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Aston Martin DBS reviewed

30-Dec-2008 • Bond Style

Does an automatic transmission cut the mustard in the top-of-the-range Aston Martin, asks Andrew English for The Telegraph.

I took my daughter to college in the Aston Martin DBS. It seemed like the sort of thing James Bond would do if only he could keep his girlfriends alive long enough for them to get pregnant. I hadn't considered the strange world of inverse teenage cool. She was very reluctant to be seen emerging from such wheeled ostentation.

"Come on," I said, "it's not often you get taken to college in James Bond's car."

"OK, dad," she relented, "but not actually into the college, please?"

It might not be much more than a gussied up DB9, but the DBS assaults the senses with its bodywork slashes and vents and that "Boom, Boom, Shake the Room" start-up procedure when the exhausts announce the Aston like a town crier every time you push the key.

Although it isn't actually a key, it's a matchbox-sized sapphire blob, which Aston calls an Emotional Control Unit. It's one of many things that could be considered quite embarrassing about this car were you not battling with agents of a foreign power. Trouble is, when you're in the lower sixth and there are a bunch of upper sixth boys standing outside the gates, it's excruciating. Ah, the blackboard jungle, I thought, swinging the long snout into the college gates. Scarlett squeaked and sank down in the seat.

Eyes followed us in and, as I turned the radio to Secret Agent FM, the twin Bang & Olufsen tweeters lifted up like mini missile pods at the edges of the dashboard. For all the criticism we have levelled at Aston Martin dashboards in the past there is a pleasing simplicity to the DBS fascia.

The big buttons with clear labels are matched by an intuitive radio/CD, with simple tuning and volume dials, ditto the heating and ventilation. There's also attention to detail, such as the dashboard down-lighting, which at dusk sends soft shadows over the grey hues. There is not, however, a lot of space. The storage space around the driver is tiny and the boot is only just big enough for a couple of airline cases.

You can now specify proper rear seats, but as there's no leg room, you are better off with the rear parcel shelf that is perfect for shopping, or a Walther PPK. The front seats are supportive, but uncomfortable for long journeys, and the fascia has some naff touches like the upmarket Biro slot at the bottom of the dashboard and the hidden fog lamp and parking sensor cancel buttons. The DBS is now one year old and, according to our correspondent Mike Rutherford, it is being discounted by as much as £23,875 off its list price of £165,500. These are straitened times indeed. Aston Martin has had to lay off more than 600 full-time and contract staff recently and part-owner, the Kuwaiti Investment Dar, is considering selling up to 20 per cent of the company. Cars like the DBS seem to be a requiem to our years of consumption, at least until the world once more peeps over the parapet of financial despondency. A couple of months ago the DBS was fitted with an option of the ZF automatic gearbox from the cheaper DB9. Purists must have swooned. A wussy automatic? In James Bond's car?

Refer back to our first drive of the manual DBS last October, however, and it's clear that the Graziano six-speed transaxle is not the last word in multiplying engine torque. The heavy cable gearshift has little feedback and is hard to use. There is virtually no flywheel effect and great care is needed when manoeuvring to avoid stalling or burning the clutch. Also the gear lever is mounted too far down the centre console for comfortable changes.

This ZF automatic transmission (which is also mounted in the rear axle) is a very long way from being a sort of slush-box American auto that slurs through ratios with all the precision of a drunk collapsing onto a pile of cardboard boxes. It should be no surprise that it works brilliantly in the DBS, because it does in all its other applications. When you've got a six-litre V12 engine, six speeds are more than enough and the ZF's change quality is tight, with the merest hint of torque converter slip. Put your foot down and the change down is almost instant, but the torque converter takes up just enough of the mechanical vehemence to insulate the experience with the thinnest gloving leather.

Pressing the drive button on the dashboard engages a full automatic mode, which is disengaged by pulling on one of the leather-trimmed, magnesium-alloy, steering-wheel paddles, whereupon the transmission is effectively a manual, with downshifts accompanied by a burst of revs to synchronise the gears. There is also a sport mode, with a more aggressive gear-change strategy, throttle responses and down-shift throttle blips.

The DBS has three speeds: swift, wow, and OhMiGod! The last option is just a twist of the ankle away and even on a dry road the traction control immediately lights up, struggling to contain the violence of 510bhp and 420lb ft hitting the road. In sport mode it's the tyres that light up and late one night, with the roads gleaming wickedly with frost, I drove the three miles from the nearest village to my house with the traction control lamp a constant companion and the front wheels rarely pointed in the direction of travel – it's that sort of car. Even on the way to Scarlett's college I was constantly reminded of the gossamer level of traction when the engine hits peak torque.

"It's pretty fast," I boasted, mashing the throttle to prove my point. The ZF changed down with barely a hesitation, the V12's revs flew up the counter and the rear tyres fishtailed up the road as playful as a dolphin with a hatchet.

"So it is," said Scarlett, staring at my sweat-beaded forehead.

Notwithstanding its considerable 6ft 3in width, the DBS feels almost dart-like. In fact, getting it out of London on a wet Friday night was as tricky as carrying a harpoon on a rush-hour Tube train. The Aston likes to travel fast and straight and not mix it on grotty roads with hoi polloi in electric wheelbarrows and on bicycles. For the most part, the steering has an exceptional feel and linearity, but on slippery roads it becomes disconcertingly light, with little indication of how much grip you are left with. In a front-engined car that's not good.

It's a noisy car too, the tyres give off a distracting roar, which the car's aluminium frame transmits faithfully into the cabin. Body control is sharp, but not over-harsh; as Bond might say, stirred not shaken. For a car capable of 200mph it's pretty good, although the enormous tyres flap into London's pot holes and the front spoiler catches the fattest sleeping policeman.

In practice, then, at all but the absolute extremes of the track, the auto adds an extra degree of refinement, allows more civilised manoeuvring and leaves the gear-change hand free for close-quarter gun play. Also, provided you are relatively easy on the throttle, it lets the engine lug down below 1,500rpm, which keeps things civilised, or would do if it weren't for the tyre roar and wind-in-the-pipes engine note. Apart from that our only major criticism is that the pedal box is too small for a pair of size 12s encased in a decent pair of Trickers.

"Did they like it?" I asked Scarlett that evening.

"I suppose so," she said. "One of the boys asked whether that was your everyday car and I said, 'No, you normally drive a DB5 with machine guns and an ejector seat..."

And they say secret agents are cool…

Price/availability: Touchtronic 2 £165,500 (manual £162,500). On sale now.

Engine/transmission: 60-degree, all-aluminium alloy 5,935cc, petrol V12, with chain-driven DOHC per bank and four valves per cylinder; 510bhp at 6,500rpm and 420lb ft of torque at 5,750rpm. Six-speed ZF automatic gearbox in transaxle, rear-wheel drive.

Performance: 191mph, 0-62mph in 4.3sec, EU Urban fuel consumption 11.7mpg (Combined 18.2mpg), CO2 emissions 367g/km.

We like: The shape, the steering, the unreal performance and you can now park it without filling the air with clutch smoke.

We don't like: That fuel consumption.

Alternatives: Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, £110,000. Audi R8, £78,195. BMW M6, £89,200. Chevrolet Corvette Z06, £62,695. Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano F1, £197,405. Invicta S1-600, £150,000. Porsche GT3 RS, £95,604.

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