There I was, a lowly commoner, behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB9, one of the finest cars in the world by anyone’s measure. Before me, beyond the long, long bonnet, was a circuit laid out on an abandoned airfield. And no speed restrictions.
The occasion was a “supercar experience”. Held both for and by people too impoverished for supercar ownership, a variety of “exotics” were available, ranging from a mark 1 Lotus Elise, through a slightly ratty 997 Porsche 911, to a visibly distressed Ferrari 355. The Aston Martin, immaculate and barely a couple of years old, was an easy choice.
A hundred grand’s worth of England’s finest conveyance was a nice place to sit. The seats and steering wheel where covered in soft leather. Only the analogue clock in the centre of the dashboard jarred, perhaps purely through association with the mark 2 Mondeo.
Time for my four laps. Anticipation building, I pressed the starter button to fire up the V12, which lit with a muted thunder. Moving off, I noted that the driving controls were consistently weighted and “just right”, in the way that every post millennium Ford has been (after all, the DB9 was developed under their watch). Over the concrete of the wartime runway, damping was firm but refined, with much of the surface coarseness filtered away.
The engine delivered its prodigious power as smoothly as a set of Bob Monkhouse one liners. Listening to my passenger’s instructions regarding positioning and braking points, our pace gradually built until by the end of the third lap the barge was sailing at a good rate of knots. Yet despite the roar of six litres and the speed summoned with the slightest depression of the accelerator, I was beginning to feel… well, a bit bored.
By rights I really should’ve been more excited. Doubt set in. Sure, the DB9 was a fabulous drive, but maybe a big accomplished GT was the wrong choice for this type of thing? Maybe I should’ve opted for the shagged out Ferrari 355 instead? A renegade impulse crossed my mind. I still had a V12 and rear wheel drive to play with. Maybe smooth old Bob could be coaxed into some Rik Mayall naughtiness?
Entering the long straight for our final lap, I girded my loins (whatever that means), flicked the paddles twice to drop two cogs, and mashed the DB9’s accelerator to the Axminster. A chirrup of rubber and a blare of the brass section fit for a Christopher Nolan film heralded the arrival of all 450 horses. My instructor-passenger, presumably also the car’s owner, suddenly fell silent. Scooped into a leather lined trebuchet, we were flung at the horizon.
If I had not already worked it out by then, six litres was a lot of welly to throw about in a muddy Leicestershire field. Barrelling at grimace-inducing speed into the first corner — a sweeping right-hander — my passenger instinctively braced himself against the bulkhead. He may have wondered whether I had elected to pay the optional £40 damage insurance (I had not); I was too busy hoping the God of Anti-Lock Braking would favour us. Thankfully the DB9’s stoppers were mighty. Using the entire width of the track (plus a discretionary 5% extra as the corner tightened), I just about corralled all four hundred and fifty horses through the bend.
The rest of the lap passed at a similar clip, which is to say: quickly, incompetently, and most importantly, luckily. The last set of corners (a tight U-shape evoking the old “Bus Stop” at Spa-Francorchamps, were Grand Prix circuits entirely laid out in misappropriated traffic cones) were negotiated with a touch more rear attitude than was strictly intentional from a driver of my limited capability. I hope it looked good from the outside; from the inside of my underpants it looked distinctly brown.
Ducking back into “the pits” (a parking area, a portacabin and a tea urn), I fairly fizzed with adrenaline. The DB9 had finally entertained. Alas, my Aston Martin experience was over.
For a number of reasons, a recent stint in a humble 2015 Ford Fiesta has put me in mind of my short but exciting time with the DB9. Not from a performance standpoint obviously; at least, not in terms of raw speed.
Firstly and most obviously, there is the small matter of the Fiesta’s grille. Yes, I am not the first person to note the similarity between Aston Martin’s trademark aperture and Ford’s current family snoot, but in the metal the likeness is shameless. To say that the mark 1 Cortina also sported the same shape is highly disingenuous on Ford’s part; their stylists must surely have known who’s cues they were cribbing. A shame really, as in other respects the Fiesta is nicely styled. The same themes which look overcooked on the Focus play out over the Fiesta’s smaller expanses with better effect.
As far as I can tell, the car I have been lent is a mid range Zetec. I say this without certainty as the car lacks decisive external badging, but the Zetec trim on Ford’s online configurator is identical inside and out. Nigh on £15k (not cheap, granted) brings five doors and a fair level of equipment, including alloys, heated windscreen, air con, Bluetooth phone/audio and a voice command system (which inevitably does not work).
An instant demerit: the Fiesta sports one of the most button festooned dashboards I have ever clapped eyes on. On one side of the assertive central stack are buttons for major phone/audio functions, in the middle a directional joypad, and on the right a full numerical keypad. (I wondered why anyone would choose to punch in their telephone numbers long form, but this might be a necessity considering my iPhone contacts consistently refused to sync.) Rendered in shiny piano black, the design is highly reminiscent of a Samsung mobile phone circa 2003. Thoughtfully, in a right-hand drive car the typography of the phone/audio buttons is canted towards the passenger seat, making them appear upside-down to the driver. Take that, loyal UK Fiesta buyers.
Ford needs to work on its media interfaces then. In all other respects however the interior is perfectly civil, with an entirely conventional usage of space (no Honda magic here) and comfortable seats. Perceived quality is a step up over the pre-facelift model, with mood lighting in the foot wells and the dash top benefitting from a nicely moulded plastic with the look of microfibre cloth. The graphic design of the dials is a tad fiddly but their lighting imbues a high tech feel. No DAB radio here, but Bluetooth music playback is fine and the stereo punchy. (These things matter.)
The Fiesta’s merits really lay with the chassis and engine. It is these twin facets, and the degree to which they are polished, that really put me in mind again of the DB9. Steering feedback is non-existent (the norm these days) but is otherwise quick and turn in decisive. The damping is both pliant and composed, calmly despatching broken surfaces and speed humps, yet displaying a fabulous degree of control when pressing on. Those supposedly sporty German marques should take notes from Ford: this is how it is done.
The standout feature of this particular Fiesta however is the engine. A characterful thrum at idle is the giveaway that Ford’s latest 1-litre petrol Ecoboost engine occupies a small space under the bonnet. Summoning 100bhp from three cylinders and a turbo, the engine serves up an early wad of torque then revs with gusto. Meanwhile, the three pot wails like half a Porsche 911 engine — I’m not joking, it really does — making wringing it out towards the 8000rpm red line an absolute pleasure. The result is extraordinary tractability (I forget to change up from second half the time) allied to more urge than should be possible from such a small unit.
It is thus doubly surprising that a combination of short urban journeys and my lead foot have so far yielded an average of 37mpg. This engine seems like the best of all worlds.
And so my thoughts turn once again to the DB9. As with the Fiesta (both essentially being Ford products), there is an all pervading feeling of rightness about the driving experience that speaks of a deep level of care and attention. The major controls for both are well weighted; the handling fleet-footed and dependable; the engines, immensely tractable. How Ford continues to get these things right when other more premium manufacturers struggle is something of a wonder
But in all other respects of course, the Fiesta and DB9 are polar opposites. The DB9 cost ten times the price and only became fun when pushed beyond speeds safely achievable on the road.
The Ford certainly does not need to pinch someone else’s nose when its own personality so easily charms. The Fiesta is a reminder that bigger does not necessarily mean better; that power is not the only measure of pleasure. It does not require an airfield (or a mirror) to make you feel special. Instead it proffers its gifts at a slow pace, selflessly and unprovoked, making every journey special.
Whilst not aimed at those who consider themselves driving enthusiasts, the Fiesta is rewarding nonetheless. Bread and butter it may be, but this is a slice served with jam. What an unexpected joy. I will be sad to hand it back.