Most of the world lives with seasonality. The weather changes, you stop what you're doing, and you live with it. We are in northern Germany to prove that thinking wrong by taking one of the most lavish and powerful convertibles in the world to a place least suitable for it—the legendary Nürburgring's Nordschleife on its winter vacation.
Forget the Bates Motel—as Scooby Doo taught us, a place like an abandoned amusement park is what scares us the most. The immobile merry-go-rounds and rotting Ferris wheels have something very disturbing about them. Nothing's moving, but you're scared to death knowing something bad will happen at any moment. It's the same kind of a creepy feeling that fills the Nordschleife for a big part of the year, 16 miles of the most frenetic road in the world sitting silent among German forests and mountains.
In winter, it's probably even a more amazing than during the time you know from the photos or your own visits. Iconic places immortalized in thousands of photos of tuned BMWs or Porsches and guys wearing shirts saying "Nürburgring for life" now turn out to be perfectly normal towns, gas stations, and parking lots, where German people lead their correct and slightly boring life—as you do in Germany. A few meters above them, all the historical bends and straights still lie there, hibernating, without anyone daring to get near them. The access roads and paddocks are filled with snow, virtually impassable. Why would anyone want to get there now anyway? Even in the best of conditions, the Nordschleife proves to be too challenging for a lot of drivers coming here each season from all over the world.
Now a contender confronts different kinds of challenges: You have to be really careful while approaching Breitscheid as the black ice on the descending road makes braking impossible, while just a moment later the same ice on the steep Ex-Muhle corner tests the car's power reserves and the driver's bravery alike, as the only way to climb to the top is to keep the right foot pressed to the floor. The iconic Karussell is no longer banked, resting under an even surface of a snowdrift, and for once I am not asking for more power on the fast Antoniusbuche curve but for a snowplow. The barriers that are too near even in July seem to be even nearer now, and the slippery bits are even more slippery, each mistake more unforgiving and its consequences more painful. For the hell, White is the new Green.
Hopefully, the threat of the Nordschleife changing its status from temporarily deserted to permanently abandoned due to the Nürburgring's investors' fishy businesses seems to have been lifted so that the track-dayers and racers will come back here once the hell turns to green again. But before that, we've got our unique chance to tackle it off-season. What car would be more appropriate for the job than the '15 Aston Martin DB9 Volante: a 510-bhp RWD grand convertible with a $203,295 price tag hanging from its fragile side mirror? OK, maybe with the sedan-like dimensions and nearly 2-ton weight, this is not the default choice for a winter track day tool. The anxiety rises even more when you realize that this is a peculiar car of special value, one presented at the recent Paris Motor Show, as indicated by the commemorative plate inside and the bold color combination in and out, showcasing the manufacturer's individualization abilities.
A gulp ensues after learning that since the Paris performance, this impeccable DB9 has done just a few miles, spending the rest of its short life stored in an air-conditioned garage due to its historical significance. Gulp. Time to take a brave pill and think of a very good excuse of how I got lost and miraculously found myself in the middle of the Nordschleife in case something goes wrong. Because something will, won't it? One part of my mind is pretty sure it's inevitable, but if the Aston succeeds, it'll prove that modern supercars—the ones without roofs included—are more versatile than any driver would ever need and can be driven even in the most improbable conditions.
Good news first: We've got winter tires on and it's so sunny that despite the biting cold, we can take the roof down and allow ourselves to be warmed by the sun and the extra-effective heater. There is some bad news, too, though: To get to the narrow de-snowed lane for the technical vehicles in the middle of the track, first we need to tackle the road leading to it, covered in powdery snow so deep it reaches DB9's side sills. After going through the gate, there's no turning back: right leg pushed to the floor, the mighty V-12 screaming, front bumper fighting through the snow, rear wheels creating total havoc. A moment later, everything settles down and the track becomes as quiet as it has been for the last weeks, as the DB9 victoriously finds its way on the tracks. I'll think of how to get back to the civilization later and now just allow myself to adore the sheer beauty of this car.
It's quite an ocular feast, this thing. Volante was born out of chopping the roof off of one of the most beautiful coupes in the history of the British Empire, and you must admit that this is one of those very few cars that manages to maintain the quality of the original design when going topless, if not improving it. Closing the light fabric roof is a reasonably fast and easy process, for the car at least: It takes 17 seconds and doesn't take away much of the functionality—only 0.5 cubic feet of the trunk (though with the 6.6 cubic feet of the total cargo volume, each little bit is priceless), and even with the roof up, it's not that much less comfortable in here than in the coupe.
DB9 has been around for 12 years, during which it has gone through the hands of three great designers: The first concept by Ian Callum was refined by Henrik Fisker before going into production, while Marek Reichman gave the aluminum body its biggest face-lift for the model year 2013. Inexplicably, instead of aging, the DB9 becomes only fresher and sexier with time. Its elegant cabernet sauvignon lacquer and the doors swinging up gently while opening like swan's wings make a captivating contrast with the raw arctic landscape surrounding it. The Volante looks completely different from its main rivals: Bentley Continental GTC, BMW M6 Convertible, Porsche 911 Turbo Cabrio, or Mercedes SL AMG. They look bland or at least overweight.
Still, you may get the impression you saw these sleek lines, crisp muscles, and accentuated rear spoiler somewhere before. They are best known for appearing on the Aston Martin Virage, a short-lived model that, after less than a year of market career, took a bullet but did not end its life as a future rare collectible because it reappeared as the new DB9 differing in virtually nothing more than the badge on the decklid. That gave the DB9 an improvement in terms of performance and quality as the late Virage was positioned higher in the model hierarchy, halfway to the flagship DBS (...which was succeeded by Vanquish, which turned out to be confusingly similar to the new DB9... that is Virage... the new DB9, that is). Putting family identity drama aside, DB9 seems to be the sweet spot of the Aston's V-12 lineup now. Nobody, apart from hard-core geeks, would bother to see the difference between it and the Vanquish, which is far pricier for no other reason than to boost the owner's ego, and nobody, apart from those geeks, would want to buy a V-12 Vantage and live with it for years. Assuming you're not dramatically vain or a kind of person who lights a cigarette with a burning torch, DB9 is the one for you.
And right now, it really is the car to go for. For years, DB9 has been too flawed and compromised to be regarded as a great performance GT. Previous generations of it left the impression of being underdeveloped as the small annoyances were taking away a big part of the driving experience. For most of its life, the chassis was everything but involving—and it was even more apparent in the Volante version. The soft body clattered and flexed, while being hampered with the rather lousy automatic gearbox. But then the Brits got the time and money—and the Aston Martin Test Center. The facility stands just around the corner from the Nordschleife's main straight, where a huge part of the company's R&D is orchestrated. Aston's engineers have honed the project and ironed out all the imperfections. The result—a sports car competent throughout, what the DB9 has always deserved to be. It'd be wrong to call DB9 outdated. In fact, it only came to be up to date—just like the constantly evolving Porsche 911, now on the top of the buy list of the third or fourth generations of drivers.
Although it is based on the same VH platform, mid-year 2015 cars share virtually no screw with the first DB9. The chassis has seen numerous updates through the years and benefits from the additional rigidity and the much-needed roominess of the carbon-fiber-aided Vanquish structure; it's grown 20 percent in terms of its stiffness. Goodies nicked from the Virage take DB9 to the next level of looks, refinement, and poise, turning it into a car of broader abilities. The interior is still hopelessly unergonomic and showing its age now with the Mercedes SLR and Maserati Granturismo-era design. It has increased in quality, and the horrible Volvo navigation system was replaced with a slightly less irritating Garmin-sourced interface.
Carbon-ceramic brakes shave off 28 pounds from the unsprung weight, and the new gearbox has been installed at long last. This is a brilliant eight-ratio ZF auto that makes the DB9 both a more sophisticated grand tourer and a more effective sports car. This automotive schizophrenia goes further due to the adaptive suspension, developed on these very bends some months ago (when it was much warmer, presumably). Thanks to that adjustability, the suspension can cover everything from a cosseting long distance drive to, well, tackling the Nordschleife.
The long list of minor improvements has made DB9 a more sublime and gentle car, but thankfully its makers haven't had the will (or at least abilities) to make it in accordance with today's unfortunate trends. No downsizing or hybridization here. DB9's heart is a real aristocrat among engines—fantastically big, naturally aspirated, and smooth—even if its beginnings where humble: It started its life in 1996 under the bonnet of one of Ford's concept cars, coming, in fact, from sticking together two 3.0L Duratec V-6s. Since then, it has powered a wide array of Aston Martins in an even greater multitude of versions, starting from DB7 in the '90s all the way up to the Rapide and later the bonkers Vantage. Come 2015, under the bonnet lands the new AM11 derivative of the 5,935cc block, tuned to 510 bhp—that's 40 British ponies more than before.
. In the times of engines relying heavily on turbochargers that build the massive torque all the way from the lowest revs, you could imagine that some people pressing the fast pedal in the Aston may actually think something's wrong. It's the other way around, guys: While environmental issues have neutered some of the finest engines, the old-school Aston motor is refreshingly cool. It bites back ferociously at each press of the throttle and builds power linearly through the whole rev scale up to 6,500 rpm, when the maximum power output and some serious sounds occur. Maybe half a thousand horsepower doesn't allow for a sensationally fast drive in comparison to the other (often turbocharged) convertibles at the price, but there are few things more monumental than the sound of Aston's V-12 in full attack.
Obviously, driving the Nordschleife in winter is nothing short of extreme, swinging the car from understeer to oversteer abruptly corner after corner. At first, none of these things are fully appreciated by the panicked driver (that's me), but after my mind accepts the idea of drifting a $200,000 510-bhp RWD sports car on the frozen Nordschleife, the DB9 actually becomes good at it. Thanks to its long wheelbase, good weight balance, and linear power delivery. So good, in fact, I actually start wondering if I really am the first to bash it around the Nordschleife this time of the year... But even if the Aston's engineers don't come up with such crazy scenarios, they still make the cars capable of providing exceptional driving experience—anywhere, anytime.