New Cars + New Gear + New Technology
They say that a watched kettle never boils, and the Aston Martin Rapide has been my personal kettle for too many months now. From seeing it at the Geneva Motor Show four years ago, where it was shown simply as a design exercise to gauge public opinion, to hot weather testing a prototype in the deserts of Kuwait last summer, and visiting the factory to see the first cars pieced together in November, my chance to actually drive the thing has been a long time coming.
But my time has come and it's in the rather more temperate climes of Valencia in Spain. Aston claims that Valencia has much in common with itself: a rich, varied history with a much more modern side to it, with cutting edge architecture mixed up with tradition. It's marketing waffle, but who cares? The rain has held off and there's a full tank of fuel to get through. Bring it on.
We've driven dozens of Astons-we know the drill. But there are one or two differences to the Rapide. For starters, that infernal handbrake has been ditched in favour of an electronic park brake, which means the front seats are positioned nearer to the edge of the car's platform, creating more interior space.
Then there's the Rapide's very raison d'être: its rear doors and seats. This is, Aston claims, a four-door, four-seat sports car. Isn't that a contradiction in terms? The very thought of adding practicality to a sports car with proper rear seats, an extra couple of doors, and a full tailgate is ludicrous. It dilutes the whole sportiness, doesn't it?
The Rapide isn't the first car of its kind. Maserati started it all off with the lovely Quattroporte and Porsche brashly stated its own four-door effort would create a new class of car, the "Panamera class." While both are fine in their own right, they're not sports cars. They're grand tourers, not focused enough to cut the mustard with the likes of Ferraris and 911s, or even Aston Martins...
I'd experienced a little of what the Rapide can offer in the handling department after the factory tour in Austria. Engineering chief Simon Barnes was keen to show its sporting credentials by switching off the electronics before powering up a mountain road, executing perfectly judged powerslides around a series of sweeping bends.
So I climb in and push the gorgeously over-the-top key into its slot in the dashboard to fire up that masterpiece of a V12. We're in an underground car park and the sounds this thing makes are indescribable.
A photographer asks if she can join us, and it's an opportunity to see if the car really can seat a fully-grown adult in its rear quarters. It doesn't take long before the city is distant in the rearviews and our route is set to take us to some spectacular mountain roads. Before we reach them, however, there's a long section of motorway driving to get through and here is where the Rapide really gets to bare its teeth.
It had already shown its abilities in congested city traffic, with the automatic transmission left to its own devices-child's play. But with a tug at the downshift paddle behind the steering wheel it becomes an altogether different animal. Into third from sixth and foot down flat, the Rapide instantly gathers momentum and accelerates like a DBS. With my foot still flat on the throttle, a tug at the upshift paddle delivers seamless changes and the car keeps piling on the speed as the scenery becomes a blur. It's relentless.
A sweeping right-hand bend is upon us in no time at all and I keep my foot planted, feeling the car sticking to the road surface with limpet-like tenacity but the bend is tighter than I anticipated. I sense our lady passenger in the rear getting nervous, but there's no backing away and I keep the power on, hoping the Rapide really is a sports car in the truest sense. The inherent stiffness of the chassis architecture is more than apparent and we emerge onto the next straight intact, pulses racing and buttocks clenched.
After too many motorway miles we peel off and begin our ascent of the mountain range where the roads, while still super smooth, are extremely twisting and challenging. I ask Rachel how she's finding it in the back seat and she says she's very comfortable; the rear is best described as "snug," but she has sufficient leg room and isn't feeling the least bit claustrophobic. Looking at the map, it's obvious that we'll be zig-zagging our way up for quite a while, so let's see how she feels after being thrown about.
Mile after mile, we thunder our way up the mountain roads and the Rapide simply devours them. It's a large car and does feel it when rock faces on either side narrow the road, but it doesn't step out of line for a second. The 6.0-liter V12 feels indestructible and the gear changes are fast and sweet, but it's the way the Rapide shrinks around its driver that really impresses. The adaptive damping ensures it doesn't wallow in even the tightest of corners and it feels more alive than any car with four doors has a right to.
We stop to change drivers, all three of us feeling absolutely fine despite the hair-raising route, and it's down to this incredible car's towering abilities. Sharper than the DB9 it's based on, it truly delivers as a driving machine. That it cossets its passengers with such high levels of comfort and refinement makes that much more special.
Apart from being supremely well-built, it's a thing of immense beauty and looks like it was designed this way in the first place, rather than as an afterthought. Aston expects to sell no more than 2,000 a year, but on the basis of my first drive, they could be in for a pleasant surprise. It was worth the wait.
2010 Aston Martin Rapide
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
6.0-liter V12, dohc, 48-valve
Six-speed Touchtronic automatic
Fully independent, adjustable continuous damping front and rear
Six-piston calipers with 15.3-inch ventilated rotors (f), four-piston calipers with 14.2-inch ventilated rotors (r), ABS, electronic park brake
Length/Width/Height (in.): 197.6 x 75.9 x 53.5
Wheelbase: 117.7 in.
Curb Weight: 4,299 lb
Peak Power: 470 hp @ 6000 rpm
Peak Torque: 443 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
0-62 mph: 5.0 sec.
Top Speed: 184 mph