Zazzle Shop

Screen printing

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

2009 Aston Martin DB9 Volante

In Aston Martin’s lexicon, four-seat convertibles are known as Volantes, center stacks are called façades, and in the case of the DBS and the 2009 DB9, the key has become an Emotion Control Unit. That last term deserves a chuckle, because even for jaded automotive journalists, it takes more than a pocket-sized stainless-steel-and-glass transmitter to control the emotion elicited on rousing the 12 cylinders that live under the hood of a drop-dead gorgeous DB9 Volante.

Certainly, the DB9 could sell on looks alone, but when a car is this beautiful (and costs $200,000, give or take a shekel), performance expectations are high. And frankly, the DB9’s curb appeal hasn’t quite been matched by its performance up to this point. An automatic coupe we tested a few years ago took 4.8 seconds to reach 60 mph from a stop. That number is quick but not mind-blowingly so—just ask a Dodge Charger SRT8 or a Mercedes-Benz E550. It’s good, then, that Aston Martin blessed the ’09 DB9 with more horsepower, a quicker-shifting automatic, and minor chassis tweaks, all intended to help bring its thrill factor more into balance with its immutable beauty.

A Midcycle Refresh under the Skin, Not for the Skin

Any engine with nearly six liters of displacement spread across 12 cylinders should have plenty of power to motivate two tons of leather, wood, and aluminum with haste. But in previous tests, we’ve noted that the 449 horses produced by the 2005–08 DB9s somehow didn’t feel like 449 horsepower. This year’s update brings revised cylinder heads that increase the compression ratio from 10.3:1 to 10.9:1, putting 21 more ponies into the 5.9-liter V-12’s stable for a total of 470 at 6000 rpm, with torque remaining the same: 443 pound-feet at 5000 rpm. Of course, the aural soundtrack retains all the glorious notes we love in this particular V-12, which just roars once the needle crosses 4000 revs.

The six-speed ZF Touchtronic automatic transaxle features revisions for slightly quicker shifts, although a six-speed, three-pedal manual is still available. Our tester had the autobox, which we found to shift crisply and relatively quickly in sport mode, behaving in most respects like the excellent six-speed ZF transmission found in Jaguar’s XKR. We also like how the transmission paddles have been fixed to the column versus the wheel, but there were occasional moments when manual shifting led to some confusion on the part of the transmission, and when not in sport mode, we didn’t find shifts to be particularly fast. Still, Aston claims that 0-to-60 times for both manual- and auto-equipped DB9s are now down to a more estimable 4.6 seconds, and—even more to the point— it finally feels as if all horsepower were accounted for.

Specific Chassis Tuning for the Volante

The 4100-pound DB9 Volante is a proud GT, not a super-sports car. Built on Aston Martin’s lauded VH architecture, the Volante has always been pretty rigid, but some reinforcements were added this year to the front sheer panel, contributing another 10 percent of torsional stiffness. New Bilstein shocks, redesigned upper control arms, and retuned bushings were installed in all DB9s for 2009, and although tuning for the coupe focused on sportiness, the Volante’s setup prioritizes refinement.

So did the 2009 Volante go all soft on us? Not exactly. Steering remains pleasantly light and very precise. Ride quality is still GT-supple yet taut—a perfect balance for this car, and one that allows the Volante to traverse the pothole minefield known as the Sunset Strip while also keeping the body flat and stable during a couple of tail-wagging romps along the scenic switchbacks of Mulholland Drive. This is all managed with a double-wishbone front and rear suspension unaided by fancy Mercedes-Benz SL-like suspension electronics.

The only significant dynamic letdown was the brakes, which, as we’ve noted with earlier DB9s, require the driver to get deep into the pedal travel to find much response, and they don’t communicate a whole lot even once you’ve found it. Indeed, there were a few, uh, puckering moments on Mulholland before we got used to them (fortunately, none resulting in anything we had to pay for). Carbon-ceramics might be nice here.

Comfort: 10; Ergonomics: 2

The DB9’s interior is an intimate, elegant space that spoils occupants with myriad sybaritic delights, including terrific seats, a dazzling 700-watt sound system, lustrous metal-faced gauges, and thick, pillowy lining for the soft top. Every surface and material that one can see or touch is worthy of the DB9’s aristocratic mission. The center stack controls, for example, are set within an arcing slab of rich, glowing wood; our test car used mahogany. The speaker grilles are rendered in perforated metal, the column-mounted shift paddles in magnesium, and the lower console in zinc. And everything that’s not wood or metal—including both of the pointless rear seats—wears a coat of hand-stitched leather of such surreal softness and consistency, it’s as if the bovine donors had spent their precious time on this earth soaking in barrels of Oil of Olay.

Sadly, though, ergonomic shortcomings will sober a guy up faster than a swim across the English Channel in January. The artsy silver buttons on the “façade” look slick but are woefully unintuitive, with petite and indistinct buttons, tiny letters, and perplexing hieroglyphs that exact too much driver attention for even simple tasks.

We’re also not terribly universally fond of the dopey “P” “R” “N” and “D” gear buttons for the Touchtronic transmission spanning a center stack that, frankly, could really use more breathing room for larger controls and/or a decent navigation screen, the latter being a clunky, graceless aftermarket-esque unit that’s best left in its hiding place beneath its mahogany cover. More significant, a maddening joystick controller stands between you and any hope of speedy input for the navigation and advanced HVAC and stereo settings—it nearly made us nostalgic for BMW’s iDrive.

No Styling Changes? No Problem

But none of that matters when pulling up to the fanciest restaurant in town and scoring the best spot any showoff can dream up—a simple task with any DB9, but especially a Volante. Seriously, everyone loves this car; in contrast to many other $200K automobiles, the DB9 is nearly universal in its public appeal, and the attention never gets old (unless it happens to be from the local constabularies). Even five years after launch, the DB9 still stands out like a Swedish supermodel at a Tokyo swap meet, with timeless proportions, perfectly rendered details, and unique design flourishes like flush-mounted LED-lit door handles, mesh-covered hood vents, and those oh-so-cool doors that rise 15 degrees as they open. This design hardly needs improvement, so we have no problem with Aston’s decision not to match the changes under the skin with any changes to the skin itself, save for new mirrors and two fewer anodized aluminum bars on the grille.

With more than 10,000 units sold thus far, the DB9 is already considered the most successful Aston Martin ever. And with this year’s extra helping of excitement, it finally has dynamics to match its looks. In the Car and Driver lexicon, we’d call it “pretty damn good.”