2021 Aston Martin DBX | PH Road Test
Aston has set the bar impossibly high for its first SUV. Does the DBX clear it?
By PH Staff / Monday, December 7, 2020
- Seemly, persuasive handling
- Predictably gratifying powertrain
- Really does look the part
- Interior good, but not class-leading
- Occasionally irritable slow speed ride
- Knowingly expensive
Oh to be a fly on the wall among the rank and file at Aston when the powers that be decreed an SUV would be built. Imagine the head scratching and pencil chewing and late nights that went into figuring out how to correctly channel a century's worth of sports car heritage in a model that weighs 2.2-tonnes and towers over your next tallest model. The DBX is the manufacturer's first five-seat car, is 20cm longer than the Rapide and only 2cm shy of 2 metres wide. Its footprint is marginally larger than a Range Rover. Aston claims it has the soul of a sports car.
Certainly it has the engine of one. The DBX obviously precedes the latest developments in its maker's deepening relationship with Mercedes-AMG, but the twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 is fast becoming the go-to unit for Aston following its debut in the current generation Vantage. The 550hp all-alloy petrol motor is mated to a bespoke platform, made from bonded aluminium. Its body panels are mostly aluminium, too. The chassis is equipped with three-stage adaptive air springs and 48-volt active anti-roll bars. There is limited-slip rear differential complementing the active centre transfer case which delivers permanent all-wheel drive. Courtesy of a ride height adjustable 'Terrain' mode, Aston says it'll wade through half a metre of water.
In short, it is a large, fast, expensive and very modern SUV. Its maker has made no mistake in that regard. Question is, can it also be a proper Aston Martin? Over and above being technically qualified, that distinction means succeeding in the intangibles as well. Fail to deliver on the pinch-me factor we associate with most Aston Martin products, and the most the DBX can hope to be is just another large, fast, expensive and very modern SUV. It's worth mentioning right out of the gate that it looks the part. In fact, in person, with its obvious nod to Aston's raked design language, it is a serious contender for the best looking SUV yet made. By anyone.
The exterior is so wantonly showy that the DBX's interior almost struggles to keep pace with it. Which isn't entirely unusual for its maker, and nor is it sub par by any means – but where the bodywork swoops and soars for your gratification, the cabin is merely as impressive as it can be with so much hand-me-down architecture incorporated. Happily, it is also as spacious as it needs to be, a distinction that anyone with less than fond memories of the Rapide will appreciate. Adult-sized children need have no fear of long journeys spent on the DBX's 40:20:40 split rear seats; the car accommodates two handsomely. Three even, at a push. Despite the provision of a full length panoramic glass roof it lacks the cathedral-like airiness of a Range Rover – presumably because the fastback styling stipulates some tapering of the body shell. Unusually for an SUV, you won't begrudge the sacrifice from the outside.
Climbing into the DBX's front seat, you marvel less at the roofline and more at the vaunted driving position. Anyone expecting to be countersunk into the cabin like a renegade DBS driver will be sorely disappointed; the DBX keeps you in the crow's nest – or at least it feels that way to begin with. Over time you get used to the arrangement, and start to rather appreciate your command view of the prominent bonnet. Like the rest of the car, the front seats are intended to be a clever compromise between ostensible sportiness and real-world comfort (and mostly succeed) and are trimmed in full grain leather from Bridge of Weir. In fact there is full grain leather and Alcantara all over the place. The DBX driver does not want for the authentic hand-crafted feel of things.
They might potentially want for some decluttering though. Even a conservative count puts the number of pushable buttons beyond 30. It's a lot to look at, even when the functions become a little more familiar. On the one hand the allocation of physical switchgear to all manner of individual duties is a godsend because it reduces time spent fiddling with the quite fiddly infotainment system. On the other, it does make the centre console seem a bit chaotic. Naturally the 10.25-inch display is powered by Mercedes software, which is in itself a mixed blessing. Certainly Aston could not have hoped to produce such a sophisticated interface on its own, and past experience suggests we should all be grateful it didn't try. But the donated setup is not without its frustrating peccadilloes; high among them Mercedes proclivity for hiding its rotary selector behind a sort of hand perch, which serves no apparent purpose beyond denying your fingers easy access to the dial. Still, that's a subjective complaint. Objectively, the DBX is lavishly trimmed, wonderful pungent and well-sized. Quintessentially British, in other words.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
If putting up with Daimler-made infotainment is the downside of Aston's latest partnership, the upside lives under the bonnet. At this point it seems justifiable to ponder if there is an object in existence which would not be improved by having the ubiquitous Mercedes-AMG 4.0-litre V8 twinned with it. A sprig of broccoli perhaps? Or the Royal Observatory? Because anything with four sides and a wheel at each corner – be it coupe or saloon or sports car or SUV – is apparently whisked into a state of near flawlessness as soon as the unit is connected to its mounts and switched on.
Aston says it's a slightly different variant of the engine found in the Vantage and DB11, boasting new turbos and a different compression ratio. The result though is much the same: power, in easily accessible, enormously quaffable quantities. Of course its forte is 516lb ft of coiled spring torque, available from 2,200 to 5,000rpm, and bestowing on the DBX that wonderful ability to surge heroically forward from almost any speed. A change in firing order is said to be responsible for the vocal character; whatever it is, it works. The V8 is pleasingly audible at idle and its marvellous, low-pitch presence sets the tone for almost everything good the DBX does. Sonically, it comes alive as you'd want it to, the ferocity and complexity increasing with engine speed. Peak power arrives 1,500rpm after the twist has waned, but the V8 makes it a crescendo worth chasing.
Its shortcomings are minor. In 'GT' mode, the default drive setting and therefore inevitably the most parsimonious, the nine-speed automatic is occasionally reluctant to supply the downshift the DBX needs to properly spur you away from a sharp corner. 'Sport' fixes this, and adds yet more layers to the soundtrack courtesy of the standard active valve exhaust system, although it speaks to the V8's overall moreishness that the paddle shifters are often the first recourse. The torque converter upshifts crisply and it is seldom that you want for more performance – though the 100hp the car gives up to the Lamborghini Urus is plain enough. The DBX is convincingly fast at a claimed 4.5 seconds to 62mph, but stops short of the neck-straining acceleration delivered by its silliest rivals.
While the fact of its 2.2-tonne kerbweight obviously plays a part in the car's performance, it is plausible that the DBX is precisely as quick as Aston meant it to be. Because it's readily apparent after no time at all behind the wheel that the firm's SUV isn't really intended to bludgeon the competition in the conventional way. The most striking thing about the way the DBX drives is the extent to which it rebuffs the Germanic approach to fast SUV chassis tuning. Aston has sought out a much more sympathetic compromise in the ride and handling department, one that speaks to the idea that the DBX should drive in a way that is consistent with your expectations of something so large and tall.
Given the benchmarking that Aston must've furiously indulged in prior to fixing the car's identity, it seems that the most prominent leaf has been taken not from Porsche or Lamborghini or even Bentley's book, but from Land Rover's. Not for the DBX a hard-nosed, hunkered down dynamic; in its default 'GT' mode the air-sprung, double wishbone front, multi-link rear chassis is chiefly concerned with providing its occupants with that rare thing – a nicely buoyant, bump-defeating primary ride. Unlike a Cayenne or Urus (but redolent of a Range Rover Sport SVR) it seeks to turn its longer travel suspension into a consistent virtue, letting the chassis breathe over the kind of low frequency undulations that makes its rivals feel implacable and unyielding. It makes the DBX seem easygoing – which makes going anywhere easier.
What it doesn't do it diminish the level of control experienced the driver. On the contrary, the quick ratio steering is a triumph: heftily weighted, oily in its resistance and tuned with just the right response rate. It helps that Aston deployment of electronic anti-roll bars is similarly well judged. The manufacturer hasn't surrendered to temptation and simply used the technology to defy the side effect of sending something so tall and squishy around fast corners. The DBX doesn't brace like its wearing stabilisers, it leans toward the outside of a bend in way that seems in keeping with the pliancy you've become accustomed to. As a result there's no bewildering disconnect between the car's size and its lateral limit because you're cued into both at speed. The DBX doesn't want to flummox you; it wants to be instantly comprehensible to someone who appreciates the various sensations of driving. And boy, what a difference that makes.
It doesn't throw the baby out with the bath water in 'Sport' either. On the right road, the firmer attitude and livelier throttle response get you up the road faster and turned in quicker – albeit with the giveaway head nod that comes from a sterner rebound. Regardless, the all-of-a-piece, fluid way the DBX changes direction is endlessly likeable, not least for the way it knowingly embraces its own burliness. Certainly it papers over its most obvious shortcoming, which is a tendency to thwack sharper obstacles with slightly less sympathy than you might expect. 'Thwack' is obviously a relative term: we're not talking lowered Mini Cooper S here. But 22-inch rims are unforgiving by nature, and marshmellowy low-speed wheel control is clearly not the car's primary reason for being. Aston wants the DBX to be swift and supple and satisfying at the national limit. It is.
Entering an established marketplace does hsve some advantages. The advent of hugely costly, luxury brand SUVs long precedes the DBX's introduction. Buyer acceptance of the concept – and its six-figure price tag – is doubtless softened by the launch of similar products built by Rolls-Royce and Bentley. The Bentayga, now available exclusively with a 550hp V8 engine, is arguably the DBX's closest rival and largely mimics its straight-line performance. It is slightly cheaper to buy – although the significance of list price savings in this segment are easily overstated. Buyers expect to pay more for the brand kudos of owning either model. That Rolls-Royce Cullinan buyers will part with much more for the same privilege, suggests that Aston's £158k starting price is in the correct fantasy ballpark.
Economy is also a relative concern. Objectively, and predictably, it is not spectacular. In its last 500 miles, our test car reported an 18mpg average, which is not too far adrift of its 19.8mpg combined score according to the WLTP regime. Anecdotally, the car is capable of much worse, and will indulge in hearty swigs of its 85-litre fuel tank if you revel too much in the V8's melody. But that probably won't unduly worry a DBX buyer either, unless they're concerned about the amount of petrol station visits a 350-ish mile range is going to result in. Without the burdensome addition of plug-in hybrid assistance, that's essentially par for the course in this class, too.
Aston Martin made no bones about the challenge it faced coming late to the SUV party. Buyers know precisely what they are getting when they opt to buy a Cayenne Turbo or Bentley Bentayga or Range Rover SVR. Even newer entrants like the Lamborghini Urus or Audi RS Q8 are fairly easy to understand from a distance. To guarantee the kind of conquest sales that its maker unequivocally requires, the DBX needed to emulate its rivals more likeable attributes, but avoid mimicking them too slavishly lest it seem overly contrived or redundant.
With all this front of mind, the resulting car is quite the achievement. The DBX doesn't look like any of its key rivals, and doesn't precisely drive like any of them either. In its element, and on the right road, it is persuasively superior to most if not all. Which, considering the firm's standing start, is mightily impressive even in isolation. But Aston's accomplishment is all the more inspiring for the sheer amount of Aston-ness it has successfully engineered into its first SUV. There is a thickset sort of exuberance to the DBX, and the high importance place on the feel-good way it drives brings to mind many past glories. And while it would be wrong to attribute it quite the same soulfulness or level of reward, it is also worth pointing out that this is probably the most liveable and downright amenable car Aston Martin has ever produced. In short, and against all odds, the DBX is everything it needed to be.
SPECIFICATION | ASTON MARTIN DBX
Engine: 3,982cc, V8, twin-turbo
Transmission: 9-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],500rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected]
0-60mph: 4.5 second
Top speed: 181mph
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