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Rapide Fire

Paul Meyers

Dr. Ulrich Bez, Aston Martin’s illustrious CEO, has an affinity for four-door vehicles. The stunningly sporty and elegant 2010 Aston Martin Rapide—which officially debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show last September—is just the latest evidence of his affection. "I did a four-door sports car before, when I was at Porsche in the 1980s," says Bez. "But they didn’t like it much."

At the time, Bez was on the lead engineering team for the German automaker’s 989 concept car. The vehicle was designed to be the first Porsche sedan, but Stuttgart’s board of directors eventually sidelined the idea—that is, until Porsche finally entered the four-door arena last year with the Panamera. Bez, for one, does not think the final product was worth the wait. "From the front [the Panamera] may have some character, but from the back it does not look very attractive," he says. "Our cars are as exciting from the back as they are from the front. We see [the Rapide] as the most exclusive, the most beautiful four-door luxury car in the world."

It is difficult to argue with Bez’s claims. Aston Martin is indeed one of the world’s most exclusive luxury automakers: In the company’s 97-year history, it has produced only about 50,000 production cars—many among the world’s most beautiful—at its Gaydon, England, factory.

The Rapide will be Aston Martin’s first car of the current model range produced outside of Gaydon. In fact, the British automaker’s sedan will not be built in Great Britain at all, but instead will be assembled in the same Magna Steyr manufacturing facility as the Mercedes-Benz G-Class wagon in Graz, Austria. Part of the reason for the move is that the Rapide’s production plans are relatively ambitious compared with those of its V8 Vantage, DB9, and DBS stablemates. "The Rapide writes a new book for Aston Martin," says Bez, who estimates that the Rapide will account for roughly one-third of his company’s estimated 6,000 car sales in 2010. "But it also writes a new book for all four-door sports cars."

While the Rapide certainly marks a departure for Aston Martin, the vehicle is not unprecedented. In 1947, Aston Martin owner David Brown—whose initials live on in the DB models—orchestrated the purchase of the Lagonda car company. Under Aston Martin’s—and specifically Brown’s—watch, Lagonda developed a four-door car called the Rapide. The luxurious sedan, of which Lagonda produced only 55 examples, was a passion project for Brown, who signed each of the original Rapide’s sales brochures and included the inscription: It has long been my ambition to build a car, which would be equally suitable to drive or be driven in . . . .

The modern-day Rapide does not appear, at a glance, to share these ideals. One look at the rear legroom, and it is obvious that passengers take a literal and figurative back seat in this particular sports sedan. So when Aston Martin offered to chauffeur me to dinner during a recent press event, I quickly made my way to the front passenger seat. However, at the urging of a company representative, I sat in one of the back chairs to test its comfort.

The Rapide’s petite rear doors made entering and exiting the seat difficult, even for a 6-foot-tall person of average build such as myself. But once in the seat, I found there was surprisingly ample space. Still, the Rapide clearly upholds Aston Martin’s philosophy of elegance and exclusivity over effortless entry. "Our car is developed out of a sports car, without a compromise of making space," says Bez. "This Rapide is the only true four-door sports car in the world—the only one that comes from a sports car. Others are made from limousines."

Porsche and Maserati would undoubtedly challenge this assertion, especially considering that the Rapide is more than fashionably late to the four-door-performance party. The Panamera and the Maserati Quattroporte are the Rapide’s closest competitors, but both cars, even at their highest trim-level offerings, are considerably less expensive than the $201,300 Aston Martin. And while the Quattroporte and Rapide exhibit strikingly similar performance figures, the 500 hp Panamera Turbo is more than a full second faster to 60 mph than the Aston Martin. Bez, however, argues that numbers are not the Rapide’s ultimate objective: "It’s not about performance, it’s about where you come from," he says. "It’s about authenticity. And so far, we are not afraid of any competition."

As if to prove its CEO’s point, Aston Martin invited a few journalists out to Valencia to test the Rapide firsthand on the wide-open roads of the Spanish countryside. My first impression upon taking the wheel of the Rapide was that, from the driver’s seat, the four-door feels much smaller and sportier than its exterior size would suggest. The short windshield and low-slung, sporty stance almost make you forget that the car has two usable rear seats.

Built on a stretched version of Aston Martin’s current VH platform—first used for the DB9—the Rapide is also exceptionally light on its feet. Weighing in at a relatively svelte 4,300 pounds, the four-door Aston Martin is, as Bez recurrently insists, first and foremost a sports car.

The heart of the Rapide’s power train comes from the same front-mid-mounted 6-liter V-12 engine that Aston Martin employs in the DB9 coupe and convertible models. Developing enough power at the rear wheels—470 hp and 443 ft lbs of torque, to be exact—to launch the car to 60 mph from a standstill in roughly five seconds, the stalwart motor carries this four-door to a top speed of 188 mph. On one particular stretch of abandoned Spanish motorway, I had no problem getting the Rapide’s speedometer to clock 140 mph. At this speed, the back end—with its upturned ducktail-type rear spoiler design—remained firmly planted to the road without the slightest hint of instability. But the real fun behind the wheel was through the corners, thanks to the Rapide’s ultrasmooth and ultraswift 6-speed automated manual transmission—known among Aston Martin insiders as the Touchtronic 2.

Paddling through the gears with the Touchtronic 2 is as simple as it is exhilarating, but the transmission’s automated shifts may be preferable for those who would rather cruise calmly through town than bounce off the rev limiter. Like all other Aston Martin models, the Rapide comes equipped with a Sport button—located on the center console within arm’s length of the driver—which quickens throttle response and engages an aggressive gear strategy with sharper, sportier, and more forceful shifts, holding each gear all the way to its 6,800 rpm limit.

At just 3,700 rpm, bypass valves within the Rapide’s stainless-steel dual-exhaust system open up to trigger Aston Martin’s signature snarl. It is a gruff growl—mean enough to take on even Maserati’s most sonorous exhaust note—and it provides a better sound track than any song playing through the Rapide’s theater-quality, 1000-watt, 15-speaker Bang & Olufsen BeoSound audio system.

But if there is anything that makes the Rapide stand out as something truly special, it is the car’s breathtaking silhouette and body panels. Marek Reichman, Aston Martin’s chief designer, sums it up in a sentence: "It is a great car to wash." But after spending five years sculpting the Rapide—from its initial sketch to final production—Reichman is probably ready to wash his hands of the project and take on new designs. "At my interview for the company in 2005, Ulrich Bez asked me to show him what I could do with four doors," says Reichman. "The Rapide was essentially the first car that I designed for Aston Martin."

Reichman has made an astonishing first impression. The exterior of the Rapide represents a clear continuation of the British brand’s modern family of cars and easily takes top honors for the best-looking sports sedan on the market. From its front fascia to its rear flanks, the car embodies the understated elegance that has become synonymous with the Aston Martin cars of this century. But it is the Rapide’s distinguishing traits that make it most remarkable. All four doors are fastened at the hinges in Aston Martin’s swan-wing setup—which opens the doors at a 12-degree upward slant to avoid scratching any paint off on curbs—and the car’s hatch-style trunk is flawlessly integrated between the rakish rear haunches. In order to maintain his design’s sleek profile, Reichman blacked out the B-pillar and tucked it inside the car. This preserved the Rapide’s structural rigidity and safety in possible side-impact accidents, while allowing for a virtually seamless connection between the front and rear windows.

The Rapide’s interior nearly matches the sophistication and sex appeal of the exterior. A leather dash, symmetrical center console, and suede Alcantara headliner are among the fit-and-finish features that owners have come to expect from their Aston Martins. But the Rapide also offers a few surprises inside, including a rear entertainment system—which Bez insists will keep the children quiet on long road trips—and a spacious trunk with room for four golf bags or two full-size suitcases. For those traveling as a pair, the rear seats fold down at the touch of a button to create a flat loading space, increasing the luggage compartment from 10.6 cu ft to 31.3 cu ft.

If there is one thing missing from the new Aston Martin it is the fabulous glass roof that the company incorporated into the Rapide concept car in 2006. According to Reichman, however, this design feature is not dead: "The Rapide was always designed to have a glass roof," he says. "We even crash-tested the car in that way, and it passed with flying colors."

Aston Martin is ambiguous about its plans for the glass roof, but one potential home for it seems clear: in a more powerful—possibly 510 hp—and performance-oriented Rapide S model.

 

Aston Martin, www.astonmartin.com

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