An Aston Martin DBS meets one of California's most notorious roads
The British marque’s latest grand tourer comes to life on the Ortega Highway
Here’s one for the list of life-affirming moments: sitting outside an In ‘n Out in Lake Elsinore, California, at the base of the Santa Ana Mountains, clutching the key for a supercar worth more than $400,000 Canadian.
I’m polishing off my west coast version of a double-double — protein style, mustard fried, no onions please – and mostly ignoring the mediocre fries while I contemplate what I’ve signed myself up for.
The car parked a few feet away from me is an Aston Martin DBS Superleggera, with all of its 715 hp and 664 lb-ft of torque lying in wait within the 5.7-litre twin-turbocharged V12. This latest flagship Aston to be graced with the DBS nameplate has been called “almost too fast” by a very prominent British car reviewer. By all accounts, it’s a machine that’s not to be trifled with.
And just on the other side of the interstate, climbing up into those mountains? That’s the Ortega Highway, one of the most notorious roads in the state of California.
This western portion of State Route 74 isn’t as well-known among drivers as it is with motorcyclists: the two-lane highway’s meandering 45-kilometre path through the Cleveland National Forest, with its at-times deceivingly tight curves, has claimed the lives of more people on two wheels than four, though both lists are far too extensive.
It’s common for motorcyclists to gather at The Lookout Roadhouse, just a few minutes into the highway’s initial climb, and enjoy the view over Lake Elsinore before setting out together with safety in numbers. Me? I’m just a lone motorist getting to know a beast of a car, wondering just how close to the line this road will have me dancing.
Before the DBS, the last time I was behind the wheel of an Aston Martin was in its predecessor, the Vanquish. That drive was a little more than six years ago now, on very similar California mountain roads – although I recall that it snowed up on the peaks that day, which turned the rear-wheel drive and summer tires into quite the adventure. My memory of that car is that throttle modulation wasn’t impossible, but it certainly wasn’t a walk in the park.
As I set off into the hills in the DBS, one of the first things I notice is that those same challenges aren’t present – or at least, not in the relatively tame GT drive mode, which keeps the enormous power in check. Despite what I’ve read, the DBS feels to me more like the grand tourer it’s intended to be than its predecessor did.
This ethos also extends to the car’s usability. I flew to California to deliver my daughter to a family event, and while we knew well enough not to pack a full-size suitcase, the trunk easily swallowed a week’s worth of belongings for two in multiple small bags. Thanks to the front-mounted engine – which is set as far back and as close to the ground as possible to achieve 51-49 weight distribution across its 1,693 kg – this is one of the more useful storage spaces I’ve seen in a car of this calibre.
My daughter loved being in the back seat, where the low-set bucket seats embraced her with quilted leather finishes. It may not be as comfortable for someone with a frame much larger than a pre-teen, but it was ideal for sending her into fits of giggles as she was thrown backward with playful blips of acceleration.
With her safely in the care of family members, it’s time to get serious on State Route 74. I cycle through into sport mode and then sport plus, each time acknowledging the increasingly agitated engine note and firmer adaptive damping as the suspension clings its way around the highway’s tightening curves. As much as it would add to the experience to row my own gears, the steering column mounted paddle shifters sift through the gears in the rear-mid-mounted eight-speed automatic transmission satisfyingly quickly and, admittedly, perform the job more effectively than I ever could.
Through the car’s suitably modern and functional infotainment system, I park the radio on SiriusXM’s 60s on 6 in the hope that I might luck into a Bond theme to really strike the mood. No dice. Still, on these winding California roads, Frank Sinatra sets the tone, and the raw power, the grip of the tires, and the scenery from the mountaintops combine to create an experience that’s nothing short of breathtaking.
There’s only one thing that breaks the illusion: a couple of contact points in the interior produce some squeaks and rattles prominent enough that I’m occasionally conscious of them. This is unusual in any car these days, let alone one of this calibre.
Regardless, the cachet is unquestionable. Each time I park somewhere to take pictures and enjoy the view, there’s a voice over my shoulder: “Whoa, I love your car! Is that an Aston Martin?”
At first, I insist on pointing out that the car’s not mine, which inevitably leads to follow-up questions about what I do for a living. After a half-dozen conversations as the afternoon is winding down and I’ve begun my descent into Orange County – having successfully conquered the Ortega Highway without incident – I begin saving time by responding with a friendly thanks.
The likelihood that I’d ever enjoy a car like this for more than a fleeting few hours is extremely low. But it certainly is nice to do a little California dreaming.