- When Ford dropped Aston Martin in 2007, the luxury carmaker pivoted to keep up engine innovation and design, resulting in a technical partnership with Mercedes-AMG to source the eight-cylinder engine for the 2020 Aston Martin DB11 V8.
- While the DB11’s high-income segment might raise concerns about individuality, Aston Martin reprogrammed the motor’s computer controls, changed its intake, and massaged the exhaust to maintain its distinct sound.
- With former AMG boss Tobias Moer having replaced CEO Andy Palmer earlier this year, the Gaydon, UK-based auto company hopes to climb out of its sales slump.
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It’s far more complicated, and more expensive, to manufacture a modern automobile than most of us could ever imagine. This is doubly true for those scratching out an existence at the ultra-luxury margins of the industry, where development costs are rarely ever recouped by volume sales and product decisions have almost zero margin for error should they not connect with the core group of buyers — whose support is key to keeping the lights on.
In an automotive industry increasingly driven by consolidation, where not even major operations like Chrysler, Fiat, Nissan, and Mitsubishi can find a path forward without joining together in elaborate networks of takeovers and mergers, smaller concerns have also had to forge similar partnerships lest they be swallowed whole by red ink or a deep-pocketed competitor.
Perhaps no vehicle illustrates this better among high-end brands than the 2020 Aston Martin DB11 V8, a respected and stylish grand-touring coupe that’=s looked across the English Channel to pull its entire drivetrain from a most unlikely Continental source. It’s a unique partnership between two seemingly disparate, high-performance badges — Aston Martin and Mercedes-AMG — and one that may eventually be undone by the same pressures that brought it about in the first place.
Everybody needs somebody to lean on
One of the most storied builders to have emerged from England’s early automotive industry, Aston Martin can trace its operations back more than a century. During that time, the modest manufacturer has laid claim to numerous racing victories, countless gorgeous sports cars, and of course more than one starring role in the James Bond franchise.
The road to its current independence has come at a cost. After a decade or so of ownership by Ford that ended in 2007, Aston Martin was forced to take stock of its future. The technologies it had relied on from the Blue Oval naturally had an expiration date, especially in the fast-paced world of engine design, which was increasingly challenged by the twin specters of emissions regulations and efficiency expectations.
With the end of the line approaching for its Ford-sourced V8 and V12 engines, Aston Martin quickly realized that it had the budget available to replace only one of those power plants in house. Logically, it made sense for the company to continue to forge its own twelve-cylinder future, as that motor had long been indelibly associated with the Aston Martin image, and development began on a new turbocharged design in 2011.
That V12 emerged just over five years later, and can today be found in the top-tier versions of the Aston Martin DB11, as well as several other models. The hunt for a new V8, however, shifted the Brit builder’s gaze from Detroit to Daimler, resulting in a “technical partnership” that saw Mercedes-AMG play a major role in developing the next eight-cylinder to be found under an Aston’s hood.
It was a deal that also netted parent company Daimler a 5% stake in Aston Martin, as well as the commitment to provide the automaker with access to electrical and infotainment systems to be used in future vehicles.
In many ways, it was the perfect illustration of car companies expanding their purview to become technology vendors, with the well-funded “haves” such as Mercedes-Benz and Toyota (which regularly licensed out, and eventually gave away, its hybrid battery know-how) bolstering automakers with smaller research and development budgets.
Altogether, the partnership played a key role in newly-minted CEO Andy Palmer’s “second century” plan for Aston Martin, which committed to a return to profitability fueled by repositioning the brand’s perception on the global stage, as well as through an expansion of the vehicle range to include an SUV and a new set of mid-engine sports cars.
The same, but different(ish)
Does a beating German heart counteract the distinctly British character of a car like the Aston Martin DB11? Is there a risk that the DB11 be seen as merely a satellite of the Mercedes-AMG GT, a ferocious sports car that shares the same drivetrain?
These are valid concerns to those shopping in the DB11’s $200,000-and-up segment, where individuality is of key interest to enthusiasts and collectors alike. A boutique shop that merely produces window dressing for an elsewhere engine line-up would quickly fall in prestige among both its target customers as well as the automotive world at large. It’s also true that giant Daimler wouldn’t take well to bankrolling a carbon-copy competitor of one of its own products.
Cognizant of these pitfalls, Aston Martin made changes to the 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V8 prior to tagging it in for DB11 duty. These include reprogramming the motor’s computer controls, altering its intake, and massaging the exhaust so that it sounded far more like Astons of years past than the Teutonic growl-and-spit of the AMG GT.
There’s also a slight power difference, with the British edition charting 503 horsepower and 498 lb-ft of torque in its single configuration, as compared to the 469 horsepower to 577 horsepower spread found across the wider spectrum of Mercedes-AMG GT line-up. The GT R Pro coupe boasts the highest figure as well as the transaction price closest to that of the DB11, but it’s also a hardcore track car that doesn’t match the Aston Martin in terms of poise, comfort, or customer, thus ensuring even more separation between the rivals.
A stunning success
In practice, the DB11’s twin-turbo V8 is the perfect match for the car’s distinctive blend of grace and performance. Visually arresting from almost every angle, the coupe deserves a power plant that’s at least as effective as its V12 sibling, and indeed the two engines are neck and neck in terms of straight-line speed.
As befitting its luxo personality, the Aston Martin’s acceleration isn’t exactly explosive, with a slight delay after getting on the pedal before the coupe is propelled forward on a seemingly endless ribbon of torque that’s expertly managed by the vehicle’s eight-speed automatic transmission. The car feels particularly at home when galloping at highway speeds, picking up major velocity in mere seconds once you’ve pulled out to pass and mashed the gas.
In the same way, the DB11’s chassis has been tuned to triumph rather than terrorize when sent down a curvy stretch of road. With three steering, wheel-selected suspension settings available — GT, Sport, and Sport+ — the Aston Martin’s ride can be dialed back when it’s bumpy or further focused when it comes time to pirouette. That being said, there’s a reserved character to the car’s athleticism that projects competence and prizes stability over direct, competition-ready engagement with the driver.
The same is true of the DB11’s drivetrain settings — again, three in total — which make for snappier shifts and a throatier exhaust note, but like the suspension setup acts in perfect concert with the vehicle’s unobtrusive electronic stability control system to keep everything playing nice together.
Thrilling yes, but “hooligan” no is an apt description of the Aston Martin’s on-road personality, and it’s a fitting complement to its elongated lines and the angular beauty of its sheet metal, highlighted by the bright yellow hue sprayed across our test vehicle. That same sense of reserved power and plush, perfectly-trimmed elegance resound throughout its cabin, which offers a vestigial set of rear accommodations but saves the real experience for those seated in the first two positions. It’s a simple and effective presentation, set off by handsome gauges and an infotainment system more than a little reminiscent of the Mercedes-Benz COMAND hardware on which it’s based, with the latter controlled by a rotary dial at the front of the center console.
Taken together, the gorgeously shaped Aston Martin DB11 V8 offers an exceptionally comfortable and calm environment in which to while away road trip hours, with the option to spike the adrenaline at any given moment with a stab of the right foot and a turn from the interstate to explore a squiggly stretch of two-lane.
The never-ending ballet of partnerships, technology, and commerce
Much as the winds of change forced Aston Martin’s original decision to seek out a drivetrain partner almost 10 years ago, so too has the constant shift of the automotive economy forced the company today to reckon with a new set of challenges, both technical and financial.
Early in 2020, then-CEO Andy Palmer announced that Aston would once again turn inward to develop its next-generation replacement for the V8 engine found in the DB11, and that it would take the form of an electrically-assisted V6. The decision was made in part after AMG indicated that it may be backing away from eight-cylinder engines altogether in favor of four-cylinder turbos, a drivetrain format Palmer was unwilling to foist on Aston’s faithful.
Whether this separation will come to pass is uncertain. Palmer was gently ousted from Aston Martin a short time afterward in the aftermath of the company’s sale to a new investment group led by Canadian Lawrence Stroll, who will also be merging his Racing Point Formula 1 team (piloted by his son, Lance Stroll) under the Aston Martin banner for the 2021 season. The corporate shake-up was itself necessitated by Aston’s disastrous public offering a few years previous combined with the financial fall-out associated with shrinking overall sales.
Newly in charge at the Gaydon, UK-based company is none other than former AMG boss Tobias Moer. Charged with lifting Aston Martin out of its sales slump and achieving the consistent profitability Palmer only ever flirted with, it may be too soon to count out cooperation between the German and British concerns, especially if it helps serve Aston’s bottom line.
As for a four-cylinder DB11 successor — don’t hold your breath. Electrification is no doubt in Aston Martin’s future, but a sub-six super tourer is a tough sell to anyone with their wallet open wide into the six-figure range. Until the dust settles, look for the existing Aston’s thoroughly excellent, cross-pollinated V8 to continue calling the shots, whether stuffed amidships or tucked under the automaker’s trademark long hoods that stretch all the way back to a time when England was about to go to war with Germany, rather than pin its hopes on a shared future together.