Cut to the chase
The launch in Tokyo earlier this month of Aston Martin's DBS marked another step in the extraordinary growth of the venerable British marque. A little over a decade ago the company was on the Ford life-support machine. This year it has produced 7,300 cars - 10 times more than it managed seven years ago when chief executive Ulrich Bez took the reigns. An ex-Ford man (and before that Porsche and Daewoo), the 64-year old German leads Aston Martin from the front.
His welcoming speech in Tokyo was a perfect example of his unique character. Bez did not want to 'share attention' with other manufacturers, so he chose not to display Aston's wares at the Tokyo motor show. Instead, an intimate party was held in Roppongi for 250 key people to say Aston Martin is much more than a motor manufacturer. People don't spend in the region of HK$4 million on cars such as the DBS or Ferrari's 599 to use them as road transport. They do, however, pay that much for a beautifully crafted aluminium and carbon fibre body made by some of the best engineers in the business.
Japan forms a strong part of Aston Martin's push to diversify sales away from its traditional markets. This year the country accounted for 300 cars (almost double 2006 sales) and in the past 18 months two new dealerships have opened. Last month, Aston Martin's new importer for China, Taiwanese businessman Kenny Chen, opened showrooms in Beijing and Shanghai. In Hong Kong MF Jebsen has represented Aston Martin since 2003 and this year sold about 35 cars.
Design is at the core of Aston Martin's offering and Bez spoke of aiming to 'blend craftsmanship with hi-tech'.
Unlike Ferrari's product range which is easy to understand - the V8 engine in the back of the 430, the 12-cylinders in the front of the 599 or 612 Scaglietti - the different Aston Martins have a very similar appearance. There's a significant difference between the 4.3-litre V8 Vantage and the six-litre V12-powered DB9 and DBS. But what makes the DBS HK$1.5 million more expensive than the DB9? 'Just drive it,' says the marque's chief designer Marek Reichmann.
The DBS doesn't hit our streets until next April, Aston Martin Hong Kong says, but I recently tested the car on the quiet roads of southwest France. These are ideal for a car such as the DBS which, while a supercar, has the look of a grand tourer.
The heart of the car is the V12 engine which has been improved for the DBS with a new cylinder head and inlet manifold. It now produces 510 horsepower which is enough to get one into trouble in almost any environment while lacking the wow factor of the 620 horses claimed for the similar-sized motor in Ferrari's 599. The DBS sounds aggressive, but in a more understated way compared to the bark associated with Italian cars.
As the disparity with the 599 power figure illustrates, it's not difficult to extract 500bhp from six litres. Not having to squeeze power from a motor allows the engineers to work on what they call drivability. The result is a spread of power across the rev range (rather than a huge peak at the top end). For the driver this means being able to accelerate out of a corner whether the engine is at 2,000 or 5,000rpm. It's not necessary to stir the gear lever to get action from the motor.
At its launch the DBS used a six-speed manual box, but Bez says an alternative version will be available. Hong Kong has become a marketplace for paddle shift and push-button gear changes, which is a shame because it removes a huge part of the art of driving (as it has in Formula One). Commercial concerns dictate that some kind of electronic gearbox will be necessary but anyone who enjoys the tactile experience of driving will prefer a stick. The one in the DBS is square and fashioned from a metal alloy. The gear-changing action is positive and precise but the height of the arm rest may be a little uncomfortable for some.
Usually, I find traction control more of a hindrance to smooth driving than a useful safety feature but Aston has spent time on this. Perhaps with aggressive use of the throttle it would kick back in the same vein, but when driving quickly but smoothly the traction control plays the role of gentle protector, cutting back on power as it senses grip diminish.
In a straight line the DBS will accelerate its 1,695kg to 100kmh in about four seconds - a tick behind the 599. Terminal velocity is about 300km/h.
It's difficult to argue about anti-lock brakes, which must have saved countless lives and body panels on wet roads. With the DBS they are coupled with very impressive carbon ceramic brakes all round, as standard - the DBS being the first Aston to be so equipped. While they won't be needed much on Hong Kong's roads, the carbon ceramics cut the stopping distance by 10 per cent and are very resistant to fade.
Traditionally, a supercar has had to be either very stiff on poorly-surfaced roads, such as Hong Kong's, or sloppy at high speed. Computer-controlled damping has been the miracle cure for this and Aston's system works well. Sensing the speed of the car and how it is being driven, together with the conditions of the road surface, this clever system allows the DBS one moment to glide, Lexus-like, over the cracks and then become a stiff and stable racing car for high-speed bends. Aston's racing pedigree is strong: its emphatic win at the Le Mans 24-hours of 1959 was brought back into focus by a brilliant class victory for the DB9 in the endurance classic this June.
For local racing enthusiasts, 2008 will be an exciting year with the news of a new regional racing championship for Aston Martin's N24 model. Seven events are planned across Asia, including some long-distance races and inclusion on the programme at the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. This will raise Aston Martin's profile in Asia and help the marque's sales in new markets.
If the company continues to make cars that look as good and go as well as the DBS, this should not be too difficult.