Just two days after driving the new 2005 Aston Martin DB9, I saw a 300-pound Kirstie Alley sitting in one. She was stuffing a double cheeseburger into her mouth while large chunks of it fell onto her ample bosom, and all I could think was, "Man, I hope she doesn't get any ketchup on the hand-crafted leather seats or bamboo door trim."
I should probably clarify that this bizarre visual didn't come via a live sighting at a West L.A. Wendy's drive-thru, but rather it was the opening scene of her new Showtime series Fat Actress. While the series is supposed to be tackling Kirstie's weight problem head-on, it's obvious that the producers, and Kirstie herself, want to do everything they can to make the fat actress look good. For that reason alone they have chosen the right car.
Aston Martin's DB9 represents the latest step in an evolutionary rebuilding of the storied British brand. It started with the Vanquish back in 2002 and will culminate when the V8 Vantage goes into production later this year. While the V8 model will go head-to-head with some of the world's most capable sports cars (including Porsche's own 911), the V12-powered DB9 is meant to fill the role of "GT car with sporting intentions." Aston Martin's own CEO, Dr. Ulrich Bez (formerly of Porsche and BMW), was insistent when he told us the DB9 "is the most perfectly balanced car for both comfortable cruising and sporty driving I have ever experienced."
This is the same guy who oversaw development of the 911 Turbo, so trust us when we say that Dr. Bez is not one to argue with regarding the finer points of sports car design. His passion for today's Aston Martin was obvious, and someone even suggested that the "DB" in DB9 now stands for "Dr. Bez" instead of "David Brown," though Aston Martin reps refused to confirm this.
They did, however, emphasize the car's commitment to meeting the needs of today's GT customer. Starting with an all-new "VH" (Vertical Horizontal) aluminum-bonded platform, the DB9 is designed to offer maximum rigidity with minimal weight. Body panels, the double-wishbone suspension components (front and rear) and even the windshield support structure are constructed of aluminum, while the door panels, inner door frames, steering column and paddle shifters are magnesium. The 6.0-liter, V12 engine and rear-mounted six-speed transaxle are aluminum as well, and are positioned to provide the DB9 with perfect 50/50 weight balance.
The above efforts result in a GT that weighs a mere 3,700 pounds, or about 1,500 pounds less than a Bentley Continental GT and 900 pounds less than the Mercedes-Benz CL65 (assuming Kirstie Alley isn't at the wheel). With that kind of weight advantage, the 450-horsepower V12 — about 100 horsepower down from the DB9's main competitors — has no problem getting the coupe up to 60 mph in under 5 seconds before blasting onward to a top speed of 186 mph.
Certainly those numbers look good on a spec chart, but they don't effectively communicate the visceral thrill that comes from winding the V12 past 6,000 rpm and hearing its accompanying exhaust bellow. Low-rpm responsiveness is similarly thrilling, as the engine makes substantial torque at just off idle and offers 80 percent of its 420 pound-feet at 1,500 rpm. Turn off the stability control, power-brake the engine to 2,500 rpm, and the DB9 will melt its 275/35-19 rear tires faster than you can say, "Shaken, not stirred."
Dynamically, the DB9 feels every bit the lightweight Gran Tourer its spec sheet suggests, changing directions easily and responding to steering and brake inputs with an immediacy not always associated with this segment. We were slightly disappointed in the steering feedback, which felt heavier than necessary, and the suspension allowed for more movement during midcorner bumps than we might have chosen, even when set to "Sport" mode. But for most target buyers these traits won't be an issue, as the car effectively balances the luxury and performance characteristics expected from today's top-tier GTs.
But the real fun doesn't begin until you get familiar with the magnesium paddle shifters located just ahead of the steering wheel. Like any "automanual" design, they allow you to easily upshift and downshift the six-speed transmission without removing your hands from the wheel. But unlike any other system we've tried, this one works with the responsiveness and fluidity of a true manual even though it has a torque converter instead of a clutch. While you can order your DB9 equipped with a traditional manual transmission, this is the first high-performance car we'd happily take in automatic form. It offers all the seamless gear changes you'd expect when left in "Drive," but it responds instantly when you tap the paddles and even rev-matches with spot-on accuracy when downshifting. If the Aston Martin folks had told us it was a true sequential manual transmission, we would have believed them.
One aspect of the DB9 that was almost beyond belief was the quality of the leather and wood adorning the car's cabin. Words like "rich" and "crafted" just don't cut it, though "decadent" and "sculpted by the Almighty himself" get close. While "hand-built" may be a bit of an overstatement in today's world of machined body panels, the DB9 is hand-assembled through a series of work stations that can last up to 30 minutes (the average mass-produced vehicle gets between 10 and 20 seconds at each work station). Beyond the three wood choices (walnut, mahogany and bamboo), there are essentially no limits to leather or exterior paint matching options, as customers are encouraged to take full advantage of Aston Martin's personalization program.
None of this comes cheap, of course, with DB9 pricing starting at $155,000 for a manual coupe and ratcheting up to $173,000 for an automatic Volante (the convertible version, which will be available this summer). Asking for a custom exterior color adds $3,785, with custom leather requiring an additional $4,545. And we haven't even gotten to the Linn 950-watt, Dolby Pro Logic II audio system option — an additional $4,545, and well worth it by our estimation.
After 200 miles behind the wheel, we felt the DB9's perfect proportions, lightweight design and nimble dynamics bring together the best of today's Aston Martin. It certainly makes a good counterbalance to today's Kirstie Alley.