Cars: Raising the roof on the Aston Martin convertible

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on May 3, 2018.

The Aston Martin DB11 Volante has angles that beg to be driven at speed and an interior that is as premium as a private jet.

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The first thing anybody says about the Aston Martin DB11 is: “Oh! It’s such a beautiful car.”

And it is. The softly rounded clamshell hood, grinning dark grille, and a rear that is like a comet flaming across the sky combine to make this arguably the most visually stunning coupe on the market today.

Ever since Aston Martin owner David Brown launched the DB1 70 years ago, half of all Aston Martins built have belonged to the DB family. The group includes the stunning DB5, which came out in 1963 and appeared in Goldfinger the following year, and the DB10, which was created specifically for James Bond in the film Spectre.  

Led by the alluring DB11 line, Aston Martin last year posted its first profit in eight years, topping 5,000 cars sold worldwide for the first time since 2008.

“Volante” is Aston Martin’s way of saying “convertible”, and it is the update to the good-looking DB11 Coupe that debuted last year. It is the natural next step for Aston Martin lovers looking for a summer ride. The car is as beautiful as you could hope, with angles that beg to be driven at speed, an interior that is as premium as a private jet, with myriad exotic-wood options for the wide, swooping dashboard and bolstered seats stuffed under thick leather. Everything within eyesight says “rich”.

But that is with the top down. With the top up, you are dealing with a different animal.

The car is still nice but raising the canvas top over those infinitesimal rear seats and stretching it across the car’s wide, low body compromises every line the brand has worked so hard to develop and protect. I do not recommend it. Suddenly, the interior seems stressfully busy. Some of this issue is inherent in the design of the car, which comprises too many flippant details, some is optional such as the odd colour pairings in the one I drove. That Volante had endless stitching and layering and cut-outs in the leather seats that clashed miserably with the blue matte wood lining the doors.

Something is not quite right with the power adjusting of the seats. I could not find a way to sink into a good, neutral driving pose, let alone a comfortable position. I had to duck to see stoplights because the seats would not dip low enough to allow for a straight line from my eyes to the signal. This I have come to expect in a US$460,000 (RM1.81 million) Lamborghini, not in a US$216,495 tourer for dolce vita-style road trips with a loved one.

You can probably play with the angles, colours and trim to get a combination that ultimately suits you. Contemplating the seat configuration and the dashboard and the crowded centre consoles, it all felt out of touch. When all others are streamlining the insides of their cars, I wondered: Why all this fuss?

My guess is that this has something to do with China. Last month, Aston Martin announced that it had achieved 89% growth in that country last year and is doubling its number of dealerships there in 2018. Wealthy Chinese buyers seek out rich colours, flowing designs and chrome accents that signify opulence. Since China is set to become the largest market for luxury cars in the next year or two — having accounted for 90% of sales growth of luxury automakers last year — the market is central to any automotive business plan. Aston Martin is currently considering an initial public offering; it is likely to be reaching for Chinese buyers with these colour combinations and the Volante’s large size. (It is nearly 2,268kg and nearly impossible to reach across.)

Aesthetic issues aside, one cannot deny the thrilling performance the DB11 Volante delivers every time you push the gas. With the same 503-horsepower V8 engine as the DB11 Coupe, it is freaky fast and as strong as an ox. The DB11 Volante will hit 100kph in four seconds and has a top speed of 300kph.

I drove the Volante along the winding Angeles Crest Highway, a technically challenging road that put its eight-speed automatic and multiple drive modes with electrically adaptive dampers to the full test. It easily skipped past various other sports cars. It is precise on the wheels, with a tight-steering feel and silky smooth handling that gets more thrilling the faster you go. The throaty engine roar more than satisfies as you plant your foot on the gas and surge ahead.

When I really pushed it, the back end would wiggle a bit around the tightest curves but the DB11 generally clings to the ground. Torque is directed to the rear wheels, which helps keep everything down. It all makes the DB11 Volante a big, beautiful car that is solid, stable and fun to drive.

Just keep the top down and watch how you spec it out. There is not much margin for error. — Bloomberg