Is the Aston Martin DB11 the ultimate GT?
ASTON's new DB11 takes on the BENTLEY CONTINENTAL GT V8 S and the MERCEDES-AMG S63 COUPE
Let’s imagine for a moment that you work in the sparkling temple to capitalism that is The City. Perhaps you’re a corporate lawyer or a hedge fund manager, but either way you have had a long day. We’re not going to feel remotely sorry for your lengthy working hours because it’s your choice and you’re enormously well remunerated for it. You catch the lift down to the empty lobby, nod at the night watchman as you walk past the front desk and then breathe in the cool crisp air as you step out of the big glass doors.
It’s a Friday, or at least it was when you went to work yesterday so now it’s the early hours of Saturday, and you’re heading to your second home in north Wales a good five hours drive away. The question is, what car would you most like to be waiting for you at the kerb? Let’s assume you want something cosseting, nay even soothing to get you through the inevitable road closures and surprising amount of traffic that clogs London’s arteries no matter the time of day. Once you’re beyond the North Circular you’ll need something capable of loping effortlessly up the M40 and along the M54. However, once you hit the A5 you’ll want a car that can stiffen its sinews and entertain on the final run to Snowdonia, leaving you with a smile on your face and rather looking forward to the return journey on Sunday. What you need is the consummate GT car.
So, should you have spent your bonus on a Bentley Continental GT V8 S, a Mercedes S63 AMG Coupe or the new Aston Martin DB11?
On the face of it the Mercedes is the understated, almost dull choice. The dark three-button suit, no waistcoat. Old CLs always look huge and slightly pompous, but this new S-Class coupe could be mistaken for its little brother the C-Class coupe. Probably not ideal if you’re the sort of person that shouts about having a corner office and a PA, but nice if you’d rather not look like too much of a high roller.
Get in, the door soft-closes behind you like the drawers in a new kitchen and you find yourself cocooned in the most technologically advanced cabin of the three. If you’re the sort of person that wears a Fitbit on your wrist and has an app for everything then this is the car for you. My favourite toy (by which I obviously mean safety feature) has to be the night vision, which uses infrared cameras to paint a picture of the road ahead between speedo and rev counter. There’s a fractional delay and the field of view is restricted so you can’t actually drive by it, but it will pick out and warn you of a dark-clothed pedestrian or a cyclist with no lights before the headlights pick them out. I know night vision isn’t new, but the images it has produced in the past have always been the sort of thing held up as evidence by Loch Ness Monster hunters. This is a whole new league.
Despite its sober exterior, the S63 is something of a hooligan at heart. With the same torque as a LaFerrari, it will light up its rear tyres with disturbing ease, especially at this time of year. The steering is the least natural of the three cars yet it’s sufficiently direct that you can hustle it with surprising confidence. Ultimately though there is always a feeling of detachment. Pottering at 20mph feels no different to charging along at 120mph. In all seriousness, I would probably be more likely to notice if the massage function on the seat was turned up from 3 to 5 (out of 6) than if the car gained 30mph.
Transfer yourself to the Bentley and there is real sense of heft after the Merc. From the muscle required to operate the door to the weight of the steering, it’s like sitting down to a vast oak banqueting table after sitting behind an Ikea breakfast bar. It sounds slightly absurd to say, but there is a calming hush once you’re inside the Bentley that seems to instantly relax you. Time slows a little. Everyday anxieties melt into the background. It’s like slowly sitting down in an armchair in a library.
Sadly the Bentley’s interior is about as technologically advanced as most libraries too and feels like it needs to purloin some screens and software from an Audi A8. The big Brit’s exterior however, despite being only lightly tweaked and tucked in 13 years of production, still looks attractively imposing (although white wouldn’t be my first choice – I’d feel a little like Captain Ahab every time I spotted it on the drive).
Just in case you’re worried, you lose nothing of the aristocratic Bentley gravitas by speccing the V8 rather than the W12. In fact, you should absolutely buy the V8 rather than its bigger brother. The W12 always reminds me of one of these huge cathedral organs that has an impressively preposterously low register thanks to some enormous pipes, but which the organist has to play without listening to it because there is such a delay. Although the V8 doesn’t quite possess that deep ocean of torque that the 12 cylinders provide, it sounds fantastic, feels every bit as fast, and is more rewarding thanks to better throttle response. Also, where the big W12 always feels heavy over the nose at the limit (which is admittedly very high) the V8 gives you options. There is still a bit of push as you initially work the tyres, but if you stay on the throttle and drive through the corner then you will feel the car neatly balance itself to a pleasing neutral state.
The suspension has four settings and you really do notice the difference as you scroll through them. The one above comfort seems to be the default, but you notice the extra compliance in the fully open settings so it's worth selecting it around town. Even more so you notice the extra precision in the fully locked setting when you’re on a decent piece of road. To that extent, it would be nice if there was an easier way to toggle through the options rather than having to go through the touch screen. It should be the sort of switch that you don’t have to take your eyes off the road to adjust.
Just like the steering-wheel mounted switch in the DB11 in fact. The Aston has three suspension settings, but in even in the firmest Sport+ mode you never lose the sense of there being plenty of travel in the arches. Whereas in the other two cars there is a sense that the ride is comfortably composed because sheer mass is bludgeoning the road into submission, the Aston has a more floatingly graceful air to it. That said, the DB11 doesn’t totally isolate you from the surface beneath you like the other two because it still communicates smaller bumps, meaning that you don’t have the outright serenity of the Mercedes and Bentley. The upside to this is that when you reach north Wales or the Alps or Scotland or any entertaining piece of road, you have more confidence in what the Aston is doing at the limits of its grip.
It’s possible to overwhelm the tenacity of the rear tyres fairly easily, especially in the wet, because the monstrous torque from the new twin-turbocharged 5.2-litre V12 is available from just 1700rpm. There really isn’t any need to rev it out either; change down to second or third and often you’ll wish you'd stayed in third or fourth. At least it’s easy to catch when it does step out of line, because although the DB11 always feels like a big car, it has surprisingly quick steering (almost Ferrari-esque).
One advantage of it being nighttime is that your eyes aren’t assaulted by the hideous colour scheme of this particular interior and freed from such visual nasties you can appreciate the supremely comfortable yet slim and supportive seats. I’m a fan of the fixed-position aluminium paddles too. You’ll recognise the sat nav etc from the Mercedes, but it’s a bit like steak without all the trimmings as you don’t get the S63’s fancy assistance systems or fripperies like its switchable ambient lighting. Nonetheless, the Aston’s borrowed, Mercedes-lite tech still beats the Bentley’s.
And then there’s the noise. Because it’s really all exhaust, the DB11 sounds pleasingly aggressive but not in any way OTT when you’re driving. However, colleagues on the 33rd floor will be in absolutely no doubt if you leave work early, as from outside the Aston sounds like a barely civilised Vulcan. You can imagine a DB11 hearing a recording of itself for the first time and asking people ‘do I really sound like that ?’.
Anyway, you must be getting cold by now, standing out on the pavement with your laptop bag, waiting for the conclusion to these ramblings. Which one should you choose? Well, the Aston is the sporting choice. The other two are entertaining on a good bit of road, but if you were going on a driving holiday, looking in on Alpine passes along the way, the DB11 would be the one to take. Equally, if you were simply looking to covering ground, driving down to Monaco where your 458 Speciale was waiting for you ready to be thrashed across the Col de Vence on a Sunday morning for example, then you would want one of the other two. And despite its age, the Bentley remains, as its name suggests, the best pure continent crusher. It has an effortlessness to it that even the very impressive Mercedes can’t match. It’s clearly more stylish and will age more gracefully too.
And if I had to choose between the two Brits? It would be the Aston. But not in brown.
Photography by Dean Smith