“The Rapide is a sport car,” says Ulrich Bez, the chief executive of Aston Martin. Normally, he wouldn’t feel the need for such emphasis expensive, hand-crafted British sports cars are Aston’s business. But the £140,000(Rs 1.1 Crore) Rapide is something new, the company’s first four-door, four-seater car since the Lagonda of the 1970s.
Bez doesn’t want this car to be misunderstood. it is not a rival for the Bentley Continental Flying Spur or the uber-sedans from Mercedes, BMW and Audi and it differs fundamentally from its most obvious counterpart, the Porsche Panamera.
Aston characterizes it like this: the Porsche was designed as a low-line car providing generous space for four adults and the body was shaped accordingly, hence its hump backed look the Rapide is an Aston Martin DB9 with more room for people and luggage but no compromise to its gorgeous, flowing style.
Bez loses no opportunity to talk up his products. He describes the Rapide as ‘the most beautiful four-door car in the world’ and says that the aesthetics were crucial. “The proportions had to be perfect. If we couldn’t have achieved this, we wouldn’t have made it.”
So this is not a car for the part-time driver who likes to conduct business from the back seat while the chauffeur negotiates weekday traffic. Neither is it suitable for making the grand entrance at a film premiere or society ball, it would be difficult for a skirted lady (or a Scotsman) to retain modesty while emerging from the back.
It is better to think of the Rapide as a more versatile and practical version of a traditional Aston. Unlike the DB9, the rear seats are comfortable for adults, providing the passengers are less than 1.8m tall and not too bulky. The Rapide’s rear doors hinge forward and slightly upwards-Aston calls this ‘swan wing’- and there has been extensive paring of the structure and trim around the seats to allow the maximum amount of space and ease of entry and exit through the small door apertures. There is more room in the Panamera but the Rapide’s rear passengers are cosier and also have better visibility because the seating position is slightly higher than in the front.
Then there is the trunk. Having made several long journeys two-up in a DB9 and struggled to squeeze bags into the luggage compartment and the rear seat area, I really appreciated the Rapide’s stowage space and easy access through the rear hatch. It has been well thought out, with a hinged divider located by magnetic catches separating the trunk from a generous space behind the rear seats. The backs of those seats can also be folded forward to extend the load area further.
Technically, the Rapide is rather more than a DB9 extended by 30cm. All models in Aston Martin’s current range are based on the same ‘VH’ platform, a chassis structure of aluminum sheet and extrusions bonded together which can be produced in different sizes. Apart from being longer than all the others, the space required in the Rapide dictated a new rear subframe to support the transmission and rear suspension. The re- designed assembly saves weight and also allows a larger (90-litre) fuel tank. Surprisingly, the Rapide - a big car, over 5cm in length - is only 200kg heavier than the DB9.
The Rapide has the same drive-line and suspension layout as the other Astons but set up for slightly more gentle behaviour than the DB9 and DBS. It has variable dampers with two programmes, normal and sport, but unlike the DBS, both settings are usable. The steering is ‘quicker’, meaning it is higher geared, to aid the feeling of agility on a winding road. The brakes - which have a new kind of dual-cast steel and aluminum disc - are mighty effective but the pedal has a longer travel than in most sports cars. That is intentional and makes for smoother progress in normal driving.
The 6-litre V12 engine is familiar and has the same power (474PS) and torque output as the latest DB9. The ubiquitous ZF six-speed automatic transmission is the only gearbox available. It works beautifully and allows manual operation from paddles behind the steering wheel. A facia switch marked Sport speeds up the automatic shifts as well as sharpening the throttle response. Again, the effect is not as marked as in some other models, as Aston seeks to make the Rapide a more comfortable Grand Tourer while maintaining its sporting character.
It has achieved that objective. The Rapide’s performance - maximum speed 296kmph and 0-100kmph in 5.2 seconds -is only fractionally slower than the DB9. It has the same rich exhaust tone when the ‘active bypass valve’ in the exhaust is opened. But it has suppleness on undulating roads and broken surfaces that the other cars lack.
The wheelbase is 25cm longer than the DB9 and that undoubtedly helps in giving the Rapide a better ride. Yet it retains the well balanced handling of the OB9. The steering is also improved, although its high gearing, which works well on a twisty route, demands attention on a motorway; it is easy to veer off course when tuning the radio or adjusting the air conditioning. The Rapide is bigger and heavier than the D B9 - and feels it. It is unusually wide - 214cm - and the low seating position and poor rear- ward visibility makes it difficult to park.
Of course, the low stance is all part of the sports car experience. Sitting in the front, the Rapide could be any other modern Aston, which means that it is beautifully finished in leather and Alcantara and has confusing controls and watch-like instruments that look great but are not good at imparting information. A deep centre tunnel runs right through the car and houses the vents and controls for the separate rear air conditioner. The Rapide comes as standard with an impressive 1,000- watt Bang & Olufsen stereo system with 15 speakers including two ‘acoustic lenses’ that pop up from the top of the facia. Options include a DVD player with screens in the back of the front seats and a cooling system incorporated in all four seats. Also available is a set of fitted luggage, in leather to match the car’s trim. Actually the advantage of the Rapide is that, unlike the two-door Astons, it can accommodate a reasonable amount of ordinary luggage, including suitcases. For many owners, this will be the clincher: an Aston Martin that you really can use for the family holiday.
The Rapide first appeared as a concept car at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show. Signing it off for production was one of the first actions of the Kuwaiti investors who bought Aston Martin from Ford in 2007.
There were some complications. The concept car was praised for its grace and style but didn’t actually provide adequate accommodation. To maintain the look for the production model, Aston’s design chief Marek Reichman had to revise every body panel and they are all unique to the Rapide, none shared with the DB9 or other models.
The idea was that by sharing the VH plat- form, the four-door could be built on the same assembly lines as the DB9 and Vantage models. But in 2007 Aston was booming and its factory at Gaydon in Warwickshire was working near to its full capacity.
Rather than expand Gaydon further, it was decided to sub-contract Rapide production to Magna in Graz, Austria. There, in a building where Magna used to make E-Class models for Mercedes, Aston set up a replica of the Gaydon facility, including most of the traditionally British craft elements. In the meantime, the recession in its main markets, the US and UK, saw Aston’s sales plummet and the company had to re- duce its workforce in Gaydon by a third.
Ulrich Bez expects the Austrian-made Rapide to account for a third of the 6,000 cars Aston will sell worldwide in 2010. Apart from making the DB9, DBS and Vantage models, Gaydon is now preparing the One-77. a limited edition 707PS hyper-car which is now priced at £1.2 million (Rs 8.2 crore), and, at the opposite end of the scale, the Cygnet, a re-styled and re-trimmed Toyota iQ, which will sell for around £30,000 (Rs 20.7Iakh).