New Cars + New Gear + New Technology
They say that a watched kettle never boils, and the Aston Martin Rapide has been my personal kettle for too many months now. From seeing it at the Geneva Motor Show four years ago, where it was shown simply as a design exercise to gauge public opinion, to hot weather testing a prototype in the deserts of Kuwait last summer, and visiting the factory to see the first cars pieced together in November, my chance to actually drive the thing has been a long time coming.
But my time has come and it's in the rather more temperate climes of Valencia in Spain. Aston claims that Valencia has much in common with itself: a rich, varied history with a much more modern side to it, with cutting edge architecture mixed up with tradition. It's marketing waffle, but who cares? The rain has held off and there's a full tank of fuel to get through. Bring it on.
We've driven dozens of Astons-we know the drill. But there are one or two differences to the Rapide. For starters, that infernal handbrake has been ditched in favour of an electronic park brake, which means the front seats are positioned nearer to the edge of the car's platform, creating more interior space.
Then there's the Rapide's very raison d'être: its rear doors and seats. This is, Aston claims, a four-door, four-seat sports car. Isn't that a contradiction in terms? The very thought of adding practicality to a sports car with proper rear seats, an extra couple of doors, and a full tailgate is ludicrous. It dilutes the whole sportiness, doesn't it?
The Rapide isn't the first car of its kind. Maserati started it all off with the lovely Quattroporte and Porsche brashly stated its own four-door effort would create a new class of car, the "Panamera class." While both are fine in their own right, they're not sports cars. They're grand tourers, not focused enough to cut the mustard with the likes of Ferraris and 911s, or even Aston Martins...
I'd experienced a little of what the Rapide can offer in the handling department after the factory tour in Austria. Engineering chief Simon Barnes was keen to show its sporting credentials by switching off the electronics before powering up a mountain road, executing perfectly judged powerslides around a series of sweeping bends.
So I climb in and push the gorgeously over-the-top key into its slot in the dashboard to fire up that masterpiece of a V12. We're in an underground car park and the sounds this thing makes are indescribable.
A photographer asks if she can join us, and it's an opportunity to see if the car really can seat a fully-grown adult in its rear quarters. It doesn't take long before the city is distant in the rearviews and our route is set to take us to some spectacular mountain roads. Before we reach them, however, there's a long section of motorway driving to get through and here is where the Rapide really gets to bare its teeth.
It had already shown its abilities in congested city traffic, with the automatic transmission left to its own devices-child's play. But with a tug at the downshift paddle behind the steering wheel it becomes an altogether different animal. Into third from sixth and foot down flat, the Rapide instantly gathers momentum and accelerates like a DBS. With my foot still flat on the throttle, a tug at the upshift paddle delivers seamless changes and the car keeps piling on the speed as the scenery becomes a blur. It's relentless.
A sweeping right-hand bend is upon us in no time at all and I keep my foot planted, feeling the car sticking to the road surface with limpet-like tenacity but the bend is tighter than I anticipated. I sense our lady passenger in the rear getting nervous, but there's no backing away and I keep the power on, hoping the Rapide really is a sports car in the truest sense. The inherent stiffness of the chassis architecture is more than apparent and we emerge onto the next straight intact, pulses racing and buttocks clenched.