PASS MASTER 2019 ASTON MARTIN DBS SUPERLEGGERA Aston Martin’s most powerful road car to date on some of Austria’s most extraordinary and famous mountain passes.
I bet you still believe in the concept of the GT car. I know I do. Well, I want to, at any rate. I really, really want to. It’s a deeply romantic notion that lies at the very root of our love for performance cars and the driving of them: the freedom, setting your own pace away from the crowd, consuming miles with panache. Wouldn’t it be great to consign the entire horribleness that is modern commercial aviation to the skip and replace it with visions of deserted routes nationale, two columns of gently swaying trees stretching to the horizon in their own lethal organic Armco; roads where getting clocked at 150mph isn’t a crime but a worthy achievement, and if the gendarmerie do pull you it’s just to say complimentary things about your new four-cam 275 GTB Ferrari.
Sadly, hemmed in at a ruthlessly monitored 81mph, with the threat of draconian penalties, and with the cost of crossing the Channel, fuel prices and extortionate road tolls, the flying option is usually cheaper and, although it depends on your final destination, frustratingly often just plain faster. Yet still the dream refuses to die, and at its epicentre are cars such as the new 2019 Aston Martin DBS Superleggera. Its presence is entirely in tune with just such a trans-Europe express lifestyle, blending themes of aggression and luxury: a vast acreage of bonnet pinched tightly over an indulgently profligate 12-cylinder engine, cab set aft and framed by powerful haunches. It’s not a track car, and it’s wasted on something as humdrum as the daily commute. No, this is a car for the big journey, to cosset across the open plains and thrill on the interesting sections of route before that surreal final destination. Which brings us to an overcast, slightly damp Berchtesgaden in Germany. Morning mist clings two-thirds up the densely wooded peaks as I thread the DBS eastwards along unmarked roads that the satnav has decreed are the quickest route into Austria, but which threaten to leave the DBS wedged embarrassingly immobile between a crash barrier and a wood cutter’s shed. It’s a big car, the DBS, and as soon as the road turns narrow you can’t help but feel it.
We’re heading to the Austrian town of Pruggern, from where we should be able to access the northern end of the Sölk Pass. Climbing to 5866ft above sea level as it connects the Mur River and Enns River valleys, it may not be the main event compared to tomorrow’s peak-laden spectacular, but as we’re sort of in the area, and I’ve never been, well, why not?
Opposite and top: at 4712mm long and 2146mm wide, the Superleggera makes its considerable presence felt on anything other than fast, wide roads. Above: seats excellent for high-speed cruising, but could offer more lateral support; steering quick via four-sided wheel. Above: DBS’s 715bhp and 664lb ft of torque thrust the car from corner to corner, but admiring the view sometimes takes precedence.
Getting there plays to the DBS’s strengths. Once our weird and wonderful route to the main road has been completed I settle down a little lower into the Aston’s seat, relax knowing that I’m not about to scrape expensive carbon bodywork on oncoming traffic, and start to feel the accelerative potential of the V12. If we must accept that this familiar motor has lost some of its operatic vocal range with the reduction in capacity (731cc down on the 5935cc in the DBS’s Vanquish S precedessor) and the addition of twin turbos, then we can also revel in the massive boot up the backside it’s been given by the adoption of forced induction. It now generates 664lb ft from 1800rpm, which is more than enough to trivialise the DBS’s weight (1770kg with lightweight options). The fact that it also makes an outstanding 715bhp is almost in danger of being overlooked.
Despite the promise of massive torque from just above idle there is a little lag to the engine’s delivery at very low rpm – a brief moment where lungs fill with air before exhaling a gale of smooth yet unrelenting power that builds and builds seemingly without end. Overtaking, unsurprisingly and crucially for a real GT, is a core DBS strength.
Still, there’s only so much even a car with the performance of the DBS can do, because lesson one about driving in this part of Austria in the middle of summer is that it’s very, very busy. In fact, driving along within the almost unnaturally green valleys, behind long trains of slow-moving holiday traffic, quickly becomes claustrophobic, the DBS trapped; it’s an ominous sign of things to come tomorrow when we’ll head to the Grossglockner Pass: we’ve been warned it’s all but undriveable by breakfast time.
The DBS is a comfortable place to spend large amounts of time in. The seats could use a little more lateral support as we’ll find out much later, but for high-speed cruising they’re excellent. I find I’m leaving the car in its most placid driving modes much of the time. The damper switch is on the left spoke of the steering wheel and offers three settings. The harshest, Sport+, is too firm for the road, so I rapidly settle on an approach where I use the base setting about 80 per cent of the time (the DBS rides surprisingly well), but select Sport to get extra support at each corner of the car when the road gets twisty. It’s the same with the powertrain settings, because while Sport and Sport+ give you all the drama, exhaust volume and pops and bangs that no doubt thrill on a dealer test drive, and are the stuff of great YouTube videos, the regular GT setting has a nicely progressive throttle response that makes the V12 feel much more like the old naturally aspirated lump. It’s not as if you can’t hear the engine even in this setting, because one of the really nice things about the DBS is that it never tries to hide completely those inherent sporting credentials like some other cars do. You know the sort of thing: high-end German performance cars that in Comfort mode are almost like driving a nicely specced BMW 3-series (F30/F3x-series).
But in the DBS the exhaust note is always there, even at just above walking pace, and there’s a directness to all of its controls, a subtle tautness not to be confused with weight, that means you’re always aware you’re driving something out of the ordinary.
When we finally arrive, having munched our way through a decent chunk of autobahn and a similarly sized portion of McDonald’s fayre via the Drive Thru (to the utter bemusement of the staff), the Sölk turns out to be an absolute belter of a driving road, partly because in terms of surface and scenery it constantly evolves, each strata of altitude bringing new challenges for both car and driver.
The overture to the climb is fast – broad, sweeping curves where the broken-up surface has been patched with fresh bitumen to make a bizarre chequer-board pattern unlike anything I’ve seen before. So while the repair has made it smooth overall, it undulates across its width and in random directions with waves of gentle amplitude. It’s not altogether good news for the big Aston. On the one hand, here is the chance at last for it to really stretch its legs, and it does so in emphatic fashion, linking corner to corner with giant surges of thrust, but it also puts the rear axle to work in a very busy fashion. Despite three suspension settings, the rear of the DBS feels inherently quite soft, presumably to aid traction under the onslaught of so much torque, and the damping and bushing is something of a halfway house between DB11 and Vantage in terms of its stiffness and tuning. While more controlled than the car we drove for our first drive in Drive-My, it still exhibits a fair amount of vertical and lateral movement at the rear of the car that, to my Mk1 road-testing backside at least, is a little more than would be desirable. That said, not long after this drive I’ll get to sample yet another DBS, one that feels better tied down, suggesting that final tuning was still ongoing at the time of us sampling the car you see here.
After a short while I get used to this car’s behaviour, for experience proves that it isn’t going to suddenly do anything untoward. I also very quickly knock the ESP into its less restrictive Track setting, because it’s incredibly zealous about killing the throttle otherwise, which can make the DBS feel rather clumsy, and the driver too. Again, without that strict safety net nothing alarming happens unless you really provoke the DBS, for it actually generates a significant amount of grip, and our pace over the road is accordingly high. Even out of tight hairpins it prefers to work in the name of traction rather than instantly sliding broadside.
The wide A-road soon morphs into something narrower, with open fields replaced by woodland, until finally a 180-degree hairpin heralds the start of the climb. Now the road rears up skyward, and it’s the torque of the V12 I’m relying on, firing us up short straights and out of subsequent tight curves with the kind of punch that seems to pull the road’s surface backwards like a giant grey blanket. The pace begins to bleed off, not due to the car but because the view out is becoming increasingly spectacular, until we crest the rise to the summit – all grassy slopes and carpets of wild flowers – and begin our descent into the Enns Valley. Winding down between a tunnel of overhanging trees, our progress is momentarily halted by a small herd of cattle blocking our path. Given their proximity to the precipice I’m not sure who should be more concerned: they for wandering over the edge, or us with a very large bull casually eyeing the Aston Martin’s winged bonnet badge. Is he an Aston Martin fan? I’m not going to wait around to find out…
‘I CAN’T THINK OF ANOTHER CAR THAT COVERS SO MANY GT BASES’
Once down onto the valley floor the road is little more than a gravel track in places, eventually tailed by a short stretch of perfect tarmac winding its way through forest. The DBS loves this section, quick steering via that oddly quartic wheel making it easy to feed the nose into corners and the rear axle able to concentrate solely on getting the power down.
Pass completed, it’s time to hotfoot it across to our hotel close to the start of the mighty Grossglockner Pass, where the possibility of a cheeky little local alcoholic beverage and a very early night await. More traffic spoils this journey until the final section, but as we work our way along the valley towards the typically picturesque town of Heiligenblut am Grossglockner, so the other cars vanish and the long straights become mightily enticing. The immaculately presented – and no-doubt expensive – wooden chalet homes and the precisely cut meadows as far as the eye can see give me a feeling that the local constabulary probably doesn’t have a great sense of humour when it comes to V12s being extended with gusto, so I temper my enthusiasm to a degree, but still the DBS feels majorly fast, insects out for an evening flight rapidly falling victim to its bluff frontage. As ever, I’m using the paddles to shift gears manually: apart from when maintaining a constant speed on the autobahn I just can’t bring myself to not get involved with the process of driving the DBS, even if the torque-converter auto occasionally lacks the sharpness of the best twin-clutch boxes.
The reason for team Drive-My consuming their bedtime mug of cocoa so early is that the High Alpine Road opens at 5am between the beginning of June and the end of August. Everyone who we have talked to so far about the pass has rolled their eyes before going on about cyclists and traffic, so if we’re to achieve any decent photography, let alone if I’m to get a decent drive in the DBS, we’ll need to be there when it opens.
After a slight delay due to being locked in at the hotel (we’re clearly the only ones mad enough to be up at this hour) we arrive at the toll not long after it’s opened, and while dawn hasn’t arrived, it’s already getting light. Having purchased our 36-euro day pass in advance at the hotel, the man in the booth simply waves us on, and if there’s a hint of a knowing smirk on his lips as he looks at the clock and then at our car, he does a decent job of hiding it.
Away from the toll the road immediately begins to climb, but the gradient change is slight until the mountains fully come into view. Then there’s that moment, as the eye traces the delicate thread of road that winds up into the distance, where the full gravitas of the situation, the magnificence of the surroundings, really hits home. In direct contradiction to everything I’ve written so far, the DBS suddenly feels very small, and even 715bhp underfoot doesn’t seem like overkill given the terrain to surmount before us.
On and on goes the road, higher and higher, one perfect hairpin after another, and still there’s not another car to be seen, not a soul or sound. It’s like the finest, smoothest, most outrageously enjoyable road ever created has been laid over this dramatic landscape purely for me, and I’m nearly hysterically grateful that I batted away that duvet at such an early hour. The DBS successfully morphs from one end of the GT ability spectrum to the other, but equally I’d love to drive an older, simpler sort of car here. Our Caterham 310R long-termer would be obscene, and I’m already plotting how my Fast Fleet 205 GTI 1.9 can somehow make the trip across.
‘EVEN 715BHP UNDERFOOT DOESN’T SEEM LIKE OVERKILL HERE’
Travellers have been crossing these peaks for 3500 years, but constructing this awe-inspiring helter-skelter didn’t begin until 1930, with completion, miraculously, only four years later. It took 4000 men to do the job, and appropriately enough a car race was held here the day after it opened. There’s a sizeable visitors’ centre at the top, and fast, flat sections across the middle that really focus the mind. At one point I glance momentarily out of the side window and spot a lake of such still purity that the surroundings are perfectly replicated in its surface like a mirror. It is utterly breathtaking.
Our morning, those next precious few hours, is taken up by driving up one side of the pass, down the other, and then back again: exploring every angle, still being wowed by the view. Slowly, other traffic appears, and by 8.30am it’s too busy to really drive with much commitment. Pausing to soak up the sun and stare wistfully at the mountains we meet engineering student and Drive-My EN/UK fan Phillip, who’s driven down from Vienna in his lightly modded E46 M3 just to experience the pass for the first time. The sound from his replica CSL airbox cuts across the mountain from at least a mile away, and with it a reassuring sense of camaraderie that there are still fellow car enthusiasts out there enjoying driving just for the hell of it, wherever you may be.
By midday everything has changed. Harsh sunlight removes the sense of depth from the surrounding vistas, and when I look down from our lofty perch a motley collection of cars, vans and buses, plus the constant stream of bicycles, rolls painfully slowly in agitated close-company convoy along the zig-zag roads, instantly recalling those wonderfully illustrated Richard Scarry books I’d read as a child. There’s probably a pickle truck and a Swiss Air support van in there somewhere, I just know it…
Instead I think I’ll just contemplate the appealing vehicle that has got me here. A car far more cosseting and undemanding than an 812 Superfast, much faster and more driver-focused than a Bentley Continental GT, more exciting and attention-garnering than a Mercedes- AMG S-class coupe – no one would crowd around the big Merc when you park, but they do with a DBS. Everywhere. I just can’t think of another car that covers so many GT bases. Yes, Aston Martin’s pricing is punchy, and the DBS isn’t perfect, but right now I don’t think there’s a better car in which to live out those grand touring fantasies, defiant in the face of the ubiquitous Airbus, for the love of every passing mile.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2019 Aston Martin DBS Superleggera
Engine V12, 5204cc, twin-turbo
Max Power 715bhp @ 6500rpm / DIN (real power more than 780whp)
Max Torque 664lb ft @ 1800-5000rpm / DIN
Transmission Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated carbon-ceramic discs, 410mm front, 360mm rear, torque vectoring
Wheels 21in front and rear
Tyres 265/35 ZR21 front, 305/30 ZR21 rear
Top speed 211mph
Basic price £225,000
Drive-My rating 5/5
‘THIS IS NOT A CAR TO BE WASTED ON THE HUMDRUM OF THE DAILY COMMUTE’