Aston Martin’s new SUV is actually extremely good: The 2021 DBX review
There’s no escaping the crossover, even in the poshest of neighborhoods. Everyone knows that the Cayenne saved Porsche, particularly in new markets like China, and that’s why we now have six-figure SUVs like the Rolls Royce Cullinan, Lamborghini Urus, Bentley Bentayga, and now Aston Martin’s $176,900 DBX.
Last year was a hectic one for Aston Martin, and that’s saying something for a company with as many ups and downs as its had during its 108-year history. Lawrence Stroll, Canadian billionaire (and dad to F1’s Lance) bought a 16.7-percent stake as part of a $656 million cash infusion. Stroll is also behind Aston Martin’s return to F1 as a constructor, with the British marque rebranding the team most recently known as Racing Point and hiring four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel to drive alongside
CEO Andy Palmer—who led the development of the Nissan Leaf earlier in his career—was replaced by Tobias Moers, formerly boss of Mercedes-AMG at Daimler. That strengthens ties with the German giant that supplies the low-volume British firm with powerful V8 engines and 21st-century infotainment tech. There’s a brand-new factory, just completed on the site of an old RAF maintenance base at St Athan, Wales. And it’s from here that the brand is diversifying its lineup with what it describes as it’s “first full-size five-seater.” (Which tells you everything you need to know about the rear seat experience in the now-retired Aston Martin Rapide, I suppose.)
Aston Martin has built sedans and shooting brakes before—but never an SUV
Unlike the Rapide, which was basically a stretched DB9, the DBX is all-new, and it doesn’t share a platform with anything else in the Aston Martin range. It does share a common philosophy though, one that involves building with bonded aluminum (both cast and extruded) for the chassis. The body panels are a mix of aluminum and composites, and together this all helps the DBX achieve one of the lowest curb weights in its class, albeit at a still substantial 4,940lbs (2,245kg).
Online, the DBX’s looks have been divisive. I first saw one at a heavily NDA’d private viewing a couple of years ago, and have been a fan ever since. I think it excels in the China Grey paint of our test car, with its black vents, grille, and wheels, particularly when viewed from the front. The vents embedded in the hood help you place the car on the road, and you can tell that drag reduction was at least one of the priorities from details like the handles that are flush with the doors when not in use.
Behind that characteristic grille lives a 4.0L twin-turbo V8. You’ll find a similar engine in the DB11 and Vantage, as well some AMG-badged Mercs That’s because the engine is one benefit of a technology-sharing agreement with Daimler, replacing a big thirsty V12. (Before too long, the V8 is going away, too, replaced by a hybrid V6, but that one isn’t quite ready yet.) In DBX trim it makes 543hp (405kW) and 516lb-ft (700Nm). Peak power doesn’t arrive until 6,500rpm, but the turbos ensure a broad torque plateau, from 2,200-5,000rpm.
I’ve not experienced the V8 in either Vantage or DB11, so I don’t know if its DBX tune is indeed smoother than in those cars. But the spec sheet says that it does run upgraded turbos and charge coolers, a different firing order, and a lower compression ratio than either of the two-seaters.
Transmission, chassis, et al.
There’s only one choice of transmission: a nine-speed automatic sourced not from ZF (as is the case with other Aston Martins) but from a Mercedes-Benz that allows the DBX to tow up to 5,940lbs (2,490kg.) There’s an active center differential to manage the front-rear torque split for the all-wheel drive system, then a single-piece carbon-fiber prop shaft connecting to the rear differential that uses brake-based torque vectoring, providing a clue to the DBX’s potential agility.
The DBX’s underpinnings are another clue. An ultra-stiff chassis is all well and good, but only if it’s complemented by the suspension. At the front, the DBX uses double wishbones, and at the rear, a multilink, with adaptive air suspension in place of conventional springs and dampers. (This gives the DBX 3.7 inches/95mm) of range between the lowest and highest settings.) There’s also an electronic antiroll system that firms or softens individual corners to soak up bumps in aid of ride comfort, or negate body roll in aid of handling, depending upon the DBX’s mode.
Happily, this turns out to be more than just PR fluff, because the DBX is a remarkably nimble vehicle to drive. Its power-to-weight ratio won’t rival a lightweight sports car, but having so much torque available from so low in the rev range means the DBX is no slouch. In fact, the high-up driving position and prodigious amounts of power and torque at your ready disposal make the DBX feel unstoppable in that Forza Horizon kind of way. (Please note, I did not actually drive across the scenery—I merely stuck to the blacktop.)
I’ll go as far as to say the car handles better than any SUV has a right to do, a sensation it shares with one of its close rivals the (even more-powerful) Porsche Cayenne Coupe Turbo S E-Hybrid. I think it’s also a better driving experience than the DB11 we tested a few years ago, again in part because the SUV driving position gives you visibility you simply don’t have when you’re sitting a couple of inches off the ground. (And you try squeezing four people and some luggage in a DB11!)
There are six different drive modes. Two of these are for off-road and rugged terrain, something we didn’t get a chance to test. GT is the default, and it’s the most comfortable and quiet on road. Then there’s Sport and Sport+, which sharpen the throttle and steering, stiffen the suspension, and do all the other things you’d want your DBX to do if you were an MI6 officer in a hurry. (The final mode is individual, which lets you can mix and match your own settings.)
It’s not entirely perfect, however. I have a handful of minor complaints and a major one when it comes to the DBX, although only one of them is probably a dealbreaker for the Ars audience. For one thing, the accelerator could be a little twitchy in reverse, when trying to back out of parking spaces. I don’t love the placement of the transmission selector buttons on the top of the dash, but that would probably go away if the DBX was a car I drove every day.
The rubber-lined cupholder can grip drinks containers much more firmly than you expect, leading to a tense moment when I wondered if the cup containing my large Diet Coke was going to give way before the cupholder, soaking the interior. (It didn’t, thankfully. And hey, the drive-through test is something all high-end cars should be subjected to.) And the stitching that marks 12 o’clock on the steering wheel is raised and uncomfortable under hand.
Those are all minor complaints. The DBX’s thirst is less excusable, considering that 2020 was tied for the hottest year on record and that trend is only going in one direction. 15mpg (15.7l/100km) combined is pretty lousy, and it only improves to 18mpg (13l/100km) on the highway, despite cylinder deactivation and nine forward gears. Most people spending close to $200,000 on an SUV probably care little about the planet, but those that do should probably consider the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid Coupe, which is similarly exciting and nimble to drive. At least until Aston has its own plug-in ready to go.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin