For 60 years, Aston Martin has traded off its association with the world’s most famous fictional spy. Today, of course, it has more to shout about than Sean Connery and Daniel Craig: following Canadian fashionwear billionaire Lawrence Stroll’s takeover of Aston Martin in January 2020, the brand has had a string of hits. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve regularly been on the Formula One podium this year, courtesy of the sport’s most experienced driver, Fernando Alonso. Move over 007.
The road car company’s model line-up is also more expansive than ever before, now made up of the DBX super-SUV, the Vantage sports car, the DB12 grand tourer which has just arrived, the DBS hyper-GT, and megabucks limited-edition cars Valour, Valhalla and Valkyrie. Aston Martin is now a fully paid-up peer of Ferrari. Before Stroll walked through the door, there were only three models, and the most expensive cost ten times less than the Valkyrie (though at £3 million for a Valkyrie, it’s all relative).
Several of these cars, including the 1,160bhp hybrid hypercar and the bestselling DBX, were instigated by former CEO Dr Andy Palmer, who was sacked by Stroll in May 2020. Those projects are now bearing fruit, and it is lucky old Stroll, 64, who’s reaping the rewards.
The Hill Country’s sweeping and largely empty tarmac provides the ideal canvas to assess the DB12’s dynamic abilities
The point to all that background is this: the DB12 is the first car to be born wholly out of Stroll’s leadership, and it’s also the backbone of the brand – an elegant GT designed to extol all of Aston Martin’s core values, and the natural heir of other DBs, most notably the iconic DB5. So, it’s essential they get this one right.
1963 was a big year for Aston. That’s when the DB5 tore onto the swinging scene, the same year President Lyndon B. Johnson swore the oath of allegiance on a flight back from Dallas. I mention that because I’ve been tossed the keys to the new DB12 on the eve of the US Grand Prix in Austin, and I’ve driven out to Texas Hill Country to tackle the roads that surround Johnson’s ancestral ranch and the 36th president’s final resting place. If anything’s going to wake LBJ, it’ll be the tune of this car’s twin-turbo V8.
A couple of hours drive west of Austin, Texas’ state capital, this rugged terrain with its limestone knolls and cypress-lined creeks was claimed by German settlers and has led to its main conurbation, Fredericksburg, to be known by locals as Fritz-town. The Teutonic influence can be found in the food and drink. Most visitors come to Hill Country for the wine. Wineries are now almost as ubiquitous here as ranch windmills. LBJ, it’s recorded, spent almost as much time in Hill Country as he did in Washington DC, making it the Much Further West Wing.
My accommodation here is at one with nature. Bordering Johnson’s Stonewall ranch, Walden Retreats offers luxury glamping from £200-a-night, with a dozen tented suites set over nearly 100 acres of scrubland. The site takes its name from a 19th century memoir by the transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau – part personal declaration of independence, part survival guide for the wild; although he probably didn’t have an en-suite roll-top bath and a state-of-the-art kitchen under canvas like me. After a golden sunset and an evening roasting S’mores on the fire, I wake to find a breakfast hamper has been delivered to my patio for me to cook myself an omelette on the heavy-duty barbecue. After putting the finishing touches to my Johnny Cash playlist, I hit the road in my mean green machine.
The Hill Country
The Hill Country’s sweeping and largely empty tarmac provides the ideal canvas to assess the DB12’s dynamic abilities, but first let’s pull over and assess the styling, while keeping an ear out for rattlesnakes.
Ultimately, much like the progression from DB5 to DB6, you have to look very closely to spot the differences between the DB12 and DB11, which arrived on our streets in 2016. There’s a sharpened lower nose which is very welcome, but everything that stretches back from there is almost unchanged. To be fair, the DB11 looked perfect save the slightly too bulbous face, accentuated by the oversized DB4 GT Zagato-inspired grille. It looked like it’d been stung by a wasp. The 2023 rhinoplasty puts everything in proportion. Plus, only 20 percent of parts have been carried over. The visual surprise is saved for the inside, and what an improvement it is. The DB11’s cabin was a dark and cluttered place, unsophisticated compared to its competitors from Crewe, Stuttgart and Maranello. The DB12 is altogether more stylish, commanding and luxurious, taking, one suspects, significant inspiration from the superb Bentley Continental GT. It’s a major step forward in every way, with the ergonomics of a fighter cockpit mated to the materials and finesse of one of David Linley’s living rooms. Another marked difference is the user interface, completely redesigned in-house, which is now as fast and intuitive as the car’s main controls.
Like Fredericksburg, there’s a lot of German influence to be found under the skin. Not only is Mercedes-Benz a long-term strategic partner of Aston Martin, it owns almost ten percent of the company. The AMG-sourced 4.0 engine has been uprated to 671bhp and 590lb ft of torque, giving it longer legs than its rivals. Engage launch control by stamping on both pedals and letting go of the brake: all of that power is adhesively dispensed to the asphalt via its eight-speed automatic gearbox and vast Michelin Pilot Sport 5S rear tyres, which have been developed to be noise cancelling; 60mph arrives in 3.5 seconds and, if you’re willing to bury the needle into orange jump-suited territory, it’ll gallop on to 202mph.
In Sport Plus mode, this is a muscular supercar, with cracking gearshifts and rabid revs but, overall, it’s the adroitness of this car that makes it so special, with driving modes to suit any mood and a spirited chassis that’s both thrilling and reassuring.
The DB12 is lighter and stiffer than the car it replaces, and one really feels this through the bends. The car is bitier on turn-in than the Ferrari Roma, is much more planted at the rear, and the clever damping gives the driver huge confidence to get on the loud pedal early out of corners. The DB11 could wallow under high forces like a wayward Ford Mustang, whereas the ’12 is on rails. The carbon ceramic brakes aren’t grabby like they are on other machines in this segment, matching McLaren – the benchmark – for feel and refinement.
There’s always been money in Austin, but now it’s in your face. I’m not helping matters by cruising around in a £185,000 supercar
I skirt Lake Austin on the drive back towards the city, a 22-mile stretch of the Colorado River that’s been christened the Malibu of Texas; vast waterside pads that’ll make the residents of Sandbanks feel like paupers, owned by the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock and Elon Musk. Tech companies such as Tesla, Dell, Apple and Samsung are big employers in Austin, creating a Silicon Valley of the south and causing a population and high-rise condo boom over the last decade. I lived in Austin for a brief time 20 years ago, and today everything feels twice the size and three-times the price. With all this glass-sided corporate growth, the city has lost some of its charm. It used to be a redneck Williamsburg filled with hipster dive bars, vintage stores and mad artists. Now it’s as yuppie as San Francisco. There’s always been money here, but it used to be quiet and now it’s in your face. I’m probably not helping matters by cruising around in a £185,000 supercar.
A lot of my favoured haunts have been bulldozed, including the wonderful Rainey Street which was filled with historic bungalows that’d been turned into rustic cocktail bars. Now it looks like Canary Wharf. The eccentric Johnny Cash-themed Mean Eyed Cat Bar is still there, at least, as is the Broken Spoke, a throwback country bar that’s hosted live bluegrass and boot-scootin’ since 1964. So’s the Texas Chili Parlor, where I recall Lee Harvey Oswald’s daughter working for a while, and the Casino El Camino on 6th Street which makes Austin’s best burger for just $8.
The famous 6th street, with its late night live music and frat party crowd, has turned increasingly sketchy, and the new urbane residents are more likely to be found in the sleek bars and restaurants close to Congress Avenue. The Aston Martin team takes me to dinner at the moody Comedor, typical of modern metropolitan Austin, with its stark, gallery-like interior and upscale Mexican haute cuisine. I’m staying at the city’s Soho House (rooms from £375) on the reinvigorated South Congress, which used to be all hippie boutiques and now boasts an Hèrmes.
On the night before the grand prix, the popular members club hosts a party on its rooftop with a rousing set by breakthrough Korean-American rapper Audrey Nuna. Dining in a low-lit corner of the club is Prince Harry, who appears to be wedded to Soho House. He’s in town, sans Meghan, for the race and he’ll be in the Mercedes pit with Elon as guests of Lewis Hamilton.
Our respective hosts have arranged helicopters to take us in and out of the circuit on race day, where I have a brief catch-up with Mr Alonso. In Fernando, I posit, Aston Martin now has a company driver far more skilled than Bond when it comes to assessing how to really get out of dodge quickly (without grazing the beautiful bodywork). He offers me his assessment on the DB12: “It’s extreme in its performance, but it’s also comfortable,” reflects the double world champion, who has a Valkyrie on order. “A lot of sports cars are uncomfortable and you end up using it only a few times a year because it’s just too impractical. What I really like about the DB12 is it’s a sports car you can use every day.”
Then Alonso jumps in his emerald-coloured F1 car, hits the track, and will doubtless sell some road cars in the process. Secret or not, he’s now Aston’s number one agent. It’s no coincidence the most popular colour for Astons is no longer silver, it’s racing green.