So, I wanted to give you a few more days to build up some slack-jawed anticipation for Motor Authority's first drive of the 2010 Aston Martin Rapide, which just happened Tuesday. Also, to give myself some sentient moments on the other side of jetlag. But embargoes and souls are made to be broken: some dead-tree publication ran their Aston Rapide story today. So with Aston's blessing, we're going to tell you everything you want to know, short of how to embezzle enough to actually own one. Buckle up, and hang on.
It's their first proper four-door in the modern era, but Aston Martin seems to want you to forget that its 2010 Rapide is actually a sedan. Think sportscar, they say. Tone down your gut reactions. Don't even think of the German sedans you might be tempted to mention in the same breath.
Previewed at the 2006 Detroit auto show, when Aston Martin was still part of the Ford empire, the Rapide probably is the most eagerly awaited car in the ultra-luxury niche. Maybe because it's been on boil for so long--or maybe because its dramatic shape seems like the ultimate common-sense blend of fierce performance and fierce sheetmetal.
Conceived in good times, the Rapide happens to be ready for the world just when the world's not quite ready for it. There's a recession going on out there, you know. And not only is crisis the new black, the whole transition from the Ford empire to Kuwaiti-based financial independence has taken some time, and given the competition a window in which to have its way with coupe-like four-doors. There's now a capable Porsche Panamera out there, not to mention new versions of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7-Series and Audi A8. Each of them could, hypothetically, lay claim to some Aston Martin fans too trigger-happy to wait until it goes on sale in April.
2010 Aston Martin Rapide
2010 Aston Martin Rapide
2010 Aston Martin Rapide
But that's not going to happen, says Aston Martin CEO Dr. Ulrich Bez. That's because the Rapide is one of a kind. As he claims, it's the only true four-door sportscar in the world.
Clearly he hasn't driven an old Nissan Maxima "4DSC," right?
Either that, or he's absolutely right.
To settle the issue, I graciously accepted Aston Martin's invitation to forgo sleep and to endure Air France en route to Valencia, Spain, for the first drive of the Rapide. Between relentless doses of cured Spanish ham and oranges, I torpedoed around Valencia's oddly fantastic cluster of public buildings and in the orange-groved hills nearby, barely surviving a certain buff-book writer performing the entire second half of the Dreamgirls soundtrack.
And after a long day's ride, I figured out that I agreed with Bez.
After all, he has a point. The Rapide is matchless.
Rapide: Fantastic, gorgeous, all of the above
Valencia has something in common with the Rapide: groundbreaking design with the potential to influence a generation of designers. With any luck both will fare better than the recent Frank Gehry era. Mark our words, one day the world will have its revenge on him for his influence on the flame-surfacing era at BMW. Will there be a car company brave enough to crib off Santiago Calatrava, a Valencia native who must think the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica deserved a monument or something? How else to explain the city's helmet-like opera house? (What's next? The Zaha Hadid edition Ford Taurus?)
The Rapide is more purely stunning than anything I saw laying on the ground in Spain. No matter which way you dissect its lines, it's plainly either "fantastically gorgeous or gorgeously fantastic," if you ask my co-pilot, who couldn't decide which even while hanging on to a pitch-perfect British accent and hashing it out in a disturbingly outer inner voice.
In the Rapide, passenger space takes a literal and figurative back seat to the look. While the competition might have to make concessions to headroom and utility, Aston Martin doesn't have to. And clearly, chief designer Marek Reichman has memorized the same golden rule of four-door sportscars that applies to speaking Italian: err on the side of beauty.
From some angles, you can't even tell the Rapide is a four-door. It's as long as an S-Class, but three inches lower to the ground than a Ford Mustang. And it's clearly linked to the Aston DB9 which donated lots of inspiration and some mechanical pieces, including the VM architecture, on which it's based.
Consider the nose. Or, actually, just look at it for a moment. It's pure recent-vintage Aston Martin, with a double grille and hawk-eye headlamps. From the side, the length exaggerates the shape to concept-car proportions--only this concept is for real. Muted details like the DB9-style door handles and flush glass on the bodyside are the unsharp-mask command to its coupe-like silhouette. The few bits of jewelry applied, like the fender vents pierced by chrome arrows, barely ripple the taut surfaces of the Rapide's fuselage-smooth body. Sculpturing supplants bling. Look at it from the back and you'll realize how often car designs mimic the human form: the rubenesque swells over the Rapide's 20-inch wheels are hippy in the right way, voluptuous--visual parentheses to its lancet hatchback glass and epaulet LED taillamps.
Swing open the doors and the Rapide makes another visual statement. The "swan wing" doors hinge forward at 12 degrees for an effect almost as stunning as an open-for-business gullwing Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG.
The cabin is bit more traditional and restrained. Dual dials sit behind the just-right steering wheel, with a speedometer left, and a counterclockwise tach set on black and rimmed in metallic trim. The center stack of controls sports LCD information displays that are a little narrower than I'm used to seeing in this era of big LCD screens--and the same is true for the navigation screen that flips out of the center dash, hidden underneath a trim panel. The sin of the Rapide's dash is the bevy of small rectangular buttons and their haphazard ergonomic action. It takes two buttons to reset tripometer, and you dive through a series of convoluted screens to control mapping and music selection. But in all, the look is unified and elegant, and strained of excess.
I'll have to be fair upfront and toss out any objectivity. There's been nothing even close to the Rapide on my must-drive list. Yes, there's a whole class of cars that promise higher top speeds and quicker 0-60 mph times, but really--would James Bond drive any of them?
You'll feel a touch 007 yourself as you slide the Rapide's glass-crystal key into the dash like a Q invention. Press it in firmly, and the V-12 engine spools alive with a mechanical whir. Peg the throttle and the exhaust barks at you like you're the gas man opening the backyard gate. Push the transmission buttons on the dash and it steps off smoothly, almost languidly.It snaps to life as you drill the pedal deep into its travel. There's a version of the DB9's 6.0-liter V-12 under the aluminum hood, and final output sits at a lofty 470 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. Peak power hits at 6000 rpm. It's impressive, if a shade off the 500-hp benchmark set by the likes of the Panamera Turbo. Aston Martin promises a 0-60 mph time of less than 5.2 seconds, and a top speed of about 188 mph. In truth, that's a couple of seconds slower than a Panamera. Even a Hyundai Genesis 4.6 isn't far off the acceleration times--but it can't count to twelve.
The Rapide's six-speed paddle-shifted automatic isn't exactly a weak spot, but the seven-and eight-speed automatics and dual-clutch gearboxes of other sports sedans might take better advantage of their engines' powerbands. The paddles work through their gears in an orderly way in the Rapide, but with another cog or two, it might be easier to keep it percolating in its sweet spot of 3000 to 6000 rpm. You can leave it in automatic mode, or switch to entirely manual-triggered gearchanges, and the result is the same: the Rapide feels a little less stunning at the very bottom of its rev range. It's tuned for such smoothness in town, and needs to be provoked into roughneck mode. That comes when you tap the "Sport" button on the dash, which speeds up gearchanges and turns the throttle a little more zingy.
On the road, the Rapide reveals itself as a lithe, responsive car that makes you forget there are two extra doors behind. The rear-drive Rapide rides on an independent suspension crafted largely in aluminum, with a carbon-fiber shaft connecting the big V-12 to the rear axle and its limited-slip differential. The suspension also has adaptive dampers, which give it two ride-control modes. In general, the Rapide doesn't have the chaotic, Space Shuttle feel of recent BMW, Benz and Audi sedans that let drivers toggle away all control feel to their heart's delight. It's pretty simple, really: leave off the "Sport" buttons for everyday driving, and flip them on when the road and the time is right. Sport puts the shocks at their stiffest, and induces some constant low-grade roughness to the ride that's easily filtered out in normal mode.
For so long a vehicle it's hard to imagine the Rapide being nimble--but it is, at least as nimble as any 117-inch wheelbase car I've ever driven. Credit goes to the massive power and 51:49 weight balance. You can steer with a foot if need be, and the Rapide's forgiving enough to push with some understeer until you manage to overwhelm its massive 20-inch Bridgestone Potenza tires. Or even its limited-slip differential, which co-pilot Cammisa tortured on roundabout after roundabout until I threatened to turn the same frosty green as our car's paint color. Between the limited-slip differential and stability control that can be dialed down to off, or close to off, the Rapide can be pushed to a fairly neutral handling limit--if you don't want those pretty doors to mash up against Spain's deep-dish guardrails, that is.
Deep braking on the early-production car I drove brought out longer pedal travel than you might find in another sports car, but they're dual-cast in iron and aluminum to deal with heat soak and the hefty Rapide's curb weight.
The takeaway: the Rapide's performance isn't shattering, but on the more dignified side of the exotic-car scale.
Rapide: Tightly built
When it comes to passenger comfort and space, CEO Bez says Aston Martin got its four-door math right. "Our car is developed out of a sports car," he says, "without a compromise of making space." Certainly that's true for looks, but the Panamera trounces the Rapide in terms of packaging and passenger comfort.
The Rapide's slinky looks don't translate directly into a leaner, tauter machine. It's two inches lower than a Panamera--but an inch wider than a BMW 7-Series and only five inches shorter than a Benz S-Class. The weight of about 4300 pounds is nearly the same of the 2011 Jaguar XJ, which shares its bonded-aluminum body construction, and it's a couple hundred pounds heavier than the 4000-pound Porsche Panamera.
It's significantly tighter inside than any German supersedan, too, though obviously more beautiful and possibly, better-fitted. Flip open the swan-wing doors, and the delightful interior exudes craftsmanship, if not space. You'll push down on one end of the flush door handle to pop it out from the door panel itself, then pull it gently forward, just as in the DB9. (For the record, it's 10 inches longer than a DB9 but only 2.5 inches taller.) The doors swing up 12 degrees and the front doors open 70 degrees for better access--and still, it's not easy for tall riders to clamber in. Slip into the front seats, telescope the wheel out, and get nestled inside, and you'll find there's some but not a lot of room for back-seat riders. The front Recaro seats are amply supportive, though. The atmosphere's not constrained; there's actually enough head room to push the seat up, but that spoils the low-slung driving feel.
If you're spineless, you finally have an elusive win with the Rapide: you'll be among those who can get in back without foot drama. I tried it once, on the first night of our tour of Valencia. It takes the technique and plan-ahead of a Tesla Roadster: swing a foot in, plant your ass, then wedge another foot in somehow. There's a wall of a center console that contains the rear air conditioning equipment, an LCD screen in the headrest in front of you, and a headliner oh so very close--if not in actual contact--at the back of your head, if you're tall. Some automakers plan sedans for six-footers in back; it's safe to say only those adults under 5' 6" will be comfortable in the back of the Rapide for more than a short cross-town trip. And access? It's been since we drove the 2010 Acura ZDX when we had to think so thin to get in through narrow back door openings. Between the rear-seat ventilation systems, the deeply cosseted seats themselves and the agility needed to get in, it's better to plan ahead for a life behind the wheel. Pity.
Sitting inside, though, you'll drool over details like the aluminum-and-leather passenger assist handles. They're actually the opposite of handles, and more like sexy smash-and-grab tools studded to the B-pillar. If you're a breeder, you'll have to have the custom-made child seats that can actually slot into the Rapide's back doors and latch into its bonded-aluminum body structure.
The benefits of a useful trunk are visited on the Rapide. It's a hatchback, but a folding panel that acts in principle like that in the 2010 BMW 5-Series GT. In its upright position, it gives the Rapide a fixed cargo wall for the trunk, and a baffled area under the rear hatchback glass that's exposed to onlookers but useful as a sound barrier into the cabin. The panel can be folded down to create a larger luggage area, and the back seats fold down individually, too, to provide 26.5 cubic feet of cargo space for weekend trips. Play your cards well and two adults and one very lucky baby can have a fantastic journey.
Rapide: Aural enthusiasm
The 2010 Aston Martin Rapide doesn't want for features--as it shouldn't given its $200,000 price tag.
For the money, Rapide buyers will get an impressive level of standard specification including good safety gear. Front, side and curtain airbags team up with traction and stability control, anti-lock brakes, brake assist, an electronic parking brake, front and rear parking sensors and even those available custom-fitted child safety seats in back. The stability control can be dialed off for track driving, too. As I've warned, visibility is an issue--thick A-pillars and low header make the forward view a concentrated effort; the sexy C-pillar blots out the rear quarter views. There's no rearview or surround-view camera available, and they would help immensely.
For luxury and convenience, the Rapide's standard features include a tilt-telescoping steering wheel, bi-xenon headlamps and LED taillamps. Leather and walnut trim are standard, with metallic accents; power front seats with memory and heating; Bluetooth; satellite radio; and USB and iPod connectivity.
Those audio inputs terminate in a cool-factor-10 Bang & Olufsen BeoSound system. It's the setup with the tweeters that rise from the dash, like little aural mushrooms. In all it puts out 1000 watts through 15 speakers, and does it with exceptional clarity, though you might want for a little more bass punch in your will.i.am.
The sour note in the cabin is the hard-drive navigation system; it's a bitch to use, since the controls are wheels and buttons on the center stack, since they're not logically arranged and since the small LCD screen doesn't have a touch interface. Just finding the way to zoom into a map can take a few aborted runs through all the controls.
The Rapide has a short options list. It includes your choice of trim from the whole forest, including mahogany, bamboo, ash, maple, olive and metal. There's a rear-seat entertainment system with twin LCD screens embedded in the front seatbacks and a six-DVD changer that fits into the trunk space and pairs with wireless headphones. Ventilated front seats can be specified. And from our conversations, it's a given the Rapide will at some point be offered with a panoramic sunroof, though none were brought to the first drive.
Rapide: The bottom line
So what exactly is the Aston Martin Rapide, if it's not the most capable four-door on the planet?
For one, it's a magnitude shift for the brand itself--one that required an outside partner to build it. The ancestral home in Gaydon, England, is full up with other products; the Rapide will be built in Graz, Austria, by Magna Steyr, an offshoot of the company that bid unsuccessfully for Opel, and now builds small-batch products like the Mercedes-Benz G-Class for automakers far and wide.
For another, it's a new calling card for a company always associated with two-doors. In the days of Ford's PAG empire, Jaguar took care of the sedans and Aston handled coupe duty. That world has passed, and Aston and Jaguar seem to be turning into each other's headlights for their futures.
More important than those, the Rapide's got our vote as the most enduring design to surface in a generation of clumsy, kitschy supersedans. There's no flame surfacing, no styling melodrama. There's nothing in its refined realm, not even close.
It's hypnotically handsome. It's gorgeous. And fantastic.
And yes--it gives you wings.