2020 Aston Martin DBX review: 542bhp ‘super SUV’ driven in Malaysia
Tom Jones, grim episodes of Hinterland and a football club owned by a Malaysian billionaire; that’s basically all there is to my limited knowledge of Wales. News from that particular corner of the British Isles doesn’t travel here very often. But when it does, it arrives in an aluminium parcel measuring 1.7m tall that wouldn’t look out of place in Gareth Bale’s driveway.
I’m talking about the Aston Martin DBX, Gaydon’s first SUV that’s not actually built in the same English factory responsible for the brand’s sportier staples such as the DB11 and Vantage. The DBX rolls out of the British marque’s new 90-acre facility in a place called St Athan. And for something put together in a Welsh village with a population of less than 5,000 – roughly the number of parking lots in subterranean KLCC – it certainly feels right at home in the humid traffic of our bustling capital.
Yes, an Aston Martin rallied by an AMG-sourced twin-turbo V8 pounding out 542bhp and 700Nm knows how to stay civil in the chaotic bottlenecks of Jalan Tun Razak. This is largely thanks to the engine’s ability to deactivate an entire cylinder bank under minimal loads, which effectively turns the DBX into a two-litre four-pot SUV in low-speed urban environments. But there’s nothing emasculating or ironic about that.
On its best behaviour, the DBX’s appeal – not as an Aston Martin, but as a luxury SUV intent on incorporating itself into the daily grind – becomes obvious. With the driving mode kept to its default ‘GT’ configuration, the active exhaust valves stay shut to keep the ride serene, creating a peaceful environment in which all 250 man-hours put into handcrafting each DBX can be fully appreciated. It’s quiet, comfy and indulgently so, even if the monotonously blue confines of our humbly-specced tester isn’t the DBX’s interior at its finest.
This peace is easily undone with a stab of the throttle, which is exactly what I did upon joining the open straights of the MEX highway. Doing so induces a split-second of mechanical drama as all eight cylinders come to life; an opening act of sorts for the theatrics to come. And while a 4.5-second century sprint doesn’t look particularly rapid on paper – even a Merc GLC43 will do 0-100kph in less than five seconds – the DBX is properly quick for a hunk of metal that tips the scale at 2,245kg. Quick enough to make me second guess my entry speed into some of the sweeping sections of the elevated highway at least.
After all, I had yet to fiddle with the DBX’s six driving modes – which is a story in itself for later – at this point. This meant that the big Aston’s adaptive air suspension was programmed to maintain the standard 190mm ride height while keeping interference aimed at the derriere to a minimum. It’s not the plushest damping we’ve experienced in a posh SUV – the Audi Q7 is particularly adept in this area – but there’s still a slight hint of padding on the move that accentuates the DBX’s raised centre of gravity at high speeds.
For something put together in a Welsh village with a population of less than 5,000, the DBX certainly feels right at home in the humid traffic of our bustling capital
I found myself lifting off quite a bit as the straights bent into the horizon from time to time as a result. But it was eventually obvious how unnecessary this was given how expertly the DBX’s dedicated AWD chassis preserved composure and grip on each occasion – its near-perfect weight distribution (54:46 front to rear) and sticky 22-inch Pirelli P Zeros clearly doing their bit to give this ‘super SUV’ of sorts the kind of driving dynamics that’ll come in handy in a heated James Bond car chase.
Much of the level-headedness the DBX exhibits on the go can be attributed to its 48V electric anti-roll control system (eARC), which basically enables quicker and tighter cornering action than you’d expect from such a burly vehicle, no matter how sporty its pedigree. More crucial is how well this electronic compensation is masked from the driver. Natural is the keyword that rings true to every mechanical fibre that mobilises the DBX. This applies to its fluid steering response, purist-servicing brakes with sports car-like progressiveness and even the gearbox, which now comes from the same supplier as that familiar V8 motor (did you read that with an American accent?).
After being happy ZF customers for so long, Aston Martin has finally bought into Mercedes’s nine-speed auto which is clearly no stranger to Affalterbach’s M177 mill, even if it has been finetuned to give the DBX an edge of its own. The torque converter unit glides between its close ratios effortlessly in the city and purposefully when pushed. And the paddle shifters hooked up to it are all but decorative in most conceivable driving conditions; I had a go at them in an attempt to look professional next to the Aston Martin Kuala Lumpur staffer seated beside me only to be outwitted by a gearbox that was almost always a step ahead of my instincts.
The other bit that got me looking a tad silly were the transmission controls, which, to my defence, were awkwardly placed right at the top of the centre console, above the massive (also visually impressive) 12.3-inch touchscreen. The P, R, N and D buttons aren’t a brand-wide issue as they’re placed more intuitively below the infotainment and AC vents in cars like the DB11 and DBS Superleggera, and much closer to where you’d typically find a conventional gear knob in the Vantage. This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as ergonomic issues from the DBX’s driver’s seat are concerned.
Do I begin with the memory buttons wedged so tightly between the base of the seat and the door that they’re practically invisible? Or with the size and placement of the cooling vents that were constantly struggling to maintain a habitable temperature in the cabin? I could even rant about the stubborn doors, beautiful as they are with their angled hinges and frameless windows, that refuse to close shut unless you give it a hefty shove – soft-close options surprisingly don’t even exist. But my biggest gripe of all are the controls on the steering wheel, or rather the ones I wish were within the reach of my thumbs instead.
Natural is the keyword that rings true to every mechanical fibre that mobilises the DBX
One of the best reasons to buy an Aston Martin GT over something Italian, if you ever needed one, is how quickly you can get it from being at ease to going on the attack via steering-mounted controls which don’t compromise that ideal three- and nine-o’clock grip. Since the DBX is endowed with a wealth of driver aids like adaptive cruise control, autonomous braking and lane-keep assist, all of which are tied to buttons typically located on the wheel, driving modes have been demoted to an up-and-down selector in the centre console, woefully out of the driver’s natural field of vision. To make things worse, all six modes – four sporty settings for tarmac and two dedicated off-road configurations – are all bundled in the same menu.
Tempting as ‘Terrain’ mode was, there simply wasn’t an opportunity for me to thrash the DBX off the beaten path as our colleagues in the UK did, not that I had any reason to doubt the big Aston’s off-road capabilities. It is a purpose-built SUV benchmarked against the Range Rover after all. The suspension can raise the standard ride height by 50mm for 235mm of total clearance, and you’ll be able to wade through depths of up to 500mm. You even get 632 litres of boot space for your adventure gear (golf bags and shopping fit nicely too) plus properly hospitable rear quarters for willing travel companions; colleague cum passenger Thoriq Azmi certainly approves.
That there’s as much to wax lyrical about the DBX’s utilitarian aptitude as there is about its dynamic talent speaks volumes of the amount of car you’re getting for the amount of money it commands; RM818,000 before duties, taxes, insurance and options to be precise. A hefty sum at first glance, it’s ultimately a fair price to pay for a product that goes to great lengths to honour every facet of its identity, be it the sporty heritage tied to its winged logo and bell-shaped grille or its aspirations for adventure and a wider set of admirers.
Of course, there are a few aforementioned issues to keep in mind. But what is a supercar – something the DBX is clearly intent on being – without its quirks? I confidently dial things up to ‘Sport’ (to the sound of a meatier exhaust) for the journey back to the city with rain clouds on the horizon because it’s also pretty darn good all-weather, million-Ringgit machine. For all that has been said about SUVs on this side of the wealth divide, the DBX is far from a struggling supercar manufacturer’s last-ditch effort to balance the books. It’s proof that an outfit as focused as Aston Martin is fully capable of mastering the art of mass without compromising its appeal; a thoroughly engineered all-rounder through and through.
Aston Martin DBX
Price: From RM818,000 w/o duties and options
Engine: 4.0L twin-turbo V8, 542bhp, 700Nm
Transmission: 9spd auto, AWD
Performance: 0-100 in 4.5 secs, 291kph
Economy: 14.3L per 100km
An SUV that isn’t afraid of being labelled one, the DBX is as surprisingly practical as it is expectedly engaging on the move.
There’s room for some minor improvements from a passenger-oriented, daily driver’s perspective, but there is already plenty on offer in terms of performance, comfort and refinement, plus the unmistakable look and feel of an Aston Martin despite the wider canvas.