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Aston Aspirations

Owning the car of James Bond has long been a driver's dream. Now the maker of Aston Martin sets its own lofty goal: turn a profit
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

Newport Pagnell is the sort of faintly quaint English village one might expect to find in an E. M. Forster novel, but certainly not on the pages of Business Week. Odds are you'd drive right through the sleepy little town without even noticing the ramshackle cluster of brick buildings that once rolled out graceful, Victorian-era carriages. These days, they're being used to assemble a more modern, if equally elegant form of transportation.

For much of the company's 90-year history, Newport Pagnell has been home and headquarters to Aston Martin. Think of Aston as the automotive equivalent of the Sasquatch; you're far more likely to hear about a Vantage or Vanquish or DB7 than to actually ever see one. Of course, it hasn't hurt the automaker's image to have a long-running association with superspy James Bond. But for a brief assignation, expensively sponsored by BMW, could you even imagine Agent 007 behind the wheel of any other car—with or without the rockets, lasers and ejector seats?

For a while, though, it seemed as if even that most dapper of celluloid spies wouldn't be able to save Aston. At one point, the perennially troubled automaker was down to producing less than one car every other week, and were it not for an "expensive bottle of plonk," Aston might have been relegated to Britain's overstuffed auto-motive dustbin, alongside the likes of Humber, Triumph and Sprint.

Yet in a twist of plot that Forster would have applauded, Aston's future is beginning to look decidedly more upbeat, and if it delivers on its admittedly ambitious plans, its story very likely will be hailed on the pages of the business press. With the helping hand—and deep pockets—of its American parent, Ford Motor Co., Aston intends not only to take on the likes of the Porsche 911, but also to outsell Ferrari. And, for the first time in nine decades, the British carmaker actually promises to post a profit.

A Lifestyle Statement
"An Aston Martin is not so much transportation," says Ulrich Bez, Aston's energetic chairman and chief executive officer, "as it is a lifestyle statement that happens to be a car."

The new DB9 is a case in point. Though there are unmistakable visual similarities to the old DB7, the new car is decidedly more satisfying and somehow possesses an even greater quality of timelessness, with a fastback body that's sinfully curvaceous. But the yawning Aston grille lends an element of machismo to the design, barely concealing a 6.0-liter, 450-horsepower V-12.

Slip behind the wheel and you'll discover one of the most elegant interiors on the road. The term jewel-like has become an auto industry buzzword these days, a description that is especially apt when you scan across the DB9's instrument panel, with its clockwork gauges. Aston offers a variety of combinations blending leather, wood and chrome, as well as the first automotive application of bamboo. There's even a crystal ashtray—and, for the American market, a cup holder, though it's hard to imagine a DB9 driving up for a Big Mac and Coke. Perhaps some pâté and Chablis to go?

Aston offered up an early prototype of the new sports car for a recent tour through the mountain and seaside villages of southern France. After a few minutes admiring the car, it was time to go exploring. There are a few tricks, however, to driving a DB9. After inserting the key, you need to press the start button at the top of the center console. The big V-12 comes to life with a resonant growl. But go looking for the shift lever and it isn't where you expect it to be.

There's a fairly conventional, 6-speed manual transmission model, but our test car featured a manually shifted automatic that is controlled by a pair of paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel. It takes a little while to get the hang of the paddle shifters, but eventually it becomes second nature.

The new Aston is, in a sense, two cars in one, as we discovered during a day of driving. Opt for automatic mode, letting the transmission shift itself, and the DB9 is your classic touring car—silky-smooth, comfortable and perfect for a casual day of driving. Shift into manual mode, and its character is transformed. Suddenly, the DB9 becomes a hard-driving performance machine, quickly propelling us to 140 miles an hour as we roar down the Autoroute toward Nice.


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