Ripe with character and that doesn’t just mean flaws
Engine: 6.0 litres, V12
Power: 550bhp @6750rpm
Torque: 457lb ft @5500rpm
Transmission: six-speed Touchtronic, rear-wheel drive
Top Speed: 190mph
There are changes afoot at Aston Martin. Rumours that its president Dr Ulrich Bez will choose both his 70th and his company’s 100th anniversary as the moment to step away have been gathering pace, fuelled by Aston’s refusal to issue a contrary statement.
The mention of Dr Bez is capable of eliciting all kinds of response from all kinds of people. He’s mercurial, autocratic and inclined to suffer fools not at all. What cannot be denied is that under his leadership, Aston Martin was transformed from a state-of-the-ark organisation into a modern, highly desirable manufacturer offering some of the most competitive products ever to wear the badge.
But 10 years after the first of those products was launched, the company is seen as having done too little to renew its ranges, relying on evolving extant architectures and engines rather than providing genuinely new cars. Moreover, it is alone among major sports car manufacturers in lacking not only the money but the technologies, tooling, knowledge and purchasing clout of a major conglomerate.
Under the circumstances, I find it remarkable that its latest offering, the Rapide S, is so good. Even by Aston’s low-volume outputs, the Rapide has never been a big seller but has always been my second favourite modern Aston after the commendably nutty V12 Vantage. Unlike most Aston S models, the Rapide is not additional to the range but replaces the old Rapide entirely. Most notable among the changes are that striking new nose, another 80bhp under the bonnet and the fitment of adaptive damping as standard. One thing Aston Martin has elected not to change is the price, which remains at £149,950 — very generous or indicative of how hard its predecessor was to sell.
Like almost all contemporary Astons, the Rapide S annoys instantly but then charms its way back into your affections over time. It is an ergonomic nightmare. You still can’t read the dials, operating the switchgear is always fiddly and occasionally impossible and I can’t even praise Aston for replacing the ghastly old Volvo sat-nay because the new Garmin system is still far off the pace.
But then you drive it and wonder whether you’d not get used to its foibles and stick a Tom-Tom on the windscreen. Despite everything, this car has magical qualities. I love its looks and the way it’s built, too: Rapides have always seemed more robust than other Astons and I always put it down to the fact they were built in Austria by Magna Steyr. But since 2012 they’ve been built at Gaydon with all the others and it still seems hewn from rock.
Naturally I enjoy the noise and extra power, but it’s the chassis that might have me walking past a Porsche Panamera Turbo S to get to the Rapide. All sense says a two-tonne, five-metre car shouldn’t be able to provide such steering feel, balance and agility. The programmable damping is a gimmick — who’s going to put their Rapide into Track Mode? — but its responses are not. The car has the best ride and handling balance in its class.
Yes it needs an eight-speed gearbox, a new interior and a little more rear legroom, but who expects perfection from an Aston Martin? Not me. I expect an unrivalled sense of occasion for the money and, for all its many serious faults, that is precisely what the Rapide S provides.