People use the word sexy too freely when describing inanimate objects these days, but if ever a thing should deserve this adjective, it's the 2009 Aston Martin DB9 Volante. This long, classic grand tourer uses its creases and curves suggestively, without resorting to ostentation or cheap tricks. The design makes a beeline past rationality and practical considerations to the seat of your pure, unadulterated desire.
And that's just the exterior. Fire up the 6-liter V-12, give it some revs, and the exhaust note will batter down your last sensible thought. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the cabin is decked out in fine wood and leather, offering a cozy feeling that would only be enhanced if Aston Martin could figure out a way to install a fireplace in the car. Surprisingly, this fine interior hides a bevy of modern electronics, at once letting you exercise fantasies of being a proper member of the British upper class, but still making hands-free calls on your BlackBerry and listening to tunes off an iPod.
On the road
Right from the get-go, there are some quirks of the Aston Martin DB9 Volante to get used to. The key fob fits into a slot in the center of the dashboard, with a clear acrylic end showing the Aston Martin logo etched inside. It's a nice design element, but also means that you can't attach the fob to any kind of keychain.
With that six speed automatic transmission, you select drive modes with buttons on the dashboard.
To kick over the engine, you have to push that fob in and hold it. We've gotten used to push button starters that only require a quick press--the DB9 wants a little more commitment than that.
With the six speed automatic, the car lacks a conventional shifter on the console. Instead, push the D button at the end of a row of four transmission control buttons at the top of the stack to get going.
Pulling onto the road, the V-12 provides plenty of push with a firm foot on the gas. Use the Sport button at the bottom of the stack, and the transmission gives quicker downshifts, which is much more satisfying than the non-sport mode, where downshifts are infuriatingly slow.
Getting up to a good clip, the rigidness of the suspension becomes evident. It's more sports car than luxury ride, and lacks any adaptive suspension gizmos that might offer a comfort setting.
Beyond the ride quality, there is plenty of luxury in the cabin. For a soft top, road noise is very muted in the cabin, and you don't even hear engine noise unless you really ask for it by letting the revs run past 4,000. For normal cruising, the audio focus moves to the sound system, which pumps out extraordinary bass and tight sound all the way through the frequencies. The only downsides are the shrill high frequencies.
The DB9's nod to modernity includes digital audio sources such as iPod integration, a USB port, auxiliary audio input, satellite radio, and an MP3-capable disc changer. Unfortunately, the small radio display makes browsing for music while driving inadvisable. There is a navigation system, with a poorly-mounted LCD hidden under the wood dashboard, but more on that later.
Going into a corner at speed, get ready for traction control lights on the instrument cluster.
Finding room to play, the DB9 takes corners like it wants to drift. Even under moderate acceleration through a corner, the back end feels like it wants to let go, with flashing traction control lights on the dashboard letting you know why the nose is still pointing in the right direction. Those traction control lights also show up under heavy acceleration, as the V-12's massive torque tries to twist the tires off the pavement. No matter, though, as the car still feels very controllable under stress.
The transmission's Sport mode seems to be the only setting for this type of driving. Standard drive mode waits too long to downshift, and the manual mode, where you select gears from column-mounted paddle shifters is just not responsive enough for quick shifts. The available six speed manual would serve better under these circumstances.
In the cabin
Luxury cars with classic marques don't integrate well with technology. How can an automaker with almost 100 years of tradition reconcile technology that changes every six months? But Aston Martin gives it a try, with some success. The 2009 Aston Martin DB9 Volante gets the key cabin technology we look for in a car: GPS navigation, Bluetooth phone support, and digital audio sources.
To control these functions, there is a set of buttons and a joystick capped by an enter key at the base of the stack. Strangely, the joystick looks like a knob but can't be turned, unlike most controllers of this type. As such, you have to use the joystick motions to move through menu lists for navigation and music.
The unique button interface controls navigation, audio sources, and Bluetooth-paired cell phones.
The biggest drawback of the interface is the lack of integration between the navigation screen and other car functions. Music and phone information is shown in a small radio display on the stack. An LCD for the navigation system is hidden under a panel in the center of the dashboard. The LCD folds down when not in use, hidden by a wood panel, but the operation seemed glitchy, as if the installation was done haphazardly. While driving with the top down, we noticed the wood panel flapping around a little in its closed position, showing poor fit and finish.
Beyond the lack of an integrated interface, the electronics worked well. The navigation system stores its maps on a hard drive, making for quick operation and good resolution. This navigation system covers the basics, but lacks advanced features such as live traffic integration, text to speech, or 3D graphics.
For the stereo, there is an iPod cable in the center console, along with USB and auxiliary ports. The system offers full iPod browsing by artist, song, album, and genre. For music stored on USB drives and MP3 CDs, which can be used in the six disc changer, you get a simple folder and file interface. Sirius Satellite Radio is also included.
The radio display screen, rather than the navigation LCD, shows music and cell phone information.
We mentioned the sound quality of the audio system above. Our car came with the standard audio system, but that still means 700 watts of power. Although the cabin wasn't festooned with speakers--we only saw door speakers and a subwoofer between the rear seats--the quality is excellent.
But that's not the audio system you want. Aston Martin offers an optional system from Bang & Olufsen, dubbed the Beosound DB9. This system has 1,000 watts of amplification and 13 speakers. We listened to this audio system in a DBS at the 2008 Los Angeles auto show, and were blown away by the outstanding sound quality.
We found that the Bluetooth phone support worked very well and was up to the standards of most current systems. After pairing a phone, it immediately makes the phone book available, although you have to scroll through the entries on the small radio display.
Under the hood
Performance tech in the 2009 Aston Martin DB9 Volante is more about engineering than innovative systems. For example, the suspension relies on aluminum double wishbones front and rear with sway bars, but doesn't employ electronics, such as the Skyhook system found in the Maserati GranTurismo, which employs active dampers.
Like the props on a World War II bomber, the gauges on the DB9 counter-rotate.
There's nothing wrong with solid engineering, but at more than 200 grand, you would expect Aston Martin to take advantage of good performance technology. For sport driving, the suspension works fine, keeping the car level in the corners and promoting that aforementioned rear-end slide. The DB9's weight, a svelte 3,880 pounds, is also perfectly distributed at 50-50 fore and aft, helping the cornering. And the car does have typical road-holding electronics, including traction control, stability control, and brake power distribution.
Similarly, the 6-liter V-12 uses four valves per cylinder, but lacks variable valve timing, which would wring more efficiency out of the engine. As it is, those 12 cylinders get you 470 horsepower at 6,000rpm and 443 pound-feet of torque at 5,000rpm. Those are good numbers, of course, but other automakers get the same from eight cylinders. But we can't deny the appeal of the exhaust note from this engine. At engine speeds of 3,000rpm and below, the engine is very quiet, but when the revs go up, an aggressive growl sounds off.
Although big and powerful, the engine could be more efficient with some modern technology.
You will also pay a lot to run that engine, as the EPA ratings of 12 mpg city and 19 mpg highway mean a gas gauge that moves a little too quickly. Although we weren't able to record an accurate fuel economy number while we had the car, its range seemed to be just a little over 200 miles.
Aston Martin gives figures of 190 mph maximum speed and 4.6 seconds to 60 mph for the DB9 Volante, using either the manual or automatic transmissions. We weren't that impressed with the six speed automatic's manual mode, which seemed slow to shift, but the sport mode was adequate for what this car can do. Helping keep overall weight down is a carbon fiber propeller shaft in the transmission.
With a base price of $197,850, the 2009 Aston Martin DB9 Volante sits in a pretty specialized segment of vehicle. Fortunately, Aston Martin doesn't soak its buyers on options, as all of the electronics are standard. Our car had a number of cosmetic options, all costing between $200 and $500, along with 19-inch wheels for an extra $1,910. The gas guzzler tax on the DB9 is $2,100, and destination comes to $1,350, making for a total price of $208,970. Buyers who can afford the Aston Martin DB9 probably aren't doing a lot of comparison shopping, but we do like the value of the Maserati GranTurismo when considered against this car. However, it would be hard to find coachwork this nice outside of a Rolls-Royce.
For our performance rating of the DB9, we are impressed by the engineering and the zero-to-60 numbers, but we have to downgrade it for poor fuel economy, its lack of some useful engine and suspension technology, and a merely average transmission. It fares better for cabin electronics, covering key bases with good equipment, then going stellar with the optional Bang & Olufsen audio system. It also earns high points for design, from the beautiful exterior to the excellent coachwork. But it loses points in this area for the electronics interface, which is a little haphazard.