The one rule for driving an Aston Martin is simple: don’t mention James Bond. You are not him. This car does not make you him. He is not real.
It would be a positive for both the brand and potential Aston drivers if the British automaker could get out from under Bond’s dashing shadow in the popular imagination. It’s one thing to assume quality based on association (which is, of course, bought and paid for, especially in the Bond universe), but it’s better to revere a car based solely on its own merits. That’s how you build the kind of loyalty that doesn’t fade with box office returns. And with Aston Martin, that should be easy, since there’s more to these cars than a fictional super spy — no matter how much love there is for Bond, James Bond, as a cultural reference point. The DB11 crunches along the white gravel driveway of the Villa Collalto in Tuscany.
The place is a kind of countryside manor, a collection of old stone buildings, some dating back to 1400, that once belonged to an aristocratic Roman family. We drive the DB11 between the square hedges and cypress trees, out past the old iron gates and onto the street. Collalto is the name of the town, but there don’t appear to be any other houses here, just a few narrow roads lined with stout stone walls. And vineyards; endless fields of craggy grape trees in messy rows. It’s over 30 degrees outside, and so far the best thing about Aston Martin’s DB11 — the company’s first all-new sports car in over a decade — is the air conditioning. Ice-cold air: completely worth the $250,000 price tag.
The DB11 is the most important car in Aston Martin’s 103-year history. You’ll be seeing a lot more from the company in the future than you did in its last century. Like most British carmakers, Aston’s had a checkered financial past, often flirting with bankruptcy. But now, at long last, with a new CEO and ample funding secured, the company is going on the offensive. Think of it as a rebirth. Seven new sports cars, sedans and even a kind of SUV are all coming in the next seven years. The DB11 is the foundation on which all others will be based. If it’s not good, if it’s not incredible, well, Aston has no hope of getting out from under Bond’s shadow.
Everything under the Tuscan sun is faded and withered, and the roads are no exception. They are awful. But you put up with it because this place is beautiful.
The DB11 flows along these roads. You expect a sports car of this calibre to put its passengers in a certain degree of discomfort. You expect to put up with it; it’s the cost of doing business with 600 horsepower. But it’s not the case in the Aston. Civility and an elegant kind of easiness are the priorities here. All-out speed and handling come second, and in the real world that makes sense. With these stone walls on either side of the road, inches from the wing mirrors, we wouldn’t have it any other way. If you want a race car, go racing.
You will remember your first time driving an Aston Martin, of course. Like your first great teacher, it opened up your mind. Mine was in California, the mountains behind Palm Springs. A V12 Vantage. It screamed up those hills like they weren’t there, a brutal, visceral machine. It was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. The DB11 is a very different sort of car, a grand tourer, but it’s still clear just how far Aston has come. The ride is no longer a compromise, and the gear-box doesn’t buck back and forth; the capability is broader. But it’s in the interior where you notice the biggest gains. Plastic has been banished. The quality has gone from Club Monaco to Savile Row.
The DB11 irons out the creases in these awful roads. Yes, it has 600 horsepower. Yes, the engine is a sledgehammer, a twin-turbo V12. Yes, it puts 516 lb-ft of torque through the back wheels. It is a real, honest sports car. But it’s also luxurious. This is the magic of Aston Martin, you begin to see. This — more than a movie spy — is what defines its cars.
The leather on the seats and headliner is brogued, just like your favourite pair of dress shoes. We’ve never seen this level of detailing in a car before. The outer layer of leather is cut in a pattern so an inner layer shows through. You can have the two layers in contrasting colours, or you can have no broguing at all. Aston Martin’s Q service — a call back to Bond’s Q — allows buyers to customize nearly everything in or on the DB11. Another option adds gold foil to the inside of the engine bay. Gold is an excellent heat shield, you see. It makes opening the hood feel like cracking open a treasure chest.
Unlike the Aston Martins of old, the DB11 features a new navigation system that never leads us astray. The electronics are hugely improved; 16 years late, Aston Martin joins the 21st century. The DB11 sends us on a tour of Tuscany, 350 kilometres that would’ve been utter torture in any kind of racy yellow road rocket.
But if you’ve seen one Tuscan village, you’ve seen them all. It’s the food that keeps us coming back. It doesn’t matter which Nordic chef is hot right now, nor which French master has the most Michelin stars. Tuscan cooking — heirloom tomatoes, thick olive tapenade, lampredotto, vegetables and grilled meat on a wood-fired barbecue along with bottomless bottles of local wine served al fresco at Villa Collalto — has a beautiful, honest simplicity to it. No bullshit. No molecular tricks or passing trends.
This, too, is Aston Martin. If you had to describe the DB11 in a word, you’d say it is beautiful: the way it drives, as well as the way it looks. It’s an honest car, sure of itself, devoid of Bond’s machismo and aggression. It’s the best Aston Martin we’ve ever driven, and the best car the company has produced in decades. Forget Bond. Aston Martin doesn’t need him anymore.