The onboard temperature gauge is reading 51 degrees. That's Celsius (123.8 degrees F). For some unfathomable reason, I decide that this incendiary heat is something I want to appreciate first-hand, so I open the car door and leave its air-conditioned, leather-lined cocoon to face the fierceness of this featureless desert.
I've never felt heat like this before. My eyelids feel like they're about to combust; it hurts my lungs more with each breath. It's almost too hot to sweat, as though my body wants to conserve every molecule of moisture within it. This is the Kuwaiti desert in the summer-an area all too familiar to many American and European servicemen and women who came and liberated its people from Iraqi occupation back in 1991. Time hasn't healed anything in the desert.
The wind whips up and clouds of sand are swept across the near-melting road surface. It's quite beautiful, the way it dances around, but its effect on my face is excruciating as my skin is unceremoniously sandblasted. Much more of this and my cheekbones will see daylight. Time to get back in the car and I can't pretend that's much of a chore.
When is getting into an Aston Martin ever a chore? There's something about the way an Aston makes you feel as an owner or envious onlooker: these cars engender respect in a way no Ferrari could ever achieve. There's a gravitas that's unavoidable; the way such ethereal beauty can clothe such savage power makes grown men weak at the knees. And this one is the biggie. The four-door Rapide is possibly the company's most important model in its often turbulent history.
No one outside the factory will get to drive a Rapide until next year, but Aston invited me out here to Kuwait to experience the lengths it goes to in testing a new model. And the Kuwaiti desert is about as extreme as locations get.
The Rapide took a bit of a kicking from certain quarters of the motoring press when it was first unveiled at 2006's Detroit Auto Show. "Yawn, it's just a stretched DB9. Give us a break. It'll never work. All Astons look the same... yadda, yadda, yadda..." Aston Martin makes the most beautiful cars in the world, so another one that looks the same but different can't be a bad thing.
Cars these days are built much differently compared with only a few years ago. This is a fiscal necessity and pretty much everyone is at it. Aston Martin has platform architecture in place that allows it to make the V8 Vantage, DB9, DBS and now the Rapide using the same basic VH (Vertical Horizontal) chassis. So the Rapide really is a stretched DB9 (which is a stretched V8 Vantage). Yet each of these models, while sharing many intrinsic similarities, offers customers something unique.
Simon Barnes, Aston's vehicle engineering manager, is also here in the desert. He's the guy who decides how this car will ride, drive and sound. If he doesn't like something, it won't end up on the production version, simple as that. I ask him to sum up what the Rapide is all about, since it's been his baby for so long.
"It's a DB9 without compromise," says Barnes. "It offers all the attributes of that car, but instead of being a two-plus-two, it's a proper four-seater that will accommodate two adults in the rear and useable luggage space too. Yet at the same time it drives like any of our other vehicles."
From the front seats, there's little to differentiate the Rapide from the DB9, yet a closer look reveals details that show thoughtful improvement. The parking brake is now an electronic item-allowing for wider seats and a more efficient action without the need for complex mechanical componentry. There's a proper cup holder and neater switchgear, but these are small fry compared to what's going on behind.
Two individually-sculpted seats divided by a high central console welcome passengers once the beautifully executed rear "swan wing" doors are opened. Ingress isn't as easy as in a normal sedan, but better than a DB9. Barnes is just over six feet tall and can sit here in complete comfort. In a DB9, he wouldn't bother trying. There are TV screens incorporated into the rear headrests of the front seats and controls for the DVD player will be situated in the central cubby hole.
More welcome in this desert heat, however, are the high-mounted air vents that channel a chilled blast directly into the faces of rear occupants. Between the front seats, within the central tunnel, sits an enclosed A/C unit. So the front and rear quarters are independent in terms of climate control and one does not hamper the other. In the Middle East, details like this make all the difference.
This car is one of just 14 pre-production mules and, according to Barnes, almost there when it comes to the final version, scheduled for its public debut before the year is out. The order book will then be opened and customers should start getting their cars in early 2010. There are imperfect panel gaps here and there, betraying its test-car status, door seals are temporary and the interior is only partly finished, with cables everywhere feeding information to computers and data-loggers in the trunk.
Data is collated each day and e-mailed to the engineers at the U.K. factory. If software updates are necessary, these are sent back to Barnes and his small team so the Rapide can improve its behavior, even if the differences are so minute that most people would never know. As we take shelter in the car while the sandstorm lashes outside, I ask why we're in Kuwait. Couldn't these extreme temperatures be replicated in some chamber back at the factory?
"Yes, it's easy to bake a car in an oven," says Barnes. "But there's more to hot-weather testing than ambient temperatures. For instance, the driving standards in Kuwait are, on the whole, appalling. Cars are driven bumper-to-bumper, which puts more pressure on the cooling system as less air is directed into the front. There are so many variables that only testing in real-world conditions like this will do."
The desert causes its own set of problems too. "We've spent one day out here," he continues, "and already the headlamp glass is shot. The front number plate delaminated too. And by the time we get back to the U.K., the windscreen will need replacing because it's constantly being etched by windborne sand. Airboxes need emptying daily and the heat puts a massive strain on all the electrical items. There's no need for testing in Death Valley when you can come here."
At the other extreme, the Rapide has already undergone testing in the vast frozen tundra of the Arctic Circle. But with the car being so similar to the DB9, why does Aston feel the need to go through these processes when they were completed on not only that model, but the DBS as well?
"It might look similar to the DB9, but every single panel is different and the car's extra length can put strains upon it that would never come to light unless we were this thorough. Many of our customers will be based in the Middle East and we need to be absolutely certain that our cars will be reliable. There's only one way to do that and that's why we're right here, right now."
The Rapide is a truly beautiful thing to behold. Marek Reichman, Aston's design chief, has reworked the DB9's glorious shape into a flowing, organic, perfectly proportioned car that looks like it was meant to have four doors from the outset. It's a car that makes me want to be in two places at the same time: inside, enjoying the unashamed luxury of its opulent interior, and outside, enjoying the soft porn of its exquisite bodywork. Without a doubt, this will be recognized as the finest looking four-door car in the world.
And with a 6.0-liter V12 under the hood developing 470 hp, the Rapide will certainly live up to its fancy moniker (itself from an old Lagonda, the company Aston owns and is about to re-launch as a distinct brand in its own right). Aston Martin has its own high-tech test facility at the Nürburgring, where it has also been put through its paces. So even though the Rapide may at first come across as a tad soft, somewhat genteel, it's nothing of the sort. And considering this car can offer drivers a chance to share the hedonistic delights of being in a DB9 with the family, what's not to like?