the story that breaks the mould on that one, but an hour in the DBX gave plenty of reasons to be optimistic and also to chat to Becker about the sheer complexity of what he admits is the biggest project he has worked on yet.

"Sports cars are easy, that's my conclusion," he says when asked to sum up the last three years, "with a sports car you only have to make it do a few things really well, but with an SUV you have to make it do much more stuff. It's got to be able to do 300km/h safely, lap the 'ring, head off-road, carry five people and tow a boat or a horsebox."

Early in the project Aston assembled a group of key rivals to help establish engineering benchmarks: a Cayenne Turbo, a Bentayga, a BMW X6M and a Range Rover Sport SVR. Becker and his team drove them both on the Nurburgring Nordschliefe and the surrounding roads. "My respect for this type of car increased enormously when we started to drive them properly and realised just how much engineering had gone into them," Becker says. Subsequent rival-testing has included newer models, including the Lamborghini Urus.

Yet Becker says the DBX is pretty much exactly where he wanted it to be. There's an element of he-would-say-that, of course - but his pride in both the near-finished product and what his team has done is obvious. Getting to deliver on the broad set of dynamic targets has required a huge amount of technology and work on getting the different parts to function together.

Some bits are familiar. The bonded aluminium structure is Aston's favoured way of making cars, while the bought-in AMG 4.0-litre V8 is obviously related to the engine used in the Vantage and lower-spec DB11, here in 550hp guise. But even before the power reaches the road, there are big changes; the DBX uses Merc's nine-speed auto instead of the eight-speed ZF (or manual) of the sportscars. Although best thought of as being natively rear-driven, up to 47 percent of torque can be sent to the front wheels through a centre differential; it also uses the Vantage's torque biasing rear diff. Springing is on air, allowing the DBX's height to be varied by up to 60mm on the move, and it also gets a 48 Volt electric anti-roll system. For a company of Aston's modest size, getting all that to play nice has been a colossal challenge.

The PR team are keen to limit impressions to the way the car drives with the prototype wearing dazzle wrap outside and having thick covers to hide trim and switchgear within. The digital dashboard is visible but, in the manner of prototype vehicles everywhere, seems to be relaying lots of reports of non-working sensors. Time on track at Silverstone is brief, enough to demonstrate both the DBX's reluctance to roll under hard cornering, but also the friendliness of the handling balance. Becker admits his team briefly considered a pure drift mode, but decided it wasn't right for the vehicle; allowing it to slide also meant lots of work with the roll-over mitigation protection within the stability control, which has to be able to allow slip but still step in hard and fast on spotting proper instability.

From inside the cabin it sounds good, more muscular than the Vantage with a relaxed wuffle at a gentler pace and a nice, bass-heavy rasp under harder acceleration. Out of the circuit and onto Northamptonshire B-roads I quickly find I'm not noticing the engine as much as I'd expect, only really on the brief bits of hard acceleration allowed by wet roads and everyday traffic. At 2,245kg the DBX will be one of the lighter cars in its segment, but it's still a bruiser compared to the rest of the company's portfolio. It is seriously fast - Becker says it can manage a 4.5-second 0-62mph time and reckons the official 181mph top speed is actually slightly pessimistic - but it doesn't feel muzzled when travelling slowly.

Ride quality is good, plush in Comfort and still refined when Becker turns the dampers into Sport and Sport Plus. The lack of lean is also more evident on road than track, with motors able to apply up to 1,400Nm of torque to the anti-roll bars to oppose roll. Becker admits the development team actually opted to wind the system back to allow a small amount of lean: "it felt too unnatural without it."

Back at Silverstone there's a chance to tackle some of the circuit's various off-road courses. Becker cheerfully admits that the early expectation for the DBX's abilities to plug mud weren't high: "we originally focused on matching something like an Audi Allroad, but we've ended up with something as good as a Porsche Cayenne."

The reason, he reckons, is how much of the technology that's been put on the car to improve road manners also works away from tarmac: "we've got the wheel travel, the active ride height and the differentials to move torque quickly - it's all the tools you need." Certainly the DBX doesn't find anything to stop it or even slow it down much on the bits of the course Becker throws it at.

By the time we return to Aston's Silverstone engineering centre I can't claim to have had any huge revelations, but the fact the DBX feels as fast and secure as its key rivals seems like a good omen for how it will feel from the other side of the cabin. Owners are unlikely to regularly try to summon Beckeresque drift angles, or even to risk the underside on off-road obstacles, but it is good to know that it can do such things when called upon.

Leaving the question of what Becker will be driving sideways in another 20 years. I wouldn't be surprised if he could get some serious yaw angles out of what was meant to be an autonomous electric pod.

Click here for the first official pic of the DBX's interior

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Comments (61) Join the discussion on the forum

  • GTEYE 06 Nov 2019

    I fear Aston are 5 years too late with this. The world and the market are now moving in a different direction.

  • NFC 85 Vette 06 Nov 2019

    GTEYE said:
    I fear Aston are 5 years too late with this. The world and the market are now moving in a different direction.
    And yet nobody questions the timing of Ferrari's Purosangue, which hasn't arrived yet either...

    In any case, DBX looks to be a great piece of kit, and the interior looks excellent IMO (and might go some way to stop complaints about non-integrated infotainment systems). I expect now the complaints will be about using a Merc transmission, such is the nature of the internet biggrin

  • Nightshade 06 Nov 2019

    Probably the only time you'll ever see one of these going offroad..

  • oilit 06 Nov 2019

    GTEYE said:
    I fear Aston are 5 years too late with this. The world and the market are now moving in a different direction.
    I suspect you, like I, are based in the uk/western europe?

    Sat in Dubai for the past three days and there is definitely no shortage of cash and or appetite for 4x4's, and fast cars here.

    I am not doubting that BEV is the future, and early adopter markets exist - Norway amongst others, but there are still plenty of markets who will happily buy and who do not currently have legislation against vehicles like this - and they will continue to be bought for the lifecycle of normal cars.

    The next gen of this will have to be hybrid and or BEV.

    The success of this V1.0 is a big bet but I believe the market is bigger than for AM sports cars in a lot of markets - and the UK is not as important to AM as perhaps it used to be.

    Edited by oilit on Wednesday 6th November 08:21

  • housen 06 Nov 2019

    this is going to be soo much want !

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