How to make a luxury SUV into a proper driver’s car
Step one: hire the chief dynamics guy from Lotus and ask him to make the Aston Martin DBX
When we catch up with Matt Becker, he’s at Silverstone, waiting to race an Aston Martin Vantage GT4. In the pouring rain.
If we didn’t already know it, this confirms that the former chief test and development engineer at Lotus knows what makes a car fast, and what makes a car feel fast. And that’s good to know, as today he’s the chief engineer at Aston Martin, and the man responsible for making the company’s SUV, the DBX, feel like a proper sports car.
The face of a man who knows what he's doing
Matt has an enviable CV, and in a way, one that stretches back to before he even started work. His dad, Roger Becker, was also a Lotus engineer, and the stunt driver for James Bond, piloting the white Espirit in The Spy Who Loved Me. Matt used to visit the Lotus factory at the weekends, met Colin Chapman and the team’s legendary Formula 1 drivers, and was always destined to work there. He became an apprentice as a teenager, and rose through the ranks as an engineer, working on the Elise and leading development on the Evora.
From Elise to luxury SUV
Space. Important for an SUV
So how the heck did Matt end up working on a luxury SUV? After 26 years at Lotus, he was tempted away by former CEO Andy Palmer in 2015. “I knew the Aston plans and all the different cars we were going to do, including DBX,” he says. “And to me that was a golden opportunity that I couldn't see anywhere else in the industry, where I could go and do the amount of cars that we've done to date, and the variety of cars we've done to date.”
The DBX is a very different car to the rest of Aston’s portfolio. The company had never made an SUV before, and when you’re building a machine that costs more than £150,000, you can’t afford to mess it up. It needs to be brilliant, straight out of the box.
While SUVs often get a bad rep, they’ve very difficult to do well, especially at that price point. The DBX needed to be comfortable over long distances, because it’s an SUV. It needed to be pretty decent off-road, because it counts the Range Rover as a major rival. But it also needed to be dynamically incredible. Because it’s an Aston Martin.
Road manners. Also important
The process of envisaging the DBX started with one heck of a shopping trip. Aston bought an example of pretty much every competitor and went through them with a fine-tooth comb.
“I think it's the biggest range of cars Aston has ever bought in terms of benchmarking, because it was very much a new area, which the company had never been into” Matt says. “So we had to really understand those cars in detail. But it wasn't just dynamics, it was everything. It was NVH, it was wind noise, it was the all-round capability of these cars, be it on-road, off-road, towing or track use.
“And on top of that we had to rewrite a lot of our test procedures, because you can't test a DBX to the same standards as you tested a DB11 to. You never take a DB11 off road. Well, not on purpose anyway… With a DBX it'd be a really small percentage of people that ever take the car off road or on a track, but the car needs to be able to tick those boxes.”
Wonder platform, activate
Off-road skills. Yes, probably need those
The key for Matt, and for Aston Martin, was the creation of an all-new platform tailored for DBX and the variety of active systems that would be contained within.
“I had a lot of questions from people at the start of the project, saying ‘surely it's a disadvantage to have to do your own platform’, but I see it as an advantage. You have to think about the Bentley Bentayga, Volkswagen Touareg, Porsche Cayenne, Lamborghini Urus etc; they all come off the same platform, and they have a bandwidth of what they can do with that car to change the character of it.
“We created our own character that we wanted the car to have. Yes, there's a big brave pill that you have to swallow, and some people might say it's insanity. But it’s the only way you can create something truly unique.”
The decision to go all-in on active technology was one that required a few internal demonstrations to convince the Aston Martin accountants. But Matt is convinced that these investments make the DBX what it is.
“The only way you can get an SUV to feel agile, responsive and flat is to have active roll control,” he says. “If you have a passive setup, you have to end up with a really, really stiff anti roll bar, and all that does is compromise your comfort. The way the active roll systems work is they can stiffen or they can decouple. In simplistic terms they can be open, so apart from the friction of the motor there's no roll stiffness in the car, which gives you comfort, or they can go very stiff, which effectively gives you zero roll angle in the car.
“On top of that we have triple volume air springs that effectively give you four different spring rates. We have a new damping system on the car from Bilstein which gives you a huge range of force capability within the dampers. We have an active centre diff that allows us to vary the torque, up to 100% to the rear and up to around 50% to the front. We have an e-diff on the car, we have an integral multi-link rear suspension, we have a double-wishbone front suspension, we have a unique steering ratio.
“Cars like the DB11 or the Vantage are quite passive cars, so they have passive springs, passive anti roll bars. They only really need to do one job; they either need to be a GT car, or they need to be a sports car. DBS kind of fits in between those. But a DBX has to do all of those, and more.”
Crunching the numbers
Might need a wash after this
The biggest challenge for Matt and his team was making sure that the DBX’s software brought all of these systems together. That meant ensuring that all the various departments had software engineers working with them throughout the development, rather than separately trying to stitch everything together.
“It was a massive challenge,” he says. “You have to remember that people like Porsche and Bentley, the teams they have behind them are massive. Our R&D team here, to do all of the cars, is around 600 people. And you probably find that Porsche has 10 times that amount of people. But that has advantages; basically we were all one team, so we worked together and you end up with something that feels more integrated.”
The results speak for themselves, with stellar reviews from customers and the motoring press.
“Everybody who drives the car can't believe how comfortable it is, but how agile and dynamic it feels,” Matt says. “The car effectively shrink-wraps around you in terms of feel. It just has the right steering rate relative to roll, relative to your response in the car. So it really is a car that, when you drive it, you forget you've got all this space behind you, because it feels so light and so agile.
“I'm not saying the other cars are bad at all, because they all have their unique character. The Urus is a really quick car. But I don't think it's got much finesse about it, and that's very Lamborghini. And the Bentley is a very luxury product, but again it doesn't particularly excite you when you drive it. The Cayenne Turbo is a really good car, but it's a bit muted, it doesn't really excite. We wanted to create something that was more exciting than that.”
B-roads and chill
Despite all that though, it’s not the scintillating driving experience that Matt highlights as his proudest achievement on the DBX. It’s the fact that you can turn off the excitement if you want to.
“I quite like all the systems on the car,” he says. “We currently don't have active cruise control, for instance, on DB11 or Vantage or DBS, and actually having that system on the car is really useful because you can get lazy. I really like the fact that the road noise performance of a car like this has to be in a different league to a DB11, or a Conti GT; you just have to be in a different space. So actually, it's a really nice car to spend time in, and spend mileage in.
“What I like about it is it has that comfort and character, but then when you want to push the car, if you want to have driver enjoyment down a country lane, it gives you that as well. So it's got multiple characters that make it enjoyable.”