First drive: Aston Martin DB11 V8 [Review]by Steve Siler
With a little help from AMG, Aston sportifies its big GT.
Through the years, engine downsizing had gotten a bad rap. Deservedly so, in most cases, as anyone who ever drove a late-70s muscle car can attest. But thanks to the shrewd (and liberal) use of turbochargers, today's carmakers have been able to make downsizing work—and work well. Look no further than the four-cylinder-powered Porsche 718 Boxster/Cayman or the Honda Civic 1.5-liter models for proof. Downsizing certainly didn't hurt the iconic Porsche 911 Carrera and Carrera S, either, which got considerably quicker and more responsive once its new turbo 3.0-liter flat-6 replaced its naturally aspirated 3.4- and 3.8-liter predecessors in 2016. Even higher up the price scale, the Bentley Continental GT drives more sharply and is not much slower with a 500-hp 4.0-liter V8 in place of its traditional 616-hp W-12. The Continental GT V8's cheaper price doesn't hurt either.
And now, Aston Martin is attempting the same trick with its 2018 DB11, adding a cheaper, nominally less potent V-8 model beneath its 12-cylinder flagship model, a model that will be easier to pawn in countries where stylish, wealthy people live but which tax automobile sales based on the displacement of their engines, sometimes quite prohibitively. Unlike Bentley, however, Aston didn't have the corporate parts bin from VW Group to raid when it wanted a nice V-8, so Aston Martin looked to the star—the Three-Pointed Star of Mercedes-Benz—to find a suitable V-8. And the V-8 it wanted was no ordinary V-8, but AMG's sensational, hand-built, twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter "M177” V-8. This reverse-flow, "hot-V” engine has spread across the top tier of the Mercedes-AMG lineup, where it ranges in output from 469 hp in the C63 to 602 hp in the E63 and S63. It also powers the gorgeous AMG GT lineup, where it makes between 469 and 577 horses, depending on model. In any case, the prolific M177 is a prime motivator if ever we came across one.
Aston didn't leave the M177 alone, however, fitting it with unique intake, exhaust, and pressurized wet sump lubrication systems, as well as its own ECU programming and throttle mapping. A concerted effort was made to engineer the exhaust note for less of the deep, wall-shaking rumble that characterizes the AMG models and more of a refined baritone sound that they says better fits an Aston Martin. The AMG deal didn't include AMG's 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, so Aston used the proven eight-speed automatic also found in the V-12 model. Aston also sought to make V-8 models visually edgier with darkened headlamp surrounds, smoked taillamp lenses, and a black grille. Two of the DB11's four hood vents have been removed, but otherwise the two models appear identical.
When all the pieces came together, the engine's output stood at 503 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 498 lb-ft of torque, the latter available from 2000-5000rpm. Even better, the engine's smaller size and lighter weight relative to the 12-pot contributes to an overall weight loss of more than 250 pounds, mostly off the front wheels, dropping overall curb weight to a trim-for-its-size 3,880 pounds. Everything was looking promising.
Especially on the outside. As a DB11, the car is eminently gorgeous, but with the blackened trim and smoked lamps, plus the black roof on our metallic white tester, the gentility that characterizes the V-12-powered DB11 gives way to a rather more villainous countenance. The huge 20-inch 10-spoke wheels are wrapped by fat Bridgestone S007s measuring more than 10 inches wide in front and nearly a foot wide in back. The interior was swathed in a shocking Indigo Blue with bright orange contrast threads, which made its matte carbon fiber trim basically disappear. Personally, your author loved it. Not everyone agreed. Yet, as always, controversy becomes an Aston Martin—if anything, it showcases the quality of the car's full-grain leather, and Aston's remarkable talent of assembly—and the fitments were no different than in the V-12 model.
Happily, as we discovered on the gorgeous roads of northeastern Spain, the V-8-powered DB11 still has deep reserves of power, and rides and stops much like its more powerful twin, only it has become friskier and somewhat less serious-feeling with so much less weight up front. Indeed, it feels like a much smaller car. The ride remains supple, yet turn-in is crisp and body roll seems effortlessly held at bay even under maximum lateral loads. The front end felt less prone to bounding or bottoming out over humps and dips. It's remarkable what some strategic weight loss can do for agility.
And it's not just a dancer, it's a sprinter. In the DB11, as with so many new AMG products, the twin-turbo V-8 is a prodigy. Whereas the larger V-12 suffers from a bit of turbo lag, the V-8 pours on buckets of power with no waiting, and the throttle calibration is utterly perfect, delivering the power with a steadiness that almost makes you wonder if it is, in fact, turbocharged, even with the drive mode selector in Sport or Sport Plus. The eight-speed automatic worked in perfect harmony with the V-8; shifting ratios with alacrity in the sportier modes but operating imperceptibly in GT mode.
The only aspect we could remotely characterize as disappointing was the "carefully engineered” exhaust note, which was at times very loud (and appropriately so, we think) but to my ears, it sounded a tad shrill, with clearly defined power pulses at mid- to high timbres but conspicuously missing the bass notes. It provides a suitably dynamic soundtrack to raise one's pulse during high-speed hijinks, but by the end of our day—most of which was spend in Sport or Sport + mode, where the sound is at its snap-shifting, crackling-on-the-overrun best, we were ready for some peace and quiet. Also worth mentioning is that this first drive event had the unfortunate timing of taking place immediately following a week during which your author drove a version this car's Three-Pointed counterpart, a Mercedes-AMG GT C, and in that car, the V-8 is all about the bass.
But that's a misgiving we'd probably be willing to overlook considering its spectacular acceleration, gorgeous looks, and starting price of $198,995 (plus $2,825 for delivery), a $17,500 savings over the 12-cylinder model. In this case, engine downsizing has had an even more dramatic effect than in the case of the Bentley Continental GT V-8, with this car's lower weight and sprightlier handling making it the most fun to drive of the DB11s everywhere but the dragstrip. Now, to the exhaust sound engineers: could ya turn up the bass?
Photos by Steve Siler.