Given the last couple of years, expectations for the new Aston Martin DBS Superleggera run high. Whereas the previous DBS seemed rather confused in its message - is it just a faster DB9? Is it a Vanquish replacement? Why is there a Virage? - the brief for this car is apparently unequivocal from Aston Martin: "Immaculately styled, obsessively engineered and outrageously potent, the new DBS Superleggera is every inch the Aston Martin flagship." That's Andy Palmer's view. This the car to properly crown the 'regular' Aston range. Following as it does cars like the DB11 AMR and Vantage, cars as competitive as anyone can remember from Aston, there's undeniably cause for optimism.
You'll hopefully be familiar with the DBS essentials by now, but a brief reminder if not: 725hp from a reworked 5.2-litre twin-turbo V12, 664lb ft, 0-62mph in 3.4 seconds and 211mph flat out. The wheelbase is the same as a DB11 but the tracks wider and the front overhang shorter. The 2.9:1 final drive is borrowed from the Vantage, now operating through a ZF8HP95 gearbox (because the regular 8HP can't take the torque). There's a maximum of 180kg of downforce (split 60/120 front to back), the standard ceramic brakes are 410mm and 360mm in diameter, and its 21-inch wheels are shod in 265-section (front) and 305-section (rear) Pirelli P-Zeros.
All that is brought together with one extremely specific mission in mind: to be the best Super GT in the world, and beat the 812 Superfast. With recent experience of the Ferrari still fresh in the mind, it would seem remiss not to try and compare the two to some extent with this DBS drive. Of course the scenarios are very different, the UK in March being not exactly comparable with Austria in July, but the temptation is irresistible. Here goes...
On paper, the Ferrari seems to edge it. Sure, there's no doubting Aston's claim of "immense torque for breathtaking response" - 664lb ft surpasses Ferrari's 530lb ft - but the Superfast is more powerful (by 75hp), lighter (by 168kg) and more accelerative. That said, top speed is identical, and the Aston boasts an entry price saving of around £35k (for what it's worth at this level).
Styling wise, it's hard not to see this duel as anything but a victory for the Aston. Unlike the previous DBS, this Superleggera looks like very much its own car - despite clearly being influenced by other Astons. It's pugnacious and tough, yet with some really elegant details, too. To these eyes the Ferrari is both less attractive and less imposing at the same time, a bit fussier than the F12 which preceded it because of the aero focus.
The inside of both cars tells you a lot about their respective personalities. Even if someone else opens the door to a DBS you can smell the Bridge of Weir leather from miles away, the ambience being opulent and decadent in the most appropriate fashion, if still somewhat let down by the occasional fussy detail not befitting of a £250k car. The Ferrari, on the other hand, was all about the driver, decked out with carbon, race harnesses, aggressive bucket seats and all the major controls around the instrument binnacle. Don't worry about the passenger's experience, it seems to say, you have 800hp to concern yourself with...
Before the DBS is even half way through its eight ratios, it's clear this Aston is a more serene, more luxurious and more accommodating car than the banzai Ferrari. While it has a tweaked front anti-roll bar to the DB11 for improved turn-in response, it's also said to be less vertically stiff than a Vantage and features an isolated rear subframe (where it's fixed in the junior model). Combine that with damper modes that begin at GT (they start at Sport in the Vantage) and hopefully you can appreciate that this is a car actually more suited to mooching than the aesthetic and the bravado would have you believe. The aim was to split the difference between a Vantage and a DB11, meaning this Superleggera cruises with aplomb (certainly more quietly than the Ferrari), trundles around down as well as any other GT car and decisively deals with imperfections on minor roads.
However the issue, not unpredictably, is that the edge you might expect from a 725hp Aston flagship never quite materialises. Even with the powertrain and damping dialled up to their most focused, the DBS always feels more at the GT end of the Super GT spectrum. Don't misunderstand: it's still very good, bordering on excellent, with superb traction, a confidence inspiring front end and poised, well honed body control - but it feels similar to what has come before. More than that, it can't come close to matching the deranged yet addictive incisiveness, involvement and excitement of that ruddy Ferrari.
Nowhere is that gulf more apparent than in the respective powertrains. In isolation, the Aston Martin is sublime; indeed anybody coming from the old V12 cars will be blown away by both the accessibility and scale of the performance. Moreover, even compared to the DB11s that use this V12 in different states of tune, the torque is absolutely tremendous - whatever the gear, the punch never seems to subside. Overtakes last half as long as expected, corners are taken a gear up and numbers on the speedo rather naughtier than they should be. All the time.
Yet with knowledge of the 812's powertrain - perhaps one of the finest to ever enter series production, granted - some weaknesses do emerge. The Superleggera's torque converter auto can't match the Ferrari's dual-clutch for shift speed up or down, and Maranello's 6.5-litre V12 remains unmatched in its performance, crazed response and stunning soundtrack. The Aston DBS Superleggera uses a very good V12 and automatic combo; the Ferrari 812 Superfast features a V12 and automatic combo that beggars belief. Again though, the Aston can counter. While the Ferrari buzzes along at a 70mph cruise, desperate to be on a more interesting stretch of road, the DBS is subdued, hushed and refined, yet capable of travelling almost as fast whenever you see fit.
Which leaves us where, exactly? In a bit of a pickle, to be frank. Because it's hard to escape the impression that, enjoyable though the DBS most certainly is, it feels a little too close to the DB11 for comfort. Of course that doesn't make it a bad car - very far from it, in fact - but the gap to the flagship implied by the price and the performance never quite manifests itself in the driving. It comes across as a DB11 AMR S (easy for you to say), certainly a lot quicker but only a tad sharper, without a really distinct identity of its own - despite the look and the promise. Hopefully a comparison between the two will reveal a clearer picture
As for DBS against 812, the cars are actually more different than you might imagine. Really the Ferrari is a mid-engined supercar with the V12 ahead of the driver, more demanding than the Aston yet more rewarding as well. You have to handle more as a driver, but you get more back. The DBS is a far more conventional Super GT, and will appeal to those put off by the Ferrari's intensity: luxurious, cosseting and very fast, the kind of thing Aston has done so well for so long, without really breaking any new ground in the way the Vantage did. Just a few short years ago this car would have been truly revelatory for Aston Martin; in 2018 it feels like a great car, albeit a hard one to justify right now.
SPECIFICATION - ASTON MARTIN DBS SUPERLEGGERA
Engine: 5,204cc V12, turbocharged
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Torque (lb ft):664@1,500-5,000rpm
0-62mph: 3.4 seconds
Top speed: 211mph
Weight: 1,693kg (dry), 1,845kg EU kerbweight
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