Sometimes it's better to take the long way there
“I travel for travel’s sake,” Robert Louis Stevenson once declared. “The great affair is to move.” True, but it’s not just about moving. It’s about the art of moving. I could have taken the 7:25 a.m. British Airways flight out of London’s Heathrow Airport to get to the Paris show last month. Or jumped the 7:01 a.m. Eurostar train from St Pancras station, taking advantage of the shorter lines at security and the fact that I step off the train right in the heart of Paris. Instead, I took an Aston Martin DB11.
The plan was simple. Drive down to Portsmouth and grab the Monday night ferry to Caen. Spend the next day mooching around Normandy, then head into Paris the following afternoon. A day and a half at the show, then back out to Normandy for some weekend sightseeing before grabbing the Sunday night ferry back to England.
The DB11 was a right-hand-drive Launch Edition model, painted a striking deep orange called Cinnabar, with black leather interior. Aston had sent it for me to sample revisions to the suspension settings—all software changes, no hardware—primarily designed to tame the slightly floaty motions from the rear axle at highway speeds with the damping set in the softest of its three modes. The DB11’s Daimler-sourced electronic neural network also monitors steering angle and input speed, plus vehicle corner speed and lateral acceleration to independently adjust damper rates at each corner of the car. Additional software upgrades had been made to improve the blending between these functions for certain speed ranges and driving styles to give the rear axle more mid-corner support. And finally, Aston engineers had adjusted the initial base level damping in Sport+ mode to better balance the front and rear axle and deliver better initial steering and rear axle feel on turn-in.
Not that we could discern any of that as Mrs. MacKenzie and I rolled with the Monday afternoon traffic out of London and down the motorway toward Portsmouth, for centuries the home of Britain’s Royal Navy. What we did notice was the surprising tire noise from the 20-inch Bridgestone Potenzas on the coarser sections of tarmac, a sonorous roar much more noticeable than anything experienced on the launch drive in Italy.
We slipped out of Portsmouth harbor at 10:45 p.m. on Brittany Ferries’ Normandie, a 30,360-ton vessel capable of carrying 600 cars and 2,100 passengers across the world’s busiest shipping lane at a brisk 20.5 knots—or, as we landlubbers would call it, 23.6 mph (38 km/h). Loading these big ferries is a logistical ballet of cars, trucks, and even semis moving in carefully coordinated waves over the dock and into the echoing belly of the ship. I took care to angle the Aston over the various ramps to avoid kissing the front spoiler or high-centering that low-slung chassis as I drove aboard, repeating the exercise six hours later as we rolled off the boat and into the pre-dawn gloom outside Caen.
Travelling through France in an Aston Martin almost makes an overnight stay in a chateau obligatory. Château de Bonnemare is tucked away along back roads in the middle of farmland outside Rouen, but the DB11’s sat-nav had no trouble tracking it down. Until the AMG-sourced 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 appears in the next-gen Vantage and the new DBX crossover, it’s the most obvious manifestation of Aston Martin’s technical cooperation with Daimler, looking as if it’s been lifted straight out of a Mercedes-Benz, right down to the hand rest and control wheel on the center console.
“An Aston Martin is my dream,” said Alain Vandecandelaere, who, with his wife, Sylvie, has owned and run Château de Bonnemare for the past 10 years. “It would look perfect in front of the house,” I replied as we crunched across the gravel driveway toward the DB11. Alain shot me a faintly mournful glance. “You cannot own a chateau and an Aston Martin,” he said. He’s right. This big house, parts of which date back to the 16th century, is a money pit. Paying guests like us are contributing to a new roof on the cider barn, reworking the crumbling stonework on one of the towers, and a thousand other restoration projects. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, restoring Château de Bonnemare is a job that will never be finished.
I take Alain for a ride in his dream car. So far this trip we’ve been cruising with the DB11’s suspension and engine in GT mode, the most comfort-oriented of the three settings, and, yes, the revisions to the damping software seemed to have calmed the body motions at the rear axle. I switch everything to Sport+ and kick the 5.4-liter twin-turbo V-12 in the guts. There’s a gasp from the passenger seat as the engine bellows and the big Aston lunges for the horizon. Fan the paddles—two, three, four—then hard on the brakes for the corner, taking care with the sight lines because the steering wheel’s on the wrong side for these roads. Alain’s gripping the Jesus handle while I’m thinking the action of the paddles is still too sloppy, and the transmission still thumps harder on upshifts than it should. But the turn-in response seems a tad sharper, as promised.
Chaotic and cobblestoned, Paris is not an Aston Martin town, though design guru Marc Newson, who helped create the Apple Watch and is rumored to be involved with the secret Apple Car project, once told me he used his classic DB4 as a daily driver when he lived there. Navigating the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe, where 12 roads meet and traffic lights are scarce, is like playing poker with a DB11-shaped chip; it’s bluff and parry all the way around, peripheral vision carefully tracking the cars and vans and suicidal scooter riders diving for impossibly small gaps in the traffic. You learn to never make eye contact with other drivers; otherwise your bluff will be called. The Parisian in the scruffy, battle-scarred Peugeot knows you’re never going to commit your $212,000 USD Aston Martin to contesting the same piece of road.
Like New Yorkers, Parisians tend to park by feel—that’s what a bumper is for, n’est-ce pa?—so street parking an Aston Martin isn’t really an option. A pre-trip web search found a hotel just off the Champs-Élysées that said it offered secure parking. It was secure, all right: The rickety old car elevator was so temperamental, and the 76.7-inch-wide DB11 such a tight fit, it took 30 minutes just to get it into the basement garage. At least no one would steal it. No one could steal it. Concerned the hotel valet might not be able to get the car out again, I wondered how Aston Martin would react when I called to say one of its new DB11s was trapped in Paris, four floors underground. …
A couple of days later, after a 30-minute wait while the Aston was extracted from the garage, we were cruising westward out of Paris, along the Autoroute de Normandie, bound for the scenic medieval port of Honfleur. All toll roads, the French autoroutes are beautifully maintained, smooth and clean and well-sign-posted. We loafed along at an indicated 80–85 mph (128.7-136.8 km/h), right around the 130-km/h speed limit, as the French police have dramatically cracked down on speeding over the past decade and will happily escort you to the nearest ATM so you can pay your on-the-spot fine in cash. The new twin-turbo V-12’s ability to shut down alternate banks of six cylinders every 30 seconds on light throttle helped deliver a best fuel consumption figure of 21.2 mpg (11.1 L/100km)and a realistic cruising range of about 375 miles (603.5 km) between fills.
Not that many Aston Martin DB11 owners will care. The great tragedy of modern GT cars is that very few are actually used for grand touring anymore. Those with the bucks to buy a DB11 are more likely to fly first class when they travel across a continent. Or instead take the luxury SUV with which their Aston probably shares the garage, because it has more room. But they’re missing out on the romance of real grand touring that only a gorgeous, low-slung V-12 coupe can deliver. The Aston Martin DB11 drew stares and smiles and enthusiastic thumbs-up gestures throughout our 620-mile journey, even from jaded Parisians. It turned motion into art. Robert Louis Stevenson would have approved.