Aston Martin DBX prototype review: can this 'super-SUV' save the company?

Ed Wiseman

Half a metre of freezing ditch water is not something I’d ordinarily tackle in an Aston Martin, but here I am. Poised at the edge of a grey-brown pond, somewhere in Wales, the distinctive wing logo on the steering wheel, the heated leather seats on their highest setting, and an endless soggy forest outside the windows, I’m doing something that would have been unthinkable until very recently. I’m going off-roading, in an Aston Martin, on purpose. 

Aston Martin, which for the past century has been built sports cars and high-performance grand tourers, woke with a start a few years back and realised that it was pretty much the only luxury car manufacturer not making or developing an SUV. The Maserati Levante, Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus, for example, have all blurred the previously clear distinctions between the fun, fast cars that you want to drive, and the dull, family cars that you need to drive. And they’ve all been wildly successful additions to their respective makers’ model line-ups. 

So Aston Martin built itself an SUV. But, following a disastrous IPO,falling sales, and the sheer cost of developing such a vehicle, this plucky British car maker has nearly run out of money. So the DBX – the first SUV it’s ever built – needs to be good enough to not only sell profitably, but to save the company entirely. No pressure, then. 

Which is broadly what I’m thinking to myself as I nudge the nose of the DBX haphazardly into the muddy pit, with two cameras and a drone pointing in my direction. We only really came here to take photographs, to demonstrate the fact that the DBX can handle itself in mud, and I anticipated the kind of off-road tepidity you’d get in a designer soft-roader. But having spent a few hours hooning around the woods, it’s clear that the DBX is far more capable than that. A 50cm wading depth, proper entry and exit angles, and a 'Terrain Plus' driving mode make it a surprisingly composed workhorse. Not bad for a company more accustomed to building sexily impractical two-seaters. 

There’s nothing remotely impractical about the five-door, five-seat DBX. Its modest external proportions conceal an extraordinarily roomy interior, which is lit from above by an enormous sunroof. Four adults can travel in complete – dare I say class-leading – comfort in the DBX, and while the prominent transmission tunnel somewhat abbreviates the middle seat’s foot space, nobody really gets a bad deal in here. The generous tandem length enables all 6'4" of me to sit behind a similarly-proportioned bloke without jabbing my knees into the back of his seat, although really it's the width, or perceived width, that impresses; the distance between the driver and passenger adds to the DBX’s sense of yacht-like luxury. 

The Aston Martin DBX's 50cm wading depth is one of its silliest selling points, but it's nice to know it's there Credit: Max Earey

Four-legged members of the family are similarly well catered-for by Aston Martin. The 632-litre boot space is larger than that of the Bentley Bentayga (which is probably going to be the DBX’s closest competitors) and should be roomy enough for a couple of medium-sized dogs. I spoke to Aston Martin’s chief engineer, Matt Becker, who explained that a lot of customers will have horses, and some will shoot, too. Whether this small but affluent demographic will like the DBX will depend a lot on its ability to tow a laden Ifor across a wet field, possibly with a boot full of dog and gun – from where I'm sitting, at least, the DBX feels more than capable of handling both. 

In fact, the DBX is more than capable of pretty much anything you’d want to use it for. DBX owners are unlikely to put even a tenth of their new car’s off-road abilities to good use. But that’s always been the case with Aston Martin. How many DB11 owners ever reach their car’s 208mph top speed? How many Vantage owners make use of their car’s 3.6-second 0 to 62mph time? It’s this over-engineered gulf between what customers want and what customers do – a sort of use case dissonance – that fuels both the SUV and the performance car markets. 

Built in Wales with a German heart: the new DBX has a sensational exhaust note  Credit: Max Earey

This particular car is a PT2 prototype, which essentially means it isn’t finished yet. The front dampers aren’t quite right, and there are a couple of other components and systems in their final developmental stages. But already the DBX impresses on the road, with refinement and comfort at high speeds and easy manners when maneuvering. Hoofing the DBX around the Brecon Beacons, it’s clear that this is a serious driver's car too – the trick damping, clever torque vectoring and powerful brakes make it good company on an empty, winding B-road. And that's before you notice the exhaust note.

The 542bhp 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 that powers the DBX can also be found in the DB11 and the Vantage, as well as a clutch of Mercedes-AMG super-saloons. It creates one of my favourite noises on Earth. But pulling out of a gravel car park about ten miles west of Abergavenny in 'Sport Plus' mode, this German engine came to aural life ways I didn't expect. I know the rasps and pops are meticulously choreographed these days, and perhaps I was swayed by sleep deprivation and the unnecessarily dramatic Powys landscape, but it might as well have been pure Elgar barking from the DBX's rear pipes.

The Aston Martin DBX on Welsh gravel, a surface it knows well Credit: Max Earey

A brace of elderly Discoverys are being used as support cars on our shoot. This is the model that saved Land Rover in 1989, just as the Boxster saved Porsche in 1996 and the Continental GT saved Bentley in 2003. All were masterstrokes in premium car marketing, redefining segments and bringing old brands to new audiences.

I don't know whether the DBX will save Aston Martin. But I have a hunch.

What do you think of Aston Martin's first SUV? Let us know in the comment section below, or join the conversation in the Telegraph's Motoring Club on Facebook.