The V-12 is a very old, very antiquated answer to a very old, enduring question: How do you make a lot of power smoothly with a reciprocating engine? Nowadays, with balance shafts and miniature-marvel computers, a turbo four-cylinder does a pretty good job, and more than one company makes a buttery V-8 that wouldn’t tip over a standing nickel. Add direct injection and turbos and you have V-12 power without the size, weight, and moving parts. But there’s just something about sitting behind—or in front of—two inline-sixes married at the crankshaft. The V-12 is the triple-axis tourbillon of an increasingly quartz engine world, and it delights us precisely because of its excessive parts count.
Oddly, Aston Martin considers itself a V-12 company, even though its most glorious David Brown era depended on inline-sixes. Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori won Le Mans behind one in 1959, and the straight-six served Aston well into the 1970s, when its attention turned to bulldog V-8s. The company didn’t get its first V-12 until 2001, a 5935-cc unit made by splicing together two Ford Duratec V-6s in a CAD program. Ferrari is a V-12 company; Lamborghini is a V-12 company; Jaguar is a V-12 company, though it hasn’t sold one in years. Aston Martin? Well.
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But we’re willing to forgive this conceit, which issues from Aston CEO Andy Palmer, a recent refugee from the upper ranks of Nissan who has two ideal qualifications for his current position: He is an engineer, and he is British. Under Palmer, and with company ownership divided primarily among investment groups in Kuwait and Luxembourg plus Daimler AG, Aston Martin is a brand on the move. The new DB11 featured here is the first shot in a rapid-fire (for Aston, anyway) six-year product salvo intended to more than quadruple company output to 14,000 vehicles per year and put Aston on sturdy financial ground.
Leading is the middle child, the DB11, introducing an all-new riveted and adhesive-bonded aluminum platform that shifts the emphasis from extrusions to stampings to create more cockpit space. It’s due in U.S. showrooms before the end of the year with a base price of $214,820. Next year the new entry-level Vantage makes its debut with a V-8 from Mercedes-Benz, a dividend of Daimler’s 5 percent stake in Aston. A redesigned Vanquish appears in 2018 as the top-spec two-door car, the styling of both it and the Vantage intended to build greater separation between the poles of Aston’s sports-car lineup. Convertible versions of all three will follow.
In 2019, the DBX crossover, Aston’s biggest gamble ever, will march forth from a new factory adjacent to a former RAF base in Wales. And if that isn’t enough, Aston plans to relaunch the Lagonda nameplate by 2020 with a luxury liner aimed at Bentley and Rolls-Royce; market an all-electric 200-plus-mile-range RapidE to giveTesla Model S customers a way to spend even more money; and produce more limited-run multimillion-dollar specials, such as the recently announced AM-RB 001, a mid-engine hyper-limpet conceived in partnership with Red Bull Racing.
Big plans. Inshallah, it will all come to pass.
Meanwhile, the DB11 is here, ready to be sampled in central Italy’s Tuscan highlands. This giant coupe is a thematic throwback to an age when Italians drove tiny Fiat Cinquecentos, speed cameras were unheard of, and the royalty cruised in Ferrari 365GTs and the like, high-beams flashing to shoo aside the peasants.
The world has changed, but we can still love the old ways. The DB11 is a big, powerful softy. In the cushiest of its three suspension modes, the dampers allow deep strokes and the car squats theatrically under acceleration, even shimmying a little at the rear if you catch a bump just right.
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Our route through Tuscany took in a lot of narrow, snaking roads, on which the car felt a bit caged if still competent. The brakes are firm, and the steering weight and tune are organic if not quite sharp enough for a pounding pace. The transmission paddles have excessively long throws, making manual shifting less than gratifying. Aston does get points for separating the suspension-mode control from the throttle/transmission control, of which there are also three positions. Thus, you can put the suspension in the more tied-down middle setting without being forced into a correspondingly sharper shift and throttle map. Turn both controls up to max-attack and the DB11 is still no street brawler. In Sport Plus it becomes about as aggressive as the Earl of Denbigh upon discovering that the brandy has turned.
Gaze at the photos for a minute and admire how Aston rolled the dice on some new ideas while also retaining the basic water-smoothed shape of a river stone, the one introduced with the 1994 DB7. The DB11 is long, low, and extravagantly wide, as was its slippery predecessor, the DB9. But it gets a little more technical with LED light blades, a few beveled edges, and the “roof strake,” a flashy bit of armor that arches over the cockpit and sacrilegiously cleaves the steeply raked C-pillar, an Aston trademark.
The strake’s mechanical purpose is to frame the AeroBlades, air ducts hidden in the rear haunches that direct wind through the body, squeezing and twisting it before exhausting it out a vent in the trunklid to reduce drag at speed. It also has an aesthetic mission: It can be ordered anodized in black, or body color, or as polished aluminum, and it demarcates the DB11 from all previous Aston Martins.
Another departure from the Aston coupe’s typical flowing beauty is the broken front wheel-arch line, which is punctuated by a deeply scalloped air vent where the huge new one-piece aluminum clamshell hood meets the body side. The C4 Corvette–like clamshell, a substantial engineering and stamping achievement, we’re told, supplies both closure-line cleanliness and pedestrian-impact regulatory compliance. Small winglets in the hood ducts that relieve air pressure from inside the front wheelhouses direct the stream of air out in a tumbling vortex pattern that mixes with hot engine-compartment air from the side vents to further aid aerodynamic efficiency.
Beneath it all is the new 5.2-liter twin-turbo V-12 that replaces the old naturally aspirated 5.9, which still powers the more expensive Vanquish for now. Like the 5.9, the 5.2 comes via Ford’s Cologne, Germany, plant, but Palmer swears up and down that Aston did the engineering. “We had a choice between doing a new V-12 or a new V-8, so we picked the 12 [for the DB11] and are sourcing the 8 [for the Vantage] from a partner,” he said, referring to Mercedes.
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Just two minor parts carry over from the 5.9, making the 5.2’s 60-degree block and four-valve, port-injected cylinder heads into a wholly new engine, as far as Palmer is concerned. The twin turbochargers are life extenders for the V-12, he says, giving the 12 one or two more generations before CO2 regs will force it into hybridization or oblivion. Also, cylinder deactivation is a fresh wrinkle. It engages at lower power settings to turn the engine into a pair of inline-sixes, the switch from one side to the other happening every 20 seconds or so to keep all the catalytic converters warm. There is no indicator and, from our drive, no indication that it is at work, the standard eight-speed ZF automatic going about its seamless business as though nothing has changed. Inherent balance is a wonderful thing.
DB buyers are Aston’s most conservative, says Palmer, even more so than those of the pricier Vanquish. Thus, the interior looks like a Florentine leather shop with a steering wheel. Fans of ornamental stitching are an optional upgrade away from the otherwise plain seats; same goes for the somewhat frilly brogue work on the center armrest and door leather that makes it look like a deconstructed dress shoe. Optional trims include carbon fiber or natural-looking wood. Daimler’s participation is evident in some Mercedes switchgear and the infotainment screen, which will be familiar to any current Benz owner.
You know you’re in a luxury GT and not a sports car because of the motorized center-armrest/storage-bin lid. Also electrified is the trunk pull-down and, in a first-ever seen by this author, the twin hood latches. Just drop the hood and electric claws grab it at two corners and draw it down. Mechanics will surely appreciate that feature, though owners might have preferred automatic door sealers instead.
In all, it’s a pretty fabulous way to sit behind 600 horsepower, even if the rear “seats” are nothing more than potato-sack holders with belts. Your kids may caterwaul, may even complain about the shortage of outward visibility, but you will look stunning scything through city traffic and onto the big motorways of the Continent.
No, it wasn’t until we hit the more open roads in the valleys, and especially the Siena–Firenze autostrada, that the DB11 reached its happy place. It roars along—a quiet roar, unaided by electronics except for muffler flaps that stay open in Sport Plus—inhaling lane lines. The V-12 betrays its compressors in the way it rapidly spools and plotzes a little too suddenly when you lift, but it’s still a marvelous engine situated in the perfect vehicle for such things.
And that’s why you’d want a DB11. Because if we can’t all go back in time, then going forward behind a V-12 is as glorious as it gets.