Aston Martin Unveils its First SUV, and it’s Aimed at Women
Rather than trying to guess what women want from their car, we set up a female advisory board.
AUSTIN, TEXAS—Jimmy Durante was an American song-and-dance man who was a star on radio, television and the movies. Although he’s been dead since 1980, you still hear him at this time of year because he had a hit with “Frosty the Snowman.”
Durante was famous for his sayings, among them: “I hate music, especially when it’s played,” “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them again on your way down,” and “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” which was a pet name he gave his wife one day after driving through a town with that name in North Carolina. It became his sign-off on radio and TV.
I got thinking about Durante here in the state capital of Texas recently when I, plus a small number of other journalists, was given a sneak peek at Aston Martin’s first SUV, the DBX, which was formally introduced two weeks later at the Beijing Motor Show and the Los Angeles Auto Show.
An Aston Martin SUV? Aren’t there enough SUVs around already? It was then I thought of Durante and another one of his sayings: “Everybody wants to get into the act,” although, with his Bronx upbringing, it always came out as, “Everybody wants ta get inta da act.”
No manufacturer wants to be left behind these days when it comes to competition in the marketplace. And not only does everybody want to get into the act, they must. If you’re an Aston Martin sports car aficionado, for instance, and you have a family, then you probably also own an SUV. Until now, Aston didn’t make one; now it does.
Andy Palmer, president and group CEO of Aston Martin, told me in an interview that day in Austin that 72 per cent of current Aston Martin owners also have an SUV in their garage. He didn’t come out and say it, but the inference was that 72 per cent were potential DBX customers — along with everyone else in the luxury SUV segment.
“The goal of this car is to be the best-looking SUV on the market,” Palmer said. “It’s like a Savile Row suit; it’s been made to your specification and it’s been made with passion. DBX is the most beautiful of all the SUVs.”
At present, nearly 95 per cent of Aston Martin owners are male. Although Palmer would like anybody and everybody to buy the DBX, the firm that makes the cars that James Bond drives would prefer it if a few more women were to get behind its steering wheels. And so, during our peek (in which we were sworn to secrecy until the Beijing-L.A. rollout) and the formal unveiling itself, there was an emphasis on how much effort had gone into the design of this automobile in order to attract women, although the company was quick to clarify that it’s not talking about making cars only for women but rather to make cars more practical for women and families, as well as men.
“Aston is cool, but if you can make it cool amongst both men and women, that makes it very, very powerful,” said Palmer, who’s hoping the DBX will prove sufficiently popular to pull the British automaker out of the financial doldrums it periodically finds itself in.
“One of the targets of this car is the female customer,” he told us in Austin. “Rather than trying to guess what women want from their car, we set up a female advisory board. They’ve been with us from the very beginning (he said he commissioned the car, and the board, in 2015, four days after he joined the company). We agonized, in particular, over how the five seating positions should be. It probably took us a year to get that perfected, but the seating points are such that the ingress and egress are as best as can be.”
Particular attention was paid to the seating position for the driver. It took them six months to get that one just right. And at the simultaneous launch, Aston said “each button and dial has been carefully positioned following extensive testing from external counsel, including the female advisory board, and multiple customer clinics of mixed demographic, ensuring the cabin develops a feeling of instant familiarity.”
In addition to making painstakingly sure that things are just right inside the car, extensive outdoor testing in places like northern Sweden ensured the SUV could perform to capacity when it comes to all kinds of weather and conditions.
Palmer said the reason he joined Aston Martin was to be able to build the most beautiful SUV in the world.
“I want to explain the thinking behind this car,” he said, “and what we were trying to produce. The first thing is that we didn’t use anybody’s else’s architecture. We could have — Daimler’s, for instance — but we chose not to because we didn’t want to be constrained.”
He added, “This clean sheet of paper has allowed all departments within Aston Martin to innovate and push the boundaries of what British design and engineering can create.”
The car, he said, is made of bonded aluminum and is “exceptionally stiff and exceptionally light,” designed to allow maximum room in the cabin (Palmer, in Austin, noted “there’s a lot of room in there”). Plus, the stiffness in the design of the car ensures a solid footprint both on- and off-road.
Speaking of off-road, adaptive triple volume air suspension — when combined with the latest 48v electric anti-roll control system and electronic adaptive dampers — enables the ride height of the car to be raised by 45 millimetres or lowered by 50 mm. When under power, this can help to tackle a wide range of terrain; when parked, it can help with getting in and out of the car.
The interior of the DBX is designed so there is equal space in the rear as well as the front. Sports car seat packaging in the front not only provides the driver with solid support and long-distance driving comfort, but also knee and footwell clearance for those sitting behind. And it’s bright in there, thanks to a full-length glass roof. All available active safety systems are on board to add to the sense of security.
The female advisory board was responsible for many of the small touches throughout, including separate central armrests, glove-compartment design and the ergonomic positioning of the car’s control systems. The centre console has room for storage below. A 12.3-inch screen sits directly in front of the driver showing speed, fuel, oil pressure and temperature gauges, while a 10.25-inch touchscreen sits flush in the centre console and provides a wealth of information and entertainment. Apple CarPlay comes standard, as does a 360-degree camera system.
Aerodynamic design has also played a key part in passenger comfort because, as one of only a few companies using aeroacoustics technology, Aston Martin’s engineers have been able to keep cabin noise to a minimum.
The company boasts the DBX’s exterior is as exceptional as the interior at bringing the elegance of Aston Martin’s sports cars into the world of the SUV. From the signature grille at the front through the sculptured sides, this is an Aston Martin from first glance to detailed inspection, it says.
With 632 litres of trunk space (the rear seats can fold down, increasing the amount), a variety of luggage can be handled, including golf clubs as well as suitcases and backpacks. And some of the optional accessory packages are interesting: the pet package, for example, includes a portable washer to clean off a muddy dog after a walk.
Palmer said the DBX is using the Daimler four-litre twin-turbocharged V-8 engine (542 hp; 516 lb.-ft. of torque; zero to 100 km/h in 4.5 seconds with a top speed of 292 km/h) mated to a nine-speed automatic gearbox coupled with a four-wheel-drive system with active differentials, which means the car is powerful and robust. Cylinder deactivation can help to improve fuel economy. And the active exhaust system ensures the SUV can sound refined when cruising along Yorkville Avenue and powerful when stretching its legs out on the 407.
“As well as being the best-looking SUV, we want this to be the best driving SUV,” Palmer said. “The (Porsche) Cayenne is acknowledged to be the best in the segment, and we wanted something better than that. It’s a very important car to us. We think we can sell about 4,000 a year (several hundred in Canada). We hope it’s the best it can be.”
Palmer added: “DBX is a car that will give many people their first experience of Aston Martin ownership. As such, it needed to be true to the core values established in our sports cars, while also providing the lifestyle versatility expected of a luxury SUV. To have produced such a beautiful, hand-built yet technologically advanced car is a proud moment for Aston Martin.”
Now, although I saw the car in Austin, I couldn’t drive it. But I did have a shot at the next best thing, an Aston Martin Vantage sports car that is powered by the same engine as the DBX. Arranged by Aston’s Americas president, Laura Schwab, my co-driver and I — an American writer named Larry Printz — drove the Vantage through the hill country of central Texas and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves putting it through its paces.
For starters, the power-to-weight ratio in the Vantage is exceptional. It weighs just 1,530 kilograms, compared to the SUV’s 2,245 kg. So, right away, we were flying (being careful to obey all posted speed limits, of course). The Vantage was nimble, the steering was precise and the handling was to die for. Both of us agreed that if we had the money, the Vantage would be at the top of our wish lists (although to be fair, Larry wasn’t quite as gung-ho as I was).
In short, it was a lovely sports car to drive, and I’m glad I had the chance. Now, if Aston is reading this, I’d like to be invited to test-drive the SUV — for comparison purposes, of course.
As well as getting a sneak peek at the DBX, and driving around Austin in the Vantage, I was most fortunate to spend the rest of the early November weekend at the U.S. Grand Prix (Aston Martin is a sponsor of the Red Bull Racing Formula One team), which is held each year at Circuit of the Americas just outside Austin.
On the Saturday morning, I had my head down as I crawled into the middle seat of the bus that was to shuttle us to the circuit and was surprised when I heard, “Hi, Norris.” I looked up and here I was sitting beside Canada’s next Formula One driver (we hope; fingers crossed for him), Nicholas Latifi of Toronto. He was with his coach, retired racer David Tennyson, and while they were heading for the Williams F1 paddock area — Nicholas is test and reserve driver for Williams — I, of course, was on my way to sample some of Aston Martin’s hospitality.
It was delightful spending time in Red Bull Racing’s garage during final practice and qualifying, and meeting drivers Alexander Albon and Max Verstappen. I had a few moments to talk to Verstappen and was surprised, considering he’s been the victim of several “bad calls” this F1 season (the final race of the year takes place in Abu Dhabi on Sunday), when he insisted he liked the current officiating system.
I had suggested a permanent panel made up of retired F1 drivers might be preferable to the revolving group of bureaucrats that serve at present, but he was shaking his head before I’d finished asking the question.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a fixed panel because if you don’t like them and they don’t like you, then you’re really in trouble,” he said.
“With the death of Charlie Whiting (the FIA’s Formula One race director, at the beginning of the season), it meant new people had to come in and it took awhile for them to settle in. It was not easy for them, but they’re getting better. They make mistakes and we, the drivers, make mistakes. You just have to deal with it.”
The F1 race (Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas won it; Verstappen finished third) and the drive in the Vantage was the icing, while the cake on this trip was the DBX SUV. If you think you would like one, here’s how to go about getting it.
The MSRP in Canada is $218,400 plus the usual taxes, freight and so-on. There are two Aston dealerships in Toronto — one downtown and another in Vaughan — and they are taking orders now. First deliveries are expected in the second quarter of 2020.
Readers might be surprised to know that, except for Los Angeles, more upscale, expensive, luxury cars are purchased in Toronto and the GTA than anywhere else in North America. So, there’s definitely a market here for these cars.
Norris McDonald is a former Star editor who is a current freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @NorrisMcDonald2