It's all change at Aston martin, with the Virage being replaced by the DB9 and the DBS phased out for the forthcoming Vanquish. And yet somehow it manages to remain the same, with each new car hanging on to a piece of the old. Each one achingly beautiful and inspiring to drive: it's almost as if nothing has changed, and yet the design language travels its progressive path toward perfection.
Some people criticize the brand for making all its products look the same but that universal truth can equally be applied to Porsche, Audi, BMW, etc. It's the subtlety that differentiates each model, appealing to the purist, the cars becoming instantly recognizable to the masses.
For such a small company, their production rate seems frantic. We've only just driven the new Vanquish (EC 4/13) and recently compared the DBS Volante Carbon Edition to soft-top versions of the SLS AMG and BMW M6 (EC 12/12). Yet where the DBS had sprouted spoilers and vents to herald its 510hp V12, the DB9 houses the same powerplant with more restraint. It does indeed have cooling vents on the hood but these are beautifully cast from solid and finished in brushed zinc, mimicking the solidity of the front grille.
There's no cheap plastics here. Every surface is lovingly sculpted from the finest materials, finished by artisans. So is the inviting interior, with its acres of soft leather. In our example it was contrasted by white stitching and piping that gave form to the incredibly comfortable bucket seats.
Every surface was finished in a different texture, from the grey alcantara headliner to the matte carbon console, brushed aluminum knobs and grey-painted speaker grilles of the B&O stereo that featured pop-up tweeters on the dash.
This particular car was finished in Silver Birch - famously the color of 007's DB5, in case you'd forgotten how cool an Aston can be.
It's impossible not to fall in love with the sensuous shape, rich exhaust note and dramatic driving experience. But if we do have to cast a critical eye over the DB9, we'd question the validity of rear seats that even small children wondered at. There's simply nowhere to put the smallest legs behind the front seats. And the nav screen still rises grandly from the console, now offering a rearview camera among its limited arsenal. Yes, it will guide you to a location, but why must the radio, bluetooth, ventilation and iPod information be displayed on a tiny LCD screen below it? Surely somebody could link these functions to the large color screen?
Our frustration comes after the same complaint with the DBS, with seemingly no technical advance in this area between models.
You might also complain about the six-speed automatic transmission that has yet to be replaced with a dual-clutch. However, easy parking is compensation for a slightly ponderous gearchange. At low speeds, it works like a regular auto, allowing the car to creep in traffic and into a parking bay. Many dual clutch transmissions are a pain to park because they have a high stall speed and won't creep from a standstill, so parking becomes a series of lurches forward.
As we said with the DBS, the DB9 is a flawed masterpiece and one we're perfectly happy to accept. We heard no complaints when that V12 howled up the rev range, and none as we lowered the windows in every tunnel we encountered. Nor were there complaints from the thousands of motorists who rushed to get a closer look or snap a photograph of this gorgeous machine.
Admittedly, the price prevents it from becoming a regular sight on US roads. And high insurance costs make it less popular than its German rivals, but let's not get tangled in the mundane. If you can afford one, just test drive it. All will become apparent.
Any test drive should involve a high-speed stop to standstill because the standard carbon-ceramic brakes are beyond powerful. They can initially feel rather wooden, and require a lot of pedal pressure at low speeds, but get into triple digits and these amazing anchors make all the sense in the world.
We found them easier to modulate than the DBS, while the chassis was equally forgiving of road imperfections thanks to the wonderful Adaptive Damping System. We were astonished at how well this sports car absorbed everything from freeway joints to canyon ruts. In fact, we rarely bothered with the Sport setting since Normal worked so well.
We have to admit to rarely turning off the traction control either. Despite its 295/30 R20 Pirelli P Zero rear tires, the V12 had them spinning from a standstill with very little provocation. Hard cornering brings the same response, with the traction control allowing some sideways slip before intervening. But when the document you signed for the $208000 car is etched into your memory, caution is the better part of valor.
Rather than simply fawn about the DB9's exterior, we spoke to two design professors from the Art Center in Pasadena to get their perspective. First up was Stewart Reed, Department Chair of the Transportation Design program.
"My first impression is that it's thoroughly appealing. Struther MacMinn used to say wheels are the last part of the chassis that still shows, and with this car you get the sense it's really stretched over the chassis.
"The execution has been delightfully simplified. Most contemporary cars are too cliched, in my opinion: there is lots of material change and forms along the lower part of the body, yet the DB9 is simplified and pure Aston Martin.
"I'm taken by the front end, the notch inside the headlights - it's typically Aston Martin. It's subtle but it's there.
"The car is consistent from front to the rear. I particularly enjoy the cabin with its taper to the rear that gives broad shoulders. It's just spectacular. This is one of the most successful Aston Martins to date.
"As for the interior, I could live in there. The topstitching and piping are consistent with British tradition but not overdone, it's the right scale of things. Many interiors have too much brightwork but this uses beautiful low-gloss finishes."
We then spoke to Tim Huntzinger, Systems Designer at the Transportation Design program.
"The proportions are stunning. It's low and long, and its subtle curves caught my eye even in low-light conditions like this morning. The mark Henrik Fisker left on the brand continues today, with its strong hips and DLO (daylight opening). The wheels are amazingly detailed.
"I'm glad to see that the "gooey" look of previous Astons has gone. It was as if the clay melted during the modeling phase. Thanks to Fisker, this a more contemporary design that ultimately meets expectations. However, I dislike it when a company keeps hitting the same note decade after decade with a car. I'd be much more interested to see new flavors that honor the heritage of the company but push it into the future to secure its fate.
"They managed to pull the organic exterior surfacing inside in a way that's incredibly pleasing. Getting your color and materials to match so well is very difficult. To be able to have that much going on and it to be cohesive is a lot of work."
So there you have it. The experts agree. The DB9 represents a successful evolution of Aston Martin's current design language, executed with a subtlety and finesse.
2013 Aston Martin DB9
Engine 5935cc V12 48v all-alloy, quad overhead camshafts
Drivetrain rear/mid-mounted six-speed Touchtronic 2 automatic transmission with paddles, alloy torque tube with carbon fiber driveshaft, limited-slip differential
Suspension independent double wishbones f & r, adaptive damping
Brakes 398mm carbon-ceramic rotors, six-piston calipers f, 360mm, four-piston r
Wheels & Tires 20x8.5" f, 20x11" r wheels, 245/35 R20 f, 295/30 R20 r Pirelli P Zero tires
Body Two-door coupe 2+2 with extruded bonded aluminum VH structure, aluminum, magnesium alloy and composite panels, extruded aluminum side impact door beams
Torque 457 lb-ft @ 5500rpm
Top Speed 183mph
Weight 3875 lb
Economy 13/19/15mpg (city/highway/combined)
MSRP $185400 ($208000 as tested)