Henry Payne: Aston Martin unleashes a beautiful, beastly SUV

·6 min read

Apr. 22—The Aston Martin Rapide is the most beautiful sedan in the world. So it's no surprise the Brit brand's first SUV, the DBX, is a stunner. Now that's how you pen a ute.

America has been overrun by SUVs, but save for the odd Range Rover, luxury automakers have struggled to translate the sex appeal of their sedans/sports cars to the high-riding hatchback. The Porsche Cayenne, which pioneered the performance ute back in 2003, still looks like an overweight 911. Mercedes GLC Coupes look like bowling balls. Even Lamborghini's Urus fails to stir the loins.

The Aston DBX nails it. My white DBX tester takes the ugly SUV duckling and makes it a swan — literally. Signature beak and ovoid headlights sweep backward over a muscled torso to an elegant, swan-like tail. This is a rare bird in the auto kingdom.

But the DBX is about more than good looks.

Like the DB5 sports car that James Bond made famous, the SUV boasts speed and utility. Not rotary-tire-shredders-emerging-from-the-wheels or grille-mounted-machine-gun utility, but useful features nonetheless. Take the DBX to a road course, for example, and it'll help with track setup as well as run hot laps.

I high-tailed it to my home state of West Virginia one weekend to see if DBX lives up to its family name with a few laps around a test track. The rural circuit only gets occasional use and was blocked by a tree from a recent ice storm.

No problem — I brought an SUV. I loaded up DBX's ample cargo bay with a chainsaw and long brooms and went to work with Mrs. Payne clearing the debris. The DBX comes equipped with air suspension to accommodate multiple driving modes — GT for daily driving, Terrain/Terrain+ for off-roading, Sport/Sport+ for track days. The air suspension also knelt so I could sit on the rear sill and strap on my work boots.

Once the track was cleared, the Aston proved worthy of its badge.

In this Age of Ute, branding is essential as legacy automakers transition to SUVs and electric vehicles. That goes for a $43,000 Mustang Mach-E as well as a $180,000 Aston. The crossover embodies Aston core values earned over decades: style, power and handling.

This SUV is old school, old Europe. It's glorious.

Under the hood is a good old-fashioned V-8 with two turbos strapped to its back. It's the same eight-holer found in Mercedes' AMG models (Merc owns 20% of Aston) as well as Bond's latest Vantage sports car. Exhaling though twin tailpipes the size of ship cannons, the V-8 puts out 542 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. Our friends at Car and Driver clocked its 0-60 mph time at 3.9 seconds — a half-second shy of Vantage.

The nine-speed transmission (also Merc-sourced) seems barely able to keep up. Stomp the gas and the box bounces from sixth gear to third, delivering raw, violent power to its massive, 13-inch-wide tires. Like a flimsy gate giving way to the king's cavalry, it unleashes a ferocious surge of power.

The elegant beast exploded out of a tight right-hander. The nose pointed at the heavens, the engine bellowing with joy.

For a 4,940-pound SUV, it is astonishingly agile. A rhino in tennis shoes. Enormous 16-inch rotors brought the DBX back to earth as I rotated around a long carousel turn — the rear end eagerly swinging outward as all four tires scrabbled for traction as I fed more throttle. The designers have drawn a sleek athlete — and the engineers have matched it with a midsize aluminum-chassis SUV that feels a class smaller.

The interior is Old Europe as well.

While Mercedes, BMW and Cadillac have introduced a new generation of dazzling, dash-spanning screens, Aston is content with digital instrument and console screens that wouldn't be out of place in a $28,000 Hyundai Elantra. The infotainment screen isn't even touch operated — it can only be controlled by a remote dial. And the screen only supports Apple CarPlay, not my Android Auto (at least there's blind-spot assist since the coupe-like rear roof creates a blind spot the size of Oxford).

You don't go to Windsor Castle to see the latest in big screen technology. You go to see exquisite rooms and sumptuous materials. So, too, the DBX.

The interior and front thrones are wrapped in delicious blue leather. White contrast stitching sows it together. On the door pillars and ceiling? Lush beige Alcantara. My wife swooned. Speaking of castles, the wood-trimmed console arches like a bridge over a moat — the blue leather space underneath perfect for secreting m'lady's purse.

The rear seats of this royal chariot lacked the fancy-pants portable tablet of some fancy chariots I've driven recently. But this English athlete is guzzling barrels of oil — not coddling tea-sipping passengers. Strap them in and at least they'll have plenty of leg room. Your 6'5" reviewer could sit behind himself with room to spare while basking under a huge panoramic roof unobstructed by crossbar support. How Aston managed to make this ute so nimble with all that glass on the roof is an engineering marvel.

Old-school British touches abound. The hood latch is on the right side of the dash (well, of course it is, love, most Astons will be sold with right-hand drive). The gears are selected by four buttons — Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive — located high on the dash. Cupholders strain to hold bottles, and the stitched passenger ceiling handles appear taken from expensive luggage.

After an afternoon flogging the thoroughbred on track, the ride home is soothingly quiet. The cabin is wrapped in acoustic laminated glass so it's peacefully secluded from the outside world (unless your lead foot awakens the beast within).

Such luxury is out of the reach of most of us peasants, but that doesn't mean it doesn't bring pleasure to the masses. My Aston tester was routinely mobbed at gas stations (which you will visit frequently to slake the V-8's thirst) by appreciative fans.

Like a winning stallion at the track, it's sinewy flanks are just too gorgeous to ignore.

"I didn't even notice it was an SUV," said one bystander. "It's so beautiful."

A ute it may be, but DBX is a still work of art — just like its ancestors.

2021 Aston Martin DBX

Vehicle type: Front engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger midsize SUV

Price: $179,986 including $3,086 destination fee ($210,986 as tested)

Powerplant: 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8

Power: 542 horsepower, 516 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.9 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 181 mph

Weight: 4,940 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 14 city/18 highway/15 combined

Report card

Highs: Aston style; ferocious V-8

Lows: Rough downshifts; underwhelming interior tech

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.