Aston Martin Rapide
You don’t have to cast the prejudicial net too wide to find someone with a bad word to say about a Porsche, Ferrari or Lamborghini, particularly if they’ve never driven one. And, through either envy or vegetarian politics, even the entirely venerable Bentley has come to be disparaged as a fat cat conveyance by some. Meanwhile, however, each successive Aston Martin sails regally by, entirely unbesmirched by bad karma of any kind; the latest iteration of the only extant automotive marque to have no ‘side’ whatsoever.
So just what is it, then, about an Aston? Ask any Briton under 60 this question, and he will invariably cite a childhood encounter, further crystallised by some Kia-Ora sugar rush enhanced, James Bond antic or other as the moment when the marque first indelibly imprinted itself upon his psyche. It’s certainly no mere coincidence that DB7, Vanquish and DB9 designer Ian Callum, to whom – although he has since jumped ship to Jaguar – the current crop of Astons undoubtedly owe the continuity of their stunning, catwalk-worthy couture, is of precisely this pedigree.
For Callum, growing up in Britain in the 60s, Aston Martin was the exotic marque. “Thanks to Thunderball, I grew up with the DB5 plugged into my memory banks,” he told me. “So penning Astons felt very natural from the word go. And there were two or three in the Dumfries of my childhood; I saw a silver gold DB4 twice a week. Wonderful.
That car has always had a special place in my mind. When I started work at Aston Martin, it was all about trying to capture what those encounters meant for me then; power blended with restrained elegance, an understated confidence... Rather than overt and pretentious, an Aston has to be just right. You need to understand the restraint of the British psyche to do a car like this,” he averred. “What is it about an Aston? It's a lack of vulgarity...”
Properly gorgeous from every angle in the flesh, the Rapide effortlessly fulfils Callum’s criteria. You’d probably expect no less from what is essentially the achingly pretty DB9 stretched to over five metres in length to accommodate four doors within the wheelbase. But just one look at rival Porsche’s gently unfortunate Panamera – which resembles nothing so much as a bloated, spoiled brat 911 that’s holding its breath until it gets what it wants – serves as a salutary reminder of just how hard someone has worked to ensure that, despite enlargement, the Rapide retains an air of true beauty rather than that of badly-in-need-of-lancing boil.
Given that traditional Aston packaging has always presented an ideal excuse to tell the missus that there’s no room for the children on board this weekend and, indeed, that her luggage allowance must conveniently be restricted to toothbrush and lingerie, I must admit to an initial concern that the Rapide might not constitute entirely the most rewarding way of parting with a cool £139,950. Nonetheless, the four door format works pretty well.
Separated by a large console, there are just two rear seats; a needs-must arrangement dictated by the presence of the gearbox astern. Full sized, the seats are designed to allow a six-footer to sit behind himself. This I can just manage, ultimate comfort being hampered more by an inability to shove your feet under the front seats than by a lack of head or shoulder room. Fine for a trip to airport or restaurant, less wholesome for the long haul.
Clever use of boot space allied to a pop-up bulkhead allows for the stowage of almost equal quantities of luggage via rear door or tailgate. And at the push of a button you can even fold the rear seats flat to turn the whole ensemble into a close approximation of a rather rapid, leather-lined transit van.
Albeit somewhat shackled by the dreadful, mercifully options list-avoidable dark brown leather and real wood finish of my left-hand drive specimen, life on board is almost wonderful. The driving position is comfortable and ergonomically faultless, though – as with other Astons – the dashboard instrumentation remains hard to read and the additional, digital speedometer is essential. Other than this, Aston’s switchgear evolution is coming on apace, though it really is time the company ditched the Ford Fiesta steering column stalks and Mondeo sourced steering wheel controls; this car feels far too special to be blighted by such blatant cheapskatery.
More satisfying is an immensely powerful, bespoke, Bang & Olufsen stereo, which boasts a pair of so called ‘acoustic lenses’ that rise from the upper corners of the dash as you switch on the system. Cleverly, it automatically adjusts the epicentre of the 1000W sound to suit the number of people in the car by monitoring the seatbelt sensors. Less cleverly, rear seat passenger hip and elbow locations exactly replicate door speaker placings, haplessly muffling the intended effect.
However, having established that Elgar will indeed come through sufficiently loud and clear to make your ears bleed, the stereo barely got a look in, inevitably playing second fiddle to the 6.0 litres of meticulously machined V12 that is the only sound track worthy of true consideration here.
With 470bhp and 443lb.ft of torque available through a six-speed automatic transmission sporting flappy paddle override, pace is predictably brisk. 60mph comes up in just 5.1 seconds, and the Rapide will thump on to an athletic snail’s pace short of 190mph. However, that which really sets the car apart is not its undeniable capacity for hard charging but its ability to schmooze along in a high speed cruise; the hallmark of a proper Gran Turismo machine.
In this guise, the Rapide can be remarkably quiet. 90mph equates to a V12 merely ticking over at 2500rpm, so – given that the exhaust valves that access the full aural delights of the engine don’t flop open until 3500rpm – it’s entirely possible to live with the car hearing nothing from the engine except an unavoidable, ignition sequence sponsored, head-turning bark on start up.
The ride, too, is something of a revelation. Firm enough never to encourage the stabbing of the adaptive damper adjustment button, it’s a delicious blend of the supple and informative and, allied to perfectly weighted steering elicits the feeling of flowing down a sinuous A road with all the casual insouciance of a blob of mercury on a mirror.
Ironically, so adroit is the Rapide in ultra-fast cruise mode that occasional hankerings after slightly less information through the helm and slightly less road noise from the front tyres become an unfortunate side effect. Then again, I can think of nothing else with four doors that so artfully combines quietness and subtlety with on-demand din and entertainment… This car really is an extraordinarily competent compromise.
Lob in that complete absence of brand baggage and, as Rowan Pelling, erstwhile editor of the Erotic Review once explained to me, the Rapide makes a compelling ownership argument: “When you're strolling across a pedestrian crossing and you look down and see a Ferrari, somehow there’s a quiet corner of your brain that just can’t help thinking ‘w****r’” she mused. “But an Aston introduces itself so subtly... Like a beautiful woman who walks into the room and no one notices at first; no false tat, just a simple black dress. Anyone driving one has great sex appeal bestowed upon them...” Well, almost anyone Rowan.