The slow Rapide ascent

It's been a long time coming, but Kevin Hackett thinks the wait was worth it for Aston Martin's new four-door.

Sharper than the DB9 it's based on, the Aston Martin Rapide delivers as a driving machine.
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It's been a long time coming, but Kevin Hackett thinks the wait was worth it for Aston Martin's new four-door. 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 accompanying Aston Martin's engineering staff as they carried out hot weather testing on a prototype in the deserts of Kuwait last summer, to visiting the factory to see the first cars being 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 Martin claims that Valencia has much in common with itself: a rich, varied history and a much more modern side to it, with cutting edge architecture mixing it up with tradition. It's marketing waffle, but who cares? The rain has held off, the roads are dry and there's a full tank of fuel to get through. Bring it on.

I hook up with an old friend, fellow journalist Simon de Burton, and prise our car's key from its guardian. He takes us through the controls and we explain that 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 on the outside of the driver's seat 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. Which in itself creates more interior space.

Then there's the Rapide's 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? Think sports car and you conjure up images of sleek, low, impractical vehicles that excite the senses. 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 as 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 arrogantly stated its own four-door effort would create a new class of car - the "Panamera class". Unfortunately, the Panamera is cursed with looks not even a mother could love and both it and the Maserati, while both fine in their own right, are not sports cars. They're grand tourers, not focussed 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 me and my fellow passenger its sporting credentials by switching off the electronics before powering up a mountain road, executing perfectly judged powerslides around a series of sweeping bends. It was enough to whet the appetite, but there's only one way to find out if the Rapide is a true driver's car, isn't there?

So I climb in behind the wheel with a passenger at my side and push the gorgeously over-the-top crystal key into its slot in the dashboard, firing up that masterpiece of a V12 engine. We're in an underground car park and the sounds this thing makes are indescribable, which is a bit of a bum deal for a writer, but take it as read you'll never tire of them. Before I get a chance to pull away, a photographer asks if she can join us. It's an opportunity to see if the car really can seat a fully grown adult in its rear quarters, so she gets in and we head off. It doesn't take long before the city is a distant dot in the rearview mirror 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 - it was 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 Aston's much-lauded chassis architecture is more than apparent and we emerge onto the next straight intact, pulses racing and buttocks clenched.

After too many motorway miles, we peel off the highway and begin our ascent of the mountain range where the roads, while still super smooth, are extremely twisting and challenging. I ask Rachel how she's finding it in the back seat and she says she's very comfortable - the rear is best described as "snug" but she has sufficient leg room and isn't feeling the least bit claustrophobic. Looking at the map, it's obvious that we'll be zig-zagging our way up for quite a while, so let's see how she feels after being thrown about.

For mile after mile we thunder our way up the mountain roads, and the Rapide simply devours them. It's a large car and does feel it when the roads narrow with rock faces on either side, but it doesn't step out of line for a second. The 6.0L V12 feels indestructible and the gear changes are fast and sweet, but it's the way the Rapide shrinks around its driver that really impresses. The adaptive damping ensures it doesn't wallow in even the tightest of corners, and it feels more alive than any car with four doors has a right to.

We reach our coffee stop and it's time to stretch our legs before changing driver's seat for passenger's. All three of us feel absolutely fine despite the hair-raising route, and it's down to this incredible car's towering abilities. Unbelievably sharper than the DB9 it's based on, it truly delivers as a driving machine. That it cossets its passengers with such high levels of comfort and refinement makes it very special and Aston Martin's pride in this model is entirely justified.

But even if it was a disappointment behind the wheel I'd still have one, just to look at it in my garage. It's a thing of immense beauty and looks like it was designed this way in the first place, rather than as an afterthought. Aston expects to sell no more than 2,000 Rapides a year, but on the basis of my first drive in one, they could be in for a pleasant surprise. It was worth the wait.