1997 Aston Martin DB7

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chicagotribune.com
The Aston Martin DB7 may be the world's best-kept secret.

One reason is that Aston Martin is a well-kept secret. Seems the only timethe automaker's name comes up is when a new James Bond movie is released andpeople wonder whether 007 is going to be driving one.

Until the folks from the British automaker called to say "howdy," we hadforgotten Aston Martin existed. Probably because it didn't offer cars here inthe 1994, '95 or '96 model years, when its V-8 couldn't meet federal emissionsstandards and it couldn't afford to add a passenger-side air bag to thehandful of cars it sold here.

Ford Motor Co., which rode to the rescue in 1990 to save Jaguar, used thesame steed to keep Aston Martin from going belly up when it acquired 75percent of the firm in 1987 and the rest of it in 1993.

Thanks to Ford, Aston Martin is back for the 1997 model year with one car,the DB7, in two versions, coupe (coo-PAY) and convertible, at two prices,$125,000 and $135,000.

If you haven't seen a '97 DB7, there's good reason. The automaker expectsto sell only 200 in the U.S. this year. It has sold 185, so the target iseasily within reach, but 200 of any vehicle won't stand out in any crowd.

We tested the '97 DB7 coupe and found it to be very much like any otherexotic vehicle--an experience to savor in those moments you are cuddled (somemay call it squeezed) in the leather bucket seats.

However, if you suffer any allergic reaction to leather, the DB7 is not foryou. Chances are anything you sit on or touch in this coupe is finished inleather trim.

The roof liner, however, is in a material called Alcantara, which lookslike a cross between suede and leather but is more expensive. The advantage isthat you can wash cigarette and cigar smoke out of it, said Andy Watt, vicepresident and general manager of Aston Martin Lagonda of North America, theNew Jersey-based distributor of the British luxury sports model.

The DB7 (DB for David Brown, who bought Aston Martin and Lagonda in 1947and saved the pair of companies that alternated between tottering on the brinkof bankruptcy and jumping head-first from the ledge) now meets federalemissions standards with its new 6-cylinder engine.

The 3.2-liter, 335-horsepower supercharged 6 can be teamed with a 4-speedautomatic or a 5-speed manual for the same price. In the Midwest and mostcongested cities, 85 percent of buyers opt for the automatic.

Smooth, quiet engine. But in being called upon to move almost 4,000 poundsfrom the stoplight or into the passing lane, don't expect to be thrown backinto your bucket--at least not before the supercharger goes to work.

And in propelling 4,000 pounds, don't be alarmed when you look at thewindow sticker and see a 14-mile-per-gallon city/18-m.p.g. highway rating anda $2,200 gas-guzzler tax. The fuel gauge doesn't hesitate when moving from theline, into the passing lane or any time the radials are rolling.

"High-performance cars are thirsty because high-performance cars are notlight because high-performance cars are not flimsy," Watt said in justifyingthe mileage. "We could take 500 pounds of padding and insulation out of theinterior, but we won't."

In addition to the guzzler tax, you face the federal luxury tax (8.5percent of the amount over $35,000), which is roughly $9,000. The two taxesalone total more than $11,000--enough to buy a used Chevrolet Cavalier.

You feel just about every one of those 4,000 pounds in the wheel, butthanks to the suspension system you don't suffer lots of lean and/or wanderwhen you pull out to pass or venture onto the tollway merger ramp. Give someof the credit to the road-gripping, 18-inch performance treads.

And the suspension admirably keeps you from being bounced around whentraveling in a straight line, even on rough roads.

The brakes quickly bring the DB7 under control.

You could light a cigar and not lose the ash when cruising in your DB7.However, when it comes time to dispose of the ash, the tray is so tiny, itwill hold but one flick from your El Producto.

And there is no cupholder. The Brits, of course, stop for tea rather thancarry it with them.

A touring coupe, DB7 has some quirks, such as two buttons to adjust cruisecontrol, neither of which makes any sense. And the rear seat is anafterthought.

"You can get a 7-year-old in back, but at about 10 they won't fit," Wattsaid. A glance in back makes you wonder whether Watt meant 7-year- or7-week-old. A stowage tray is in back to serve whoever can get there, meaningit probably will go unused.

The DB7 comes with dual air bags and anti-lock brakes. No traction control;limited slip differential instead.

Everything--seats (control button hidden on the side of the centerconsole), windows, door locks--is power. And don't make the mistake we did intrying to open the locked door with the key rather than pressing the fobbutton. The alarm is very shrill.

And though the siren blared for minutes, not a soul even turned to seewhether the guy trying to enter the $125,000 machine was using a key or a slimjim, the thieves' tool of choice.

The DB7 looks, rides and handles a bit like a Jaguar, but other than alsobeing owned by Ford, that's where the similarities end, insists Watt.

However, Watt is quick to pay homage to the Dearborn folks.

"Ford became our lifeline when they bought 75 percent of Aston Martin in1987," Watt admits. "The market here is something of a challenge. When youlook around and don't find Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Peugeot or Citroen here, it tellsyou how much of a challenge. We wouldn't be here, either, without Ford."

But even with Ford, Aston Martin has led a checkered existence.

"We did well in the late '80s after Ford acquired us because exotic carswere popular and we rode the wave. Then came the recession in the '90s and themarket for exotic cars became very tiny. People loved the cars with a passion,there were just fewer people who loved," Watt said.

The Aston Martin executive feels the company has found a comfortable, ifnot large, niche.

"The market for cars over $150,000 is 1,200 units a year in the world, butfor cars from $75,000 to $150,000, it's 124,000 units a year and it's obviouswhere we should be," he said.

Aston Martin has only 16 dealers in the U.S. and only one in Illinois--LakeForest Sports Cars. There's no sense in having more dealers until it has morecars.

Aston Martin hopes to add a performance Vantage coupe with an engine morepowerful than the 335-h.p. 6 in the DB7 in a couple of years, a vehicle thatwould be "more hard-edge sporty than the DB7." But you'll probably see a newBond flick before you see a new Aston Martin.

And Watt isn't worried what car 007 might pilot in his next film. "We wereapproached about using a DB7 whe n they filmed Bond's `Golden Eye,' but the useof cars in films has become big business in terms of dollars and we can'tcompete," Watt said.

Watt is more pleased that Edsel Ford owns a DB7. "Edsel paid real money forit. He didn't get it out of the company pool," Watt said.

>>1997 Aston Martin DB7Wheelbase: 103.6 inches Length: 188.9 inches Engine: 3.2-liter, 335-h.p. 6-cylinder Transmission: 4-speed automatic EPA mileage: 14 m.p.g. city/18 m.p.g. highway Base price: $125,000 for coupe; $135,000 for convertible Price as tested: Sticker includes $2,200 gas-guzzler tax. Add roughly$9,000 in federal luxury tax and $1,300 for freight. Pluses: Not just a car, but an event. Solid, smooth, quiet, tight. Subtle,but elegant styling. Ford ownership provides resources the company couldn'tmuster on its own. Minuses: Getting an adult in the back seat is mission impossible. Try tofigure out the cruise control. If allergic to leather, call your HMO or PPObefore signing on the bottom line. Bit of a squeeze into those slim buckets.At quick glance, looks like the lower-priced Jaguar, Ford's other European carproperty.>>


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