In for the long stretch
Aston hopes its new four-seat Rapide will become a staple of its range, but this is a car best suited to a sedate pace
By Andrew Frankel
Like an ultra-talented but hellraising movie star from an era sadly passed, you never quite know what Aston Martin is going to do next, only that whatever it is, it’s not going to be boring.
For a while all will seem straight and level, and then without warning it will veer off into glorious madness, like announcing it’s going to build sports racing cars to compete in every class from prototype to GT4. Or marketing a watch that will operate your central locking – for £22,000.
And just as it appears on top of its product portfolio, it will build the DBS Volante, a car which tries to be both a supercar and top-down cruiser, and proves not very capable at either. Also, how dearly would we like to forget the Lagonda concept car that put jaws on the floor at last year’s Geneva motor show for every wrong reason in the book?
But there are also moments of pure inspiration, none better than the Vantage V12 RS, the most convincing Aston-badged answer to road-going Ferrari product since the DB4 GT. I also continue to be surprised by how well the standard DB9 and Vantage are withstanding their advancing years.
What, then, are we to make of this new Rapide? Before I drove it, it worried me more than any new Aston of the recent past, not least because, unlike niche products like the DBS Volante, the Rapide is set to be a staple of the range with annual sales measurable in the thousands. It simply has to succeed. But it looks too much like a stretched DB9 and even its claim to be British is open to interpretation: this is a car built not by Aston Martin in Gaydon, England, but Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria. And it’s powered by an engine built in a Ford factory in Cologne, Germany.
I think it also germane to ask if Aston Martin should even be in the business of building four-door cars. It’s not something Ferrari or Lamborghini would consider today, and precedent in the form of the 1970s four-door Lagonda is not on its side.
It’s not that, er, rapide, either. It may have a 6-litre V12 under that sculpted bonnet but it’s in the lowest state of tune Aston Martin offers: and its 470bhp may be enough to give a DB9 a reasonable turn of speed, but the DB9 doesn’t weigh all but two tonnes. The Rapide does.
The Rapide also seems conceptually flawed. If you’re going to make a four-seater, why not make it seat four? In comfort. Despite the extra doors and whatever Aston Martin might claim to the contrary, the Rapide is a generously proportioned 2+2 in much the same mould as a Mercedes CLS. A true four-seater it is clearly not.
To recap, the Rapide is now the slowest and least attractive Aston in the line-up, is the only mainstream Aston ever to be built beyond these shores (I’m not counting Zagatos) and turns out to be not very good at the one thing it was put on earth to do. And it costs £139,950, meaning only the flagship DBS is more expensive.
So now I am thinking that instead of worrying about Aston Martin, I should be worrying about myself, because after three days and 500 miles on road and track in the Rapide I can see how incomplete the range was without it.
The Rapide is a car of subtle charms, its exhausts as quiet as its demeanour is considered. Unlike its louder, more immediate stablemates, there is no urgency about the Rapide. ‘GT’ has been the most abused acronym in the whole automotive lexicon ever since Leyland appended it ‘1275’ and attached it to a horrid Mini, but few or any deserve it more than the Rapide.
This is a delightful car to drive slowly. Taking full advantage of the extended wheelbase, the chassis engineers have ensured that no Aston ever rode so well as this, nor was any ever so peaceful, thanks to expert sealing of door apertures and, would you believe, double-glazed glass. The way it distances you from the outside world is akin to a Mercedes limousine, yet thanks to the still beautiful interior borrowed largely from the DB9 it also feels exotic, snug, tailored and expensive. Despite retaining the capacity to infuriate with its useless navigation and pointless glass key, the Rapide soothes like no other Aston. I can imagine flying into a wet and rainy Heathrow and that warm glow when you realise that home is not two hours away down the M4, but sitting in the long-term car park.
But had the price of all this excellence been a driving experience barely worth discussing, I’d still rate this the most misjudged Aston since the company’s last, disastrous foray into the four-door arena. In fact, the Rapide excels most where you least expect it.
It’s true that it needs to be quicker – a 0-60mph time of 5.1sec places it in the Porsche Cayman S performance category – and you will draw the same conclusion as me from Aston’s quaint refusal to confirm or deny the development of a quicker version with well over 500bhp. But the way it delivers its thrust, with all the power concentrated into the upper reaches of its rev range, still excites, as does the sound of the 6-litre V12, so cultured it’s still strange to consider its origins as two 3-litre V6 Ford engines. This engine also interacts beautifully with the latest generation of ZF’s superlative six-speed automatic transmission.
But you’ll remember it most for its handling. The steering kickback that has troubled other V12 Astons has been eliminated, yet the feel through the rim is better than any other two-tonne, front-engined car I know. A Porsche Panamera feels genuinely blunt by comparison. The Rapide is easy to place, a joy to point into a corner and, in the admittedly unlikely event that you find yourself in a Rapide and on a track, blessed with one of the sweetest natures, on and over the limit, it has been my pleasure to encounter.
It may have four doors, barely adequate performance and be half a tonne overweight, but the Rapide fulfils the first obligation of any car to bear the Aston wings: it is a real driver’s car.
Although variants of extant models (including the Rapide) will still come, the Rapide is likely to be the last substantially new car spun off the extruded aluminium platform that has underpinned every Aston Martin since the launch of the DB9 in 2003. I’d be amused to see a Rapide Shooting Brake and bet they’d sell a few in more exotic corners of the globe, but
I’m not counting on it. We must therefore wait for an all-new generation of Aston Martins, conceived, developed and engineered without either Ford’s money or technical expertise.
But if it can find the investment, improve quality to Rapide standards in its UK-constructed cars and retain its currently vice-like grip on what kind of car an Aston should be, the future can still look very bright. As ever with Aston Martin, interesting times lie ahead.
Aston Martin Rapide
Engine: V12 5935cc
Power/Torque: 470bhp at 6000rpm, 443lb ft at 5000rpm
Gearbox: six-speed with Touchtronic
Tyres: Bridgestone Potenza R20 f: 245/40, r: 295/35
Acceleration: 0-60mph in 5.1sec
Suspension: f: independent double wishbone with anti-dive geometry, coil springs and anti-rollbar; r: independent double wishbones with anti-squat and anti-lift geometry, coil springs and anti-rollbar
Brakes: f: dual cast brake discs, 390mm diameter with six piston calipers; r: dual cast brake discs, 360mm diameter with four piston calipers
Top Speed: 188mph (predicted)