2024 Aston Martin DB12
We take on the epic Route Napoleon in the new DB12. Is this decadent super-GT a solid foundation for Aston Martin’s future?
WORDS TIM PITT
PHOTOGRAPHY MAX EAREY
DB12 FIRST TEST — ROUTE MASTER
A first drive of Aston Martin’s new sports car, the DB12, along the historic Route Napoleon in France
This is where Napoleon started his comeback. On 1 March, 1815, having escaped from exile, Monsieur Bonaparte and 1,000 of his loyal soldiers disembarked at the port of Golfe-Juan on the French Riviera. They then marched north towards Paris: a 20-day journey that culminated in the Battle of Waterloo.
IS THIS ASTON’S MOST FOCUSED GT TO DATE?
Today, that long, arduous trek is commemorated by the Route Napoleon. Taking in parts of the N85, D1085, D4085 and D6085, it is one of Europe’s fi nest driving roads: a 200-mile ribbon of tarmac that weaves through the jagged foothills of the Alps, then onward to Grenoble. Unsurprisingly, it’s also a popular destination for car launches, used extensively by Ford – and now by Aston Martin for the global debut of the DB12. Napoleon’s comeback ultimately ended in defeat, of course, but Aston Martin doesn’t look set for the same fate. Indeed, after the disastrous IPO in 2018, when shares valued at £19 eventually tumbled to just 30p, the company has bounced back with renewed confidence, boosted by fresh investment, a handful of F1 podium places and the appointment of former Ferrari CEO Amedeo Felisa.
DB12 FIRST TEST
Judging by the launch hotel, Aston Martin finally has some cash reserves, too. The newly built Maybourne Riviera is perched on a hillside above Monaco, with panoramic views of the glittering harbour. The narrow streets and underground car parks of this tiny principality are already chock-full of supercars, but a new Aston Martin still turns heads. “Beautiful,” says the orange-tanned owner of a very loud Lamborghini, sauntering over for a closer look. “How much is it?” Alex Long, head of product and market strategy at Aston Martin, would surely take heart from this interaction. He aims to shift the brand’s positioning away from ‘luxury’ marques such as Bentley and Maserati, and further towards the supercar sector: the fiefdom of Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren.
Following a string of performance-orientated models, including the Vantage F1 Edition, Vantage V12, DBX707 and DBS 770 Ultimate, the new DB12 brings a sportier focus to the core of Aston Martin’s range.
Well, that’s the theory at least, but the numbers certainly bode well. Power from the reworked 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 is up 29 percent to 680hp at 6,000rpm. Torque takes an even bigger leap, up 34 percent to 590lb ft from 2,750- 6,000rpm. In a car weighing 1,685kg – measured without fluids, in authentic supercar style – that means 0-62mph in 3.5 seconds and a top speed of 202mph.
Could Aston Martin have simply slotted in the DBX707 engine? “Yes, but it wouldn’t have suited this application,” explains Simon Newton, head of vehicle dynamics. “Our goal was to preserve everything that was great about the DB11, then massively extend its abilities.”
As the man who so successfully honed the ageing DBS into the brilliant, blaze-of-glory 770 Ultimate, Newton’s words carry plenty of weight. He points to this being the first DB model with carbon-ceramic brakes – an extra-cost option, fitted to my test car – and the first with an electronic limited-slip differential. Other high-tech chassis upgrades include a six-axis Bosch motion sensor and Bilstein DTX adaptive dampers with Skyhook technology.
The part Newton seems proudest of, though, is made by Michelin. The new Pilot Sport 5 S tyre was developed specially for the DB12, with a unique compound and ‘AML’ stamped on the sidewall. Consider that even the Valkyrie made do with off-the-shelf Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber, and that’s quite a coup. Perhaps it would feel less beneficial if you got a puncture in the French Alps, miles from an Aston Martin-approved tyre outlet. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Besides, for many people, a bespoke tyre pales in importance next to new infotainment. In this era Alex Long calls “peak screen”, the DB11’s woefully outdated Mercedes-Benz tech was arguably its Achilles heel. Here, it’s been replaced by a new media system, developed in-house by Aston Martin, with a 10.25in touchscreen, over-the-air updates, real-time traffic information and a complementary smartphone app. There’s wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, too.
For all its box fresh hardware and software, the DB12 is still unmistakably an Aston Martin. Director of design Miles Nurnberger describes it as “assertive, not aggressive”, highlighting the broader front grille, intricate headlamps, signature DB side strakes and boomerang-style rear lights. You won’t find any gaping air scoops or showy spoilers, but the car’s pumped-up physique reflects its added potency. It seems tauter and more muscular, perhaps closer to a DBS than a DB11.
That assertiveness is also evident in its stance. It looks squat and purposeful, hunkered down on 21in forged alloy wheels – “they save 2kg per corner,” Newton interjects – with an increase in track width of 6mm at the front and 22mm at the rear. Overall, however, the DB12 is fractionally narrower than its predecessor, thanks to its frameless door mirrors – one of Nurnberger’s favourite design touches. “The old mirror feels like a rugby ball in comparison,” he laughs.
PowerPoint presentations over, it’s time to collect the keys. Aston Martin has introduced seven new paint colours for the DB12, and there are four varied options on the cars assembled outside: Iridescent Emerald, Hyper Red, Neutron White and Satin Aluminite Silver. I’m quietly chuffed to be assigned the latter, a subtle hue that shows off the car’s sculpted curves. Will it also be the choice of a certain secret agent when the next Bond movie is released? Don’t bet against it.
Dropping down into the DB12’s low-slung seat, I’m immediately struck by the uplift in quality. The seats, dashboard and door panels are swathed in artfully stitched leather, while the roller switches on the centre console are tactile milled aluminium. Delve into the configurator and you can add a garnish of open-pore wood or lacquered carbon fibre, among a huge array of Q personalisation options.
Behind the rather plump steering wheel (which is round, incidentally, unlike the squared-off helm of the Vantage) is a configurable driver display. This offers a choice of two digital dials or an enlarged central rev counter with an inset speedo and gear indicator. In contrast to the DB11, the gear shift paddles are attached to the wheel itself, rather than the steering column – a backwards step, in my eyes.
The new touchscreen, however, is a huge leap forward. It looks crisp, responds in just 30 milliseconds and uses a simple, tile-based menu system. And while some manufacturers take the ‘bigger is better’ approach to screens – witness the new Mercedes-AMG SL, which appears to have a glitzy, supersized iPad bolted to its dashboard – the DB12’s infotainment feels neatly integrated and unobtrusive.
Also, in the unlikely event you get bored of V8 rumble and roar, there’s a new sound system from Bowers & Wilkins, the high-end British audio company that also supplies McLaren. With 15 speakers and 1,170 watts of output, it can comfortably drown out the kids in the back. Yes, the DB12 still has two – still very tight-fitting – rear seats.
I’m tempted to tackle a quick lap of Monaco’s famous grand prix circuit, but Aston Martin’s PR team has other ideas. No matter: the satellite navigation is set and the Route Napoleon lies ahead. The DB12 offers five drive modes, the familiar Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus, plus new Wet and Individual settings – the latter allowing you to create a custom setup. With an hour-long stint on the busy A8 ahead, I leave the car in Comfort and settle to a steady cruise.
The Aston Martin might be a more serious sports car, but it still eats up miles exceptionally well. Its ride is well-damped and the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, now with a shorter final-drive ratio, shuffles cogs almost imperceptibly. The big-lunged V8 is scarcely into its stride at motorway speeds, blasting past faded French hatchbacks with nonchalant ease. The press info labels it a ‘Super Tourer’, but it’s clear the DB12 is still adept at being an old-school GT.
As the terrain gets steeper and the views get steadily more spectacular, we stop near the town of Grasse for a coffee and a croque monsieur. Unlike some supercars, the DB12 doesn’t struggle with speed humps (nor does it have a hydraulic nose-lift), but you’re conscious of its girth on tight urban streets. Rear-three-quarter visibility is limited for parking, too, although the sensors and rear-view camera should spare your blushes.
Refuelled by double espresso, I select Sport mode to add some virtual caffeine to DB12’s drivetrain. Instantly, throttle response feels sharper, the suspension tightens its sinews and the gearbox ups its game. Right on cue, we pass one of the imperial eagle signs that mark out the Route Napoleon. Bring it on.
Chasing another hard-driven DB12, we attack a series of steeply-stacked hairpins. Bonaparte and his army must have toiled up this brutal ascent, but the Aston Martin makes light work of it, blasting between bends on a wave of plentiful torque. On hot asphalt, traction from the special Michelins feels immense, almost gut-wrenching. If I didn’t know better, I could believe we have four driven wheels.
Cresting the col, we plunge into an equally snakelike descent, the DB12’s carbon-ceramic brakes working tirelessly to scrub off speed. Now in Sport Plus, its steering is alert and direct, but the chassis feels steadfast and utterly planted. If the back end breaks loose, it’s almost certainly because you have provoked it, at least on a dry surface. Still, there’s a fine line between feeling confident and getting carried away – especially when threading between a serrated rock face on one side and a sheer drop on the other.
This section of the Route Napoleon looks incredibly photogenic, the kind of road you might see in a lingering drone shot on Top Gear. In truth, though, an Alpine A110 or Lotus Elise would feel more fit-for-purpose here. Where the Aston really comes into its own is when the road opens up, becoming looser and faster-flowing. With space to fully exploit its soaring revs and tenacious grip, the DB12 can cover ground with brain-scrambling speed. Overtaking dawdling motorhomes and the occasional 2CV, it carves through the hills like a knife through Brie.
It doesn’t offer the same level of sensory overload as a DBS, though. I drove the DB12 a couple of weeks after sampling the 770 Ultimate in the Cotswolds, and its V8 felt somewhat muted after the limited-run car’s shock-and-awe V12. Despite having its roots in Aff alterbach, the DB12’s engine doesn’t crackle and pop like the fi nest works of Mercedes-AMG either. Some will prefer that relative civility, while others may yearn for more bombast. Me? I’m hoping Aston Martin turns up the volume for the Volante version.
Speaking of engines, we know the venerable V12 isn’t coming to this car, but Simon Newton hasn’t ruled out a hybrid version. Aston Martin’s recent deal with American EV maker Lucid also opens up the possibility of a fully electric DB12 in the future. It’s an intriguing prospect, albeit one many enthusiasts will struggle to get excited about.
As the afternoon wears on, we turn back towards the coast – and the heavens open. Now the road seems far more treacherous, the margin for error so much smaller. However, in Wet mode the Aston Martin is smooth and controlled, its heightened stability control ready to catch any unruly behaviour. Some supercars would feel spiky and intimidating here; in true British fashion, the DB12 simply keeps calm and carries on.
Alex Long says that, in terms of character and dynamic performance, this car is positioned mid-way between a Bentley Continental GT and a Ferrari Roma. Having spent time in both those rivals, I think he’s right – and it feels like something of a sweet-spot. The DB12 can devour huge distances in comfort, yet it still comes alive on the right road. And roads don’t come any more right than the Route Napoleon.