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6 Nov, 2019 (All day) James Batchelor
Aston Martin’s chief engineer takes us for a ride in the £158k DBX SUV ahead of its official reveal later this month
You wouldn’t describe Matt Becker as an off-road specialist. As Aston Martin’s chief engineer (and a Lotus man for 26 years until 2015), he’s more used to fine-tuning the handling of Aston’s exotic GT cars, not considering wading depths or departure and approach angles. “I’m having to learn,” he tells us, as we climb into the brand’s all-new and all-important DBX for the first time.
The DBX is not only the British brand’s first-ever SUV, but also its first four-wheel-drive car. Built in Aston Martin’s sparkling new factory in St Athan, Wales, it’ll cost £158,000 when it gets its official unveiling later this month. But before the car’s debut, we’ve joined Becker for an afternoon of testing on and off-road.
The off-road course at Silverstone has been Aston’s secret backyard for developing the new off-roader. It certainly isn’t the most challenging few acres in the Midlands, but the slope Becker has pointed the DBX at is steep, muddy and, judging by the track marks, very slippery. It would give a Range Rover a run for its money, and apart from a few moments where the tyres scrabble for grip, the DBX is up and over the 30 per cent incline and down in less than 10 seconds.
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“How easy was that?” remarks Becker. He doesn’t even try to convince me he was responsible for the Aston’s astonishing ascent. “With the level of wheel travel the DBX has, the active roll system and the fact the car can vary the amount of torque front to rear and side to side, this gives you the tools to have a good off-road ability.”
The DBX has a number of driving modes. There are the familiar GT and Sport Plus, but for this Aston there’s Terrain and Terrain Plus. Here at Silverstone, on a wet Friday afternoon, we’re in the latter of those modes, which gives a 45mm ride height boost. A wading depth of 500mm makes easy work of a muddy swamp before Becker opens up the 542bhp 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 to dash across a wide stretch of flat ground.
After a heavy hose down, it’s back to the type of terrain Becker and an Aston Martin are more familiar with. Nestled tightly between Hangar Straight and Silverstone’s Wing Complex, Aston Martin’s Stowe Circuit is a tight, twisty track. Sport Plus mode is needed here and the DBX transforms from being impressive off road to being very much at home on track. “We’ve tried to respect the ‘Sports’ bit in ‘SUV’ – our overall target was to make an SUV feel as sporting as a Vantage,” says Becker above the now snarling V8 soundtrack.
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Just like on the off-road course, out here on the track the DBX’s hardware and software allow a lot of adjustability. “We can really adjust the balance of the car on the track,” says Becker calmly, as he throws the DBX into an elegant four-wheel drift. “With the ESP switched off, effectively it’s putting 100 per cent torque to the rear. And you can get pretty sideways!”
We pull off the track and head for Silverstone’s roads, where the DBX settles down to a comfortable tempo; there’s great visibility up front and the car doesn’t feel anywhere near as large as it looks. Our car is a ‘1PT’ DBX (that’s ‘first production trial’ to you and me), but apart from a few inevitable pre-prod creaks, the ride is impressively smooth and the engine quiet.
The seats are comfortable and there are plenty of storage cubbies. There’s even good space in the back seats and the boot is large – the car even lowers to make life easier for dogs. “It’s an enormous challenge to build and develop a car like this, and my initial cynicism of SUVs was quickly dispelled,” Becker said. “Once you start to drive them you realise where they have to work – track, off-road, town and pulling a horsebox – SUVs are so much more complicated than developing a sports car.”