Top Gear raved about the Aston Martin DB9, but the early examples were actually poorly finished and disappointing to drive, says Steve Huntingford
When would you say Top Gear started to morph into the worldwide phenomenon that it is today? The moment when it stopped being a “pokey motoring show” that was exclusively for car nuts and became something with much broader appeal?
I reckon it was probably in 2004, when Jeremy Clarkson drove the brand-new Aston Martin DB9 to Casino Square in Monte Carlo, while James May and Richard Hammond tried to beat him there using the Eurostar and TGV.
That episode, which opened series four of "new" Top Gear, was one of the best ever; it also featured May going undercover to test the CityRover after Rover had refused to lend the BBC a car, and Clarkson trying to evade an Apache helicopter while racing a Lotus Exige round the Top Gear test track. However, it was the DB9 feature that left the biggest impression.
It was the first of Top Gear’s epic races, the car looked absolutely stunning despite being finished in a questionable shade of green, and as the film built to its tense climax, Clarkson described Aston’s new grand tourer as feeling like “motoring perfection”.
The last DB9: watch our review of the DB9 GT
Over the next few months I was perfectly willing to believe that it was indeed a sensational achievement that made rivals from Bentley and Ferrari feel second-rate. And so when a DB9 arrived in the office of the magazine that I worked for at the time, it would be fair to say I was more than a little excited.
I still remember walking out to the car park and seeing the DB9 in the metal for the first time. If anything it looked even prettier than it had on TV, and its swan-wing doors, which open upwards as well as outwards to stop you banging them against kerbs, only added to the drama.
I settled into the driver’s seat, took in the interior that I’d heard was “as crisp and as modern as the departure lounge in a Swiss airport”, and felt my first flash of disappointment.
Not only did most of the switches look cheap and plasticky, but the Alcantara trim on the windscreen pillars was wrinkled on the passenger’s side, and the wooden insert in the centre console was poorly fitted, with every shut line a different thickness.
Now, there are plenty of low volume cars that make up for having rather rough and ready interiors by being great to drive, and as I fired up the DB9’s V12, it started to win me back round, the engine exploding into life before settling to a bassy wooffle.
But then I experienced the steering – ridiculously heavy yet strangely numb – the ground clearance – so minimal at the front that the car chinned itself on dips in the road – and the ride – ridiculously hard and unyielding for a GT car.
And then there was the structural stiffness; or, rather, there wasn’t. While Clarkson had driven the coupé, the car I had was a Volante, and it was one of the wobbliest convertibles I’ve ever driven. Indeed, there was so much flex and shimmy that it felt like I’d forgotten to lock the steering wheel into position.
Later, I would drive a DB9 coupé and discover it was a better car – if still one that felt well short of the excellence I was originally expecting.
And while Aston Martin has improved the DB9 over the years, to the point where the last-of-the-line GT models are very pleasant things, you'd still have to let your heart overrule your head to buy one over rivals. The new DB11 can’t arrive soon enough.