Gaydon to St Athan in Wales might not be the most exotic-sounding maiden journey you could wish for in a car described as “the most beautiful open top Sports GT in the world”. And in early January, with Welsh rain practically guaranteed, you would be forgiven for thinking that such a trip would be destined for disappointment. Thankfully, the new Aston Martin DB11 Volante ensures that the weather is irrelevant by making the trip a true experience to savour.
This first official test drive of the newest addition to the roster of classic Volantes took us on a route from Aston Martin’s Warwickshire headquarters in Gaydon to the company’s new manufacturing facility in St Athan, taking in great swathes of South Wales’s spectacular countryside along the way. After an icy end to 2017 and weeks of snow, rain and freezing conditions, the gods were in a more generous mood as we headed away from Gaydon. In the end, we were fortunate to enjoy two days of balmy, rain-free weather, enough to enjoy a blast of soft-top driving on the way, albeit it with the heated seats and steering wheel on maximum.
With the automotive market increasingly dominated by talk of an electric revolution and autonomous cars, this was a chance for the DB11 Volante to remind us that driving can still ignite the senses and inspire desire and passion. From the moment I saw the DB11 Volante standing outside the Aston Martin headquarters I was hooked: its sensuous shape was finished in “Divine Red” paintwork, accentuating every curve and shining brightly even on a dull day.
If the DB11 Coupe captivates you, the Volante soft top seduces you in a way few cars in the world can. It’s a tactile delight — you can barely help yourself from walking around the car and running your hands across the smooth lines of the beautifully sculptured curves, which make the Volante close to design perfection.
Although this is a car you want to touch, you want to drive it more. Within minutes, I was behind the wheel, getting acquainted with the controls, appreciating the beauty, quality and sheer intricacy of the detailed hand-built craftsmanship around the cabin. The interior cossets you in sporting luxury that few other convertibles can match, from the sumptuous soft feel of the Pure Black Caithness leather and contrasting Spicy Red hand-stitching on the quilted seats to the carbon twill fibre inserts on the central console, doors and seatbacks. When you press the starter button, the Volante growls into life, a sound that signals the anticipation is over and the true driving pleasure is about to begin. The Volante has a new 4.0 litre twin turbo 510PS V8 engine at its heart and there is sound, fury and dynamic splendour aplenty. The company’s engineers have fine-tuned this engine to make it feel every inch an Aston Martin and as soon as you put your foot down on the accelerator you instantly feel a performance surge that delivers 0-60mph in 4.1 seconds and, if location permits, on to a top speed of 187mph.
The Volante’s performance is accentuated by Sport and Sport Plus mode, which is marked by the speedo glowing red to confirm that maximum power is being deployed. The suspension settings can also be adjusted to provide maximum grip and handling to dovetail with the power. As we ease into the early morning traffic at the start of our journey to Wales, I’m happy to merely drink in the low rumbling of the V8-powered engine as I acquaint myself with the controls and feel of the Volante. At motorway speeds, the car literally glides along with a melodious burr, as other drivers strain their necks and give the thumbs-up to the aristocrat in their midst. Serene is not normally a word used to describe Britain’s teeming motorway network, but in this car we are happily oblivious to any delays or stoppages. Such serenity is no doubt largely down to the new eight layers of sound and weather proofing in the beautifully tailored fabric roof that make the Volante as quiet as the Coupe. Those layers have been subjected to extreme testing in specialist weather chambers that’s the equivalent of 10 years’ use. As a result, it’s more than capable of coping with the worst the British weather can throw at it. Not that this is much of concern, given that the merest pressure on the accelerator instantly reminds you of the symphony of sound at your disposal: it’s like sitting in a tiny concert hall listening to your favourite tunes.
Our first stopping place was the spectacular Raglan Castle, just over the Welsh border. It was the first of many gems that Wales would offer on this journey. The 15th-century castle was the boyhood home of Henry Tudor, later to become King Henry VII. Although its embattled Great Tower and ruins tell of a ravaged past, it retains a majestic grandeur, which provided a perfect backdrop for the Volante. The castle staff clearly appreciate things of beauty, so it was good to see them leaving their desks to admire the car, which was fast-becoming one of the county’s newest tourist attractions.
It was not until we left the motorways behind for some of Wales’s more demanding A and B roads that we truly began to experience the depths of excellence and responsiveness of the Volante’s engine. The car was perfectly suited to this demanding landscape. At 4,750mm long and 2,060mm wide, the Volante is a substantial vehicle, but it seems to shrink around you with laser-sharp steering and precise handling, allowing you to make rapid progress. At the same time, the adjustable suspension lets the Volante react and cope with minimum fuss to the patchwork quilt of repairs and potholes that blight many country roads.
The adjustable suspension lets the Volante react and cope with minimum fuss to the patchwork quilt of repairs and potholes that blight many country roads
Our journey continued past the beautiful town of Abergavenny towards the Heads of the Valleys Road to the wonderfully named Big Pit at Blaenavon, formerly one of the most productive coal mines in the country. In its heyday, it was known simply as “King Coal”, employing 1,300 workers and producing some 250,000 tons of coal a year. Today, it is a hard-working museum and tourist attraction, with more than four million visitors having descended the mineshafts to sample the harsh reality of miners’ lives. As we drove past the silent Pit Head and the idle steam trains that used to ferry the coal hewn from the rock, it was good to remember that Aston Martin will soon become part of Wales’s modern industrial future.
It was late afternoon by the time we had made our way to the next destination of the day. St Athan is a small village that is also home to a major Ministry of Defence base that provided decades of employment for the local community. Since it was opened in 1938, the base has trained many thousands of military technicians, flight mechanics, riggers and drivers. In recent years, however, many of these jobs have gone, even though the site itself still dominates the landscape. Now St Athan is the proud home of Aston Martin’s newest manufacturing facility, with the promise of luxury car-making in Wales for the very first time.
Due to open in 2019, Aston Martin’s factory is a work in progress, yet there has already been an incredible transformation of the three former aircraft hangars into a high-tech production facility. Eventually, the factory will employ more than 1,000 workers when assembly begins of Aston Martin’s SUV-based crossover next year. This investment promises to transform the lives of local people, many of whom previously worked at the MoD base and the mines and the steelworks down the valley at Newport. Aston Martin has already held a successful open day at the site, welcoming owners and locals alike into the spaces that will soon be alive with the skilled work that is modern car making.
After taking photos for the Aston family album we completed our first day, with the short drive to nearby Miskin Manor, a Grade II-listed building that’s now a thriving hotel. Having enjoyed its fine cuisine and a solid night’s sleep, we woke early to see the Volante and the countryside covered in a blanket of thick frost. We headed out of the manor’s grounds and pointed the Volante’s elegant nose towards the rugged coastline of the Gower Peninsula.
The Gower was the first place in Britain to be designated as an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” and has become a haven for wildlife and humans alike. As we headed towards the exotic-sounding Bracelet Bay near Mumbles, it seemed only right that we lower the Volante’s roof to honour the hint of blue sky peeping through the clouds. It takes just 14 seconds for the roof to disappear and the car to change personality. Should the clouds persist, the roof can go back up in 16 seconds at speeds of up to 31mph. Topless driving lets you drink in the vivacious sounds of the V8-powered engine, a fitting soundtrack for the beautiful Welsh coast before us. Two quiet stretches of road allowed us to open the Volante in Sport mode to appreciate the brutal acceleration, before settling back into Comfort mode for the return trip home.
Our Welsh journey will no doubt be repeated many times by Aston Martin’s employees in the years to come. Hopefully they’ll have much better weather. Even so, soft-top driving never felt so natural or enjoyable. The car’s colour was clearly prophetic, for this journey into the past and present of Welsh industry had been divine.