In reality, this is more of a final drive than a first drive, as we say goodbye to the Aston Martin DB9. In 2016 it will be replaced by the all-new DB11, the first Aston made in collaboration with Mercedes-AMG. The DB9 GT is, in Aston's words, the 'very best of what DB9 can be'. We took the opportunity of the opening of the new Aston Martin Belfast facility by Charles Hurst to drive it around the coast of Northern Ireland.
In the Metal:
Some don't like that all models from Aston Martin look like, well, Aston Martins. 'Cookie cutter design' we've heard said, but I challenge anyone to spend some time with the DB9 and call it anything other than gorgeous. And this shape is knocking on for 12 years old now. The GT model gains unique badging, black paint for the splitter up front and rear diffuser, new 20-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels and subtly tweaked head- and taillights. Most buyers will customise their cars further with carbon fibre trinkets and painted brake callipers, for example.
Inside, the GT model is marked out from other DB9s with 'GT' embroidered into the fluted leather seats, while the steering wheel is trimmed in Alcantara. The GT also features AMi II, the latest iteration of the company's touch-sensitive infotainment interface. It's ok, if hardly cutting edge these days. Oh, and there are still two pretty useless rear seats present and correct.
It takes mere minutes behind the wheel of the DB9 GT to realise that this is one of the best all-rounders Aston Martin makes today. It's the most powerful DB9 to date thanks to further fettling of the V12 engine under the bonnet, which now makes 547hp and 620Nm of torque, but arguably it didn't really need any more performance. This engine stands out for its creamy smooth delivery from idle to the rev limiter and for the evocative noise it makes, varying from a growl at low- to mid revs and rising to a howl when it's delivering maximum power. It's pure joy to stretch its legs at every opportunity and the six-speed automatic transmission is a perfect partner too, with smooth changes and quick response to the steering wheel paddle shifts if you fancy taking over.
More often than not we're stuck behind slow traffic on our route and while this curbs our enthusiasm (and speeds, which is no bad thing) it gives the DB9 the chance to reveal its alter-ego. Change into Normal mode in the adaptive damping and turn off the separate Sport switch (for steering, transmission and throttle) and the big Aston wafts along comfortably. Even at low speeds the steering is alive with information and the car feels special.
But once we get a break in the traffic it's time to turn everything up to 11 once more and the DB9 doesn't fail to put a grin on your face. It's not the sharpest driving tool on the planet, but there's plenty of feedback through the chassis so you won't mind for a second that there's noticeable body roll and it's not that difficult to encourage the rear tyres to lose grip. Driving it on the limit, it feels organic and easy to work with, more analogue than digital - and always an experience.
What you get for your Money:
As ever with cars of this nature, the list price is almost irrelevant and it's difficult to really gauge value for money. Nor is it usually all that important to the target buyer, who is unlikely to be scrimping and saving to buy this car. In logical terms, the DB9 GT is well-equipped, with niceties such as bi-Xenon headlights, leather upholstery, electrically adjusted seats, power fold door mirrors, climate control, Bluetooth, cruise control, satnav, a tracker, DAB radio and parking sensors all-round all standard. But at over €300,000 imported into Ireland, this car is bought because of how it looks, how it has been engineered and how it performs. In the grand scheme of things, we think it's well priced. Shame it'll cost €2,350 a year to tax and it guzzles fuel...
Bentley Continental GT: very different proposition, but beautifully made and assured four-wheel drive handling.
Maserati GranTurismo: not quite so fast, but sounds stupendous and is a good deal cheaper to buy.
Mercedes-AMG SL 63: about to be replaced, but still a huge amount of performance for the money.
Not only are we saying farewell to the DB9, one of the most important cars in Aston Martin's recent history, we're also getting close to the end of the company's naturally aspirated V12 engine. The GT is not perfect, but it encapsulates all that is great about both and we can only hope and pray that the forthcoming DB11 is a worthy successor.