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Aston Martin DBS vs. Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano

2014-09-14 Read: 508x

Two-Car Libido Enhancer: What you get for $266,350 or $385,419 are babe magnets, but minus the whole point: the back seats.

Should you get on Jeopardy! here’s the likely question to the answer, “A very popular video game about racing”: What is Gran Turismo? Well, that’s one answer. 

Gran turismo (or grand touring) is a term cooked up by car-crazy Italians ages ago to describe an automobile that could do it all. A GT combined the handling and high performance of a sports car with the ability to transport two grown-ups and their luggage in comfort across great distances. In the process, GTs also became synonymous with power and beauty, all the way back to the Alfa Romeo 8C-2900B coupes of the 1930s. Generally, GTs are front-engine because that way they have a usable trunk and good visibility. GTs are special, too, often the most glamorous cars their makers produce and among the most expensive. 

Which brings us to the two cars you see here, the Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano and the *Aston Martin DBS, both of which embody the modern meaning of GT. 

The Aston Martin is the newer of these two vehicles. It was introduced at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Élégance in August 2007 but didn’t go on sale in the U.S. until earlier this summer. The name pays homage to the crisply styled coupe from 1967, and it is, essentially, a more muscular, faster, and more expensive version of the DB9 that has been on sale since 2005. 

Underpinning the DBS’s sleek lines is Aston’s so-called VH aluminum architecture that also provides the bare bones for the DB9 and the V-8 Vantage. A new cross-dashboard supporting beam, a front strut crossbrace, and solid mounting of the rear subframe are among the modifications to the structure. To reduce weight, the trunk enclosure and lid, the door-opening surrounds, the hood, and the front fenders are made from carbon fiber. 

Compared with the DB9, the DBS’s track is 0.7 inch wider at the front and 0.8 inch at the rear, and the car sits 0.4 inch higher. Thanks to the use of the carbon-fiber panels and carbon-ceramic brakes, the DBS, at 3820 pounds, is 220 pounds lighter than the last DB9 we tested. 

It’s somewhat more powerful, with 510 horsepower (versus 470 in the DB9). Aston has found 40 additional ponies from its 5.9-liter V-12 by fitting revised cylinder heads and a new intake manifold. Torque of 420 pound-feet is down by 23, peaking slightly higher, at 5750 rpm, although no fewer than 369 lb-ft are on hand from 2000 rpm. The power is transmitted via a rear-mounted six-speed Graziano manual transaxle, one of the options on the DB9. 

The DBS has a control-arm suspension all around, but an adaptive damping system is unique to this car. It uses two separate valves that allow the shocks to have five different damping levels, determined by an electronic control unit reacting to throttle and brake-pedal position, steering-wheel angle, and vehicle speed. A special track mode locks the shocks in their firmest setting. The stability control also has been upgraded, with a competitive driving mode that allows some sideways action before the electronics intervene. The system also can be switched off completely. The carbon-ceramic brakes are a first for Aston Martin and are 15.7 inches in diameter up front, 14.2 inches out back (the same as the Ferrari’s). 

 The changes are costly, with the base price rising from $168,950 for a DB9 to a whopping $266,350 for a DBS. With Infa Red paint (specific to our test car) and an alarm upgrade, our tester stickered at $270,430. 

The Ferrari 599GTB went on sale in the U.S. last spring as a replacement for the 550/575 series that had been in production since 1996. Ferrari has since sold about 500 599s. The base price is $318,045, although we suspect that most of them sticker for a lot more on the evidence of this optioned-out $385,419 tester. Items such as the $26,000 paint job, the $1776 Ferrari fender badges, and $12,547 of interior carbon-fiber trim must make the beancounters happy. 

 Like the DBS, the 599 has aluminum underpinnings and body panels and also features a hi-po, large-capacity V-12. In this case, the detuned Enzo unit displaces 6.0 liters, makes a solid 612 horsepower, and drives through Ferrari’s F1 SuperFast *automated manual transmission. 

Ferrari also resorts to electronics to balance the tricky equation between sports-car handling and the kind of ride comfort that will allow owners to use their cars as grand tourers. In this case, the 599 uses electromagnetic shocks, their calibration partly controlled by the manettino, a five-position rotary switch on the steering wheel that also governs shift speed and traction- and stability-control settings. 

Over roads as diverse as L.A.’s clogged freeways to the nearly empty two-lanes that spear through the Anza-Borrego Desert, we wrung out both of these gorgeous machines. Here’s what we discovered. 

Second Place: Two-Car Libido Enhancer

In the most recent James Bond movie, Casino Royale, Britain’s favorite secret agent barrel-rolls a DBS while avoiding the beautiful and brainy Vesper Lynd, who has been bound and placed in the road. While we can’t vouch for Daniel Craig’s sex appeal, the DBS and Eva Green get our vote any day of the week. The DB9 is an extremely handsome car, but the styling changes—wider fenders, new front bumper, revised grille and tail spoiler, side skirts, and fender-filling 20-inch rims—give the DBS a more muscular, more aggressive appearance. We can see the DBS gracing concours d’élégance fields in the future. 

Inside, the rear seats, which were basically useless, have been replaced by bins for luggage, there’s a new center console, and materials such as semi-aniline leather and carbon fiber are used to save weight. As with the DB9, the starting procedure is highly convoluted. A polished sapphire-blue ECU—which stands for Emotion Control Unit, a clumsy play on words if ever there was one—is inserted into a docking station, glows red to indicate readiness, and is then pressed to fire the V-12. Call us old-fashioned, but we’d prefer a key. 

Aside from the starting procedure and the contrived “Power, Beauty, Soul” message that’s displayed in the gauge cluster prior to startup, we enjoyed being in the DBS. The mixture of red Alcantara, black leather and piano-black surfaces, sophisticated matte carbon fiber, and softly polished aluminum is traditional Brit interior design brought up to date. The interface between man and things such as the navigation system and Bluetooth phone isn’t as easy to understand as that in a Lexus, however, and the occasional Ford parts-bin pieces look out of sorts with the rest of the environment. 

Driving the DBS is as pleasing as looking at it. The car isn’t as quick as the Ferrari, but then, the 599 is a missile. The DBS hit 60 mph from rest in 4.3 seconds and traveled through the quarter-mile at 117 mph in 12.6 seconds, usefully quicker than the last DB9 we tested (0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, 13.2 seconds for the quarter). Top-gear performance was similar to the Ferrari’s, thanks to the incredibly linear torque delivery, which was also responsible for tricky launch behavior. The brakes produced a 70-to-0-mph stopping distance of 158 feet, impressive in light of the dusty surface at the El Toro test facility. On the skidpad, the DBS recorded 0.97 g, which was marginally shaded by the Ferrari, but the DBS was faster and a lot easier to drive through the lane-change maneuver (68.1 mph versus 67.1). On a suitably large autocross course, we found the Aston to be more stable and just as entertaining as the Ferrari. 

In the real world, the DBS is a sweetheart to drive. Despite the giant wheels and tires, the ride is composed and supple, although we wouldn’t recommend the track mode in day-to-day driving unless you enjoy appointments with your chiropractor. The steering is linear and accurate, body roll is muted, and the handling is nicely predictable: mild understeer on corner entry, with power oversteer available when the stability system is switched off. Traction isn’t as good as the Ferrari’s, but we’ve rarely driven anything as hooked up on the street as the 599. 

The transmission is pleasant enough to use, and the brakes are superb, actuated by a pedal that has almost perfect, linear feel. The exhaust note is deeper and gruffer than the Ferrari’s, and the engine’s power band both starts and ends earlier. Driving along in traffic at 55 mph in sixth gear is no problem. 

We thought we were going to be disappointed by the DBS but were pleasantly surprised by how good it is—and how much better it is than the DB9. In the end, we feel that the DBS is a more mature, more grown-up car that’s just not as playful as the Ferrari. But then, it is nearly 30 percent cheaper . . . 

 2009 Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano

First Place: Two-Car Libido Enhancer

Viewing the cars sitting side by side, bathed in early-morning desert light, we came to this shocking conclusion: Yes, the Ferrari has presence, but it’s not exactly beautiful. Compared with styling house Pininfarina’s best two-place, front-engined coupes for Ferrari—the 365 GTB/4 Daytona, 275 GTB, 250GT SWB—it looks derivative and, worst of all, bland from some angles, particularly the rear. 

That’s not the case inside, however, which is a truly special place: a bit more contrived than the Aston’s interior but more luxurious and expensive-looking—as it should be, bearing in mind the price differential. The leather is so buttery smooth that we suspect the donor cattle were massaged daily before meeting their end. Shiny carbon fiber (as noted, a combined 12 grand in options) swathes the cockpit, even adorning the upper part of the steering wheel. Aluminum accents are muted and sparingly used. All the minor controls feel terrific to the touch and act with mathematical precision. Carbon-fiber shift paddles fixed to the steering column are used to affect manual gearchanges, with the right-hand one for upshifts, the left side for downshifts. On the debit side, the navigation system is almost impossible to fathom, and manually tuning the radio requires a peek at the owner’s manual. 

The Ferrari is spectacularly fast. Zero to 60 mph takes just 3.3 seconds, with the standing quarter blowing by in 11.2 seconds at 131 mph. Now, call us cynical, but we think the car we tested was a ringer because the 599 was quicker off the mark than the Lamborghini LP640, which has a better power-to-weight ratio and the benefit of all-wheel drive. The Corvette Z06 is also slower despite its better pound-per-horsepower relationship. If Ferrari had slotted a 650-hp Enzo engine under the hood—they are essentially the same—that might explain the amazing performance. 

In most regards, the Ferrari beat up on the Aston. It was faster from a standing start and in top gear, took six feet fewer to stop from 70 mph, and produced marginally more grip on the skidpad, at 0.98 g. The Aston’s lane-change speed was a little better, and the DBS got better gas mileage. However, 11 mpg as opposed to 9 is about as desirable as being asked to choose whether you’d prefer to attend a concert by Phish or the Osmonds. 

Back in the early days, a Ferrari was defined by its engine. While the company’s ability to build a chassis has improved massively over the past 61 years, the power-plant is still a vital part of the car. There isn’t much torque below 3000 rpm, but this isn’t a problem because there’s plenty of grunt all the way up to the 8400-rpm redline, making for an even wider power band than the Aston’s. The engine note is higher pitched, more of an alto to the Aston’s tenor, and it sounds glorious as the revs rise—providing the occupants lower the windows because it’s almost too well insulated with them raised. 

The Ferrari loafs around town easily enough, with a firm yet well-controlled ride. The auto mode is still a little clunky, but it’s hard to complain when you’re stuck in L.A. traffic and the car is doing the work for you. Clear traffic, move into manual mode, and the F1 SuperFast tranny lives up to its name, unleashing shifts in *microseconds. 

On the track, the 599 demonstrated some unsanitary behavior that only fools or lunatics would discover on the road. In the lane change, when the car was transitioning fast one way to the next, it snapped into oversteer with the stability control disengaged. The tail would step out suddenly under power on the autocross circuit, too. 

We never got it to repeat this behavior on the road simply because the traction is phenomenal, even if the driver takes some bravery pills and turns off the stability control. Steering that feels a little overeager on the track is a paragon on the street: light yet accurate and massively involving. On a twisting, challenging road, the Ferrari turns from GT to sports car. The brakes are sensational, the handling near neutral, its body control over broken pavement astonishing. On long, straight desert roads, it feels magnetically attached to the pavement, and one has little doubt that the 599 could cross continents in short order, speed limits willing. 

The Aston is mighty fine, but the 599GTB is even better. It’s a car produced by a company that’s at the top of its game, and it’s hard to find any weaknesses except for the price and the wayward on-limit handling. We went to California expecting the Ferrari to be brilliant, and it was even better than we could have imagined.

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