Play, maestro, play
JEKYLL AND HYDE are alive and well and living in Hong Kong. The newly arrived Aston Martin DB9 is two cars in one. At times, it's a smooth, sophisticated and refined gentleman's carriage, happy to purr and burble its way around town. At other times, it's a growling, snarling, howling, wailing, bellowing bovver boy capable of devouring large distances very quickly in great style and comfort.
Available from Aston Martin Hong Kong (tel: 2366 4717) for $2.48 million, the DB9 is effectively the replacement for the DB7 and sits - or will sit - in the middle of the Aston Martin range. Its big brother is James Bond's V12 Vanquish; the baby of the family the V8 Vantage, which Aston Martin will aim at the Porsche 911 next year.
The DB9 that I drove was a deep, lustrous black. In the daylight, the combination of the shade and the curves made the car seem almost a body of liquid. Quite beautiful, it sports the distinctive Aston Martin grille, metal side strakes and rear-window shape.
The hydraulically-damped swan-wing doors open upwards at an angle of 12 degrees, making it easy to get in and out in tight spaces and reducing the danger of door scuffs on high kerbs. Slip into the driver's seat and the doors close with a satisfying clunk.
The interior is also beautiful. Modern and stylish but in traditional Aston Martin materials: leather, wood and carpet. The wood on the test car is bamboo, which is toned well with the French navy leather from Bridge of Weir. Walnut and mahogany are also available. In the DB9 the aluminium looks great.
Aston Martin describe the model as a 'thoroughbred sports car with GT levels of comfort'. It's supposedly a two-plus-two, but I think that's a fanciful notion. There are two beautifully-sculpted rear seats, but almost no legroom and not much headroom - enough for children perhaps, but not for most adults. If room in the back is important, you might like to have a look at the Bentley Continental GT. Visibility is surprisingly good in all directions and a glimpse of the car's haunches in the door mirrors is seductive.
The fully-trimmed boot is not large, but more than enough for a set of golf clubs. Fitted luggage in leather matching your car's interior will soon be available.
The instrument pack is a work of art in aluminium. It includes a digital (as well as an analogue) speedometer, that is easier to read than the dial (which is perhaps a bit small). Zero on the tachometer is at the seven o'clock position and the needle travels anti-clockwise. Zero on the speedo is at the five o'clock position with a clockwise needle, so the two needles moving around these adjacent dials are like mirror images of each other. Warning lights glow through microperforations in the aluminium faces of the dials and the tachometer's red line varies according to the engine's mileage. This DB9 is very different from my Aston Martin Virage, and yet I feel at home behind the wheel. The seats hug and grip well and I soon feel comfortable and secure. You sit as low and as close as possible to the car's centre of gravity.
On either side of the stylish crystal glass starter button in the middle of the dashboard is a row of four large buttons marked 'P', 'R', 'N', and 'D', which replace the conventional gear lever. Turn the key, push the crystal and it glows red. A fast starter turns for a fraction of a second before the engine barks into life, like pack of ravenous dogs straining at the leash, in the best Aston Martin tradition. Press the foot brake, press the button marked 'D', release the trade mark Aston Martin fly-off handbrake and you're away. A six-speed Graziano manual gearbox is also available.
The DB9 is powered by a de-tuned version of the Vanquish's all-alloy, quad overhead cam, 48-valve, six-litre V12. It develops 450 bhp at 6,000rpm, and 420 pounds per foot of torque at 5,000rpm. Eighty per cent of that torque is available at only 1,500rpm. It will take you from 0-100kph in 4.9 seconds, in manual, or 5.1 seconds, in automatic, and on to a top speed of 300km/h - at least in theory. (I didn't try, honest!)
Around town, the car glides with all the smoothness and refinement of an executive saloon. Gear changes are usually imperceptible. The ride is firm and well-damped, without jarring. The steering is very light, taking all the hard work out of parking. It's an easy car to drive.
Take the car on to the open road and the car's second personality is revealed. Open the throttle and Aston Martin Symphony Orchestra under the bonnet reaches full power in a blink. The performance is electrifying, scintillating.
And the noise. Oh, the noise! When the engine reaches 4,000rpm, valves in the exhaust system open and an explosion of the most wonderfully sonorous, soul-stirring sound assails your ears. Why anyone would ever have the superb 128-watt fibre optic Linn hi-fi switched on at the same time as the engine, I can't imagine. An Aston Martin innovation for the DB9 is its ZF Touchtronic 2, fully-automatic transmission with an added steering-wheel paddle-shift system. You can skip up, on the right paddle and down the six gears on the left at will. Although some of the changes down were not always quite as quick as a manual change could have been, the throttle's automatic blip to match the revs on the way down through the gears brought a smile to my face. The handling is a real joy. Weight distribution is a perfect 50:50, with 85 per cent of the weight between the front and rear axles. Understeer is hard to induce. If you're too enthusiastic with the throttle on corners, help is at hand.
The DB9 is equipped with a Conti Teves stability control system including ABS, electronic braking distribution, traction control, electronic brake assist and dynamic stability control. It works well. Push a bit too hard and you can really feel the rear wheels scrabbling for grip. The car is easy to place on the road and you can point it through corners with unerring accuracy.
The brakes are ventilated, grooved 355mm discs with alloy, four-piston Brembo monobloc calipers on the front, with 330mm discs on the rear. They have an excellent progressive action, although the ones on the test car could have been more responsive - but Astons like a long, firm push on the pedal.
The steering, although light in Central, becomes noticeably heavier at higher speeds, and there's plenty of feedback. I'd still like it a bit heavier, though.
Some have said the DB9's the most beautiful car ever built. Others say that the performance, ride and handling are perfect. And they may be right. The DB9 has the makings of a classic.
Peter Wynn Williams is the investment director of the Henley Group