Beauty and the Bez
The 2011 Aston Martin Rapide is the most significant car launched by the storied British automaker since Dr. Ulrich Bez took over the reins in July 2000.
It is the company's first four-door sports car — actually its first four-door of any description if you exclude its association with Lagonda. More important, the Rapide is the first Aston Martin aimed at expanding sales to buyers in so-called emerging markets as well as traditional markets such as the U.K. and America. It is also the first Aston Martin to be built outside England. Since production at Gaydon, England, is maxed out at 8,000 vehicles, assembly of the 2,000 Rapides expected to be sold every year has been turned over to Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria.
So we arrived in Valencia, Spain, to drive the 2011 Aston Martin Rapide, expecting the usual corporate anxiety surrounding a new model. You know, a long, boring technical presentation followed by a dry and lengthy corporate marketing spiel read from a teleprompter by executives in their best tailored suits. Once we endured this, they would finally turn over the keys.
Fortunately, Aston Martin is not your usual car company.
What Me Worry?
It starts with Aston Martin's Dr. Ulrich Bez, the CEO. Bez began his career at Porsche, moved on to BMW, then went to Korea, then came back to Aston Martin when it was owned by Ford and now is working for a company owned by a private equity group from the Mideast. He sounds like your usual corporate suit, but then you remember that this guy once headed up Porsche's racing department, developed the 911 Turbo, Carrera RS 2.7, 968 and 993 models during his tenure at Porsche and followed that up with the design of the Z1 at BMW. How many other CEOs do you know who have driven his product in the Nürburgring 24-hour endurance race?
And it was the well-traveled road warrior Bez who suggested Valencia as the site of the 2011 Aston Martin Rapide's introduction. Bez likes the twisting mountain roads as well as the area's innovative architecture, because he believes that Aston Martin offers a similar blend of leading-edge ideas mixed with Old World tradition.
So we found ourselves not in a stuffy conference room but instead in the basement of a local jewelry maker, where the jewellike ignition keys of the Rapide test cars were kept in safety deposit boxes. With the key now in our hands, we traveled to the parking lot of Valencia's stunning City of Arts and Sciences — a complex of museum, planetarium and opera designed by Santiago Calatrava. Part of the center resembles the bleached skeleton of a gigantic prehistoric whale, while another building resembles an equally gargantuan caricature of Darth Vader's headgear.
The Show Goes On
Marek Reichman, head of Aston Martin design, took over our introduction to the Rapide with a breezy run through the styling, pointing out the new headlamps. The sweeping arc of light flows into a line sculpted along the entire length of the aluminum, magnesium alloy and composite-paneled bodywork and then wraps itself along the top edge of the trunk. Reichman designs his cars to "invite you to touch them" and that are "fun to wash."
The classic Aston Martin side strake is extended toward the leading edge of the rear door and the door sills extend closer to the ground. When combined with 20-inch wheels, the overall effect is a low-slung stance that takes your eye away from the extra set of doors, enhancing the Rapide's coupelike appearance despite the fact that it sits on a wheelbase that's 12.2 inches longer than the Aston Martin DB9.
More visual deception comes in the form of the side window glass that Ian Minards, product development director, describes as a "sheet of glass along the side of the car." There's no interruption in the surface, because the B-pillar resides completely behind the pillarless glass. Aston Martin describes these as "swan-wing doors," as they swing up and out to ease entry and exit.
The Rapide chassis is based on Aston Martin's customary VH architecture of extruded bonded aluminum, but it is all-new from the bulkhead rearward according to Minards. "It's not simply a stretched DB9," he says. A new rear subframe houses a new fuel tank and is the foundation for the folding rear seats and relatively roomy storage area of 10.6 cubic feet behind them.
While Minards is presenting the technical rundown, Bez has gotten into the driver seat and turned up the standard 1,000-watt, 15-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system. He just can't help himself. "Let them touch the car," he says excitedly, acting more like a kid with a new toy than a nervous CEO.
Beauty Is as Beauty Does
Our first ride in the Rapide is not in the driver seat but in one of the cozy rear bucket seats. Getting in and out is a bit of a squeeze for anyone over 6-foot-even, but once inside there is sufficient legroom, though 30.1 inches doesn't sound like a lot. It is not claustrophobic since there are 36.8 inches of rear headroom, but other than the surrounding materials and individual temperature control, it's more like economy class than business class.
We liked being up front in the driver seat much better. With the 470-horsepower 6.0-liter V12 (well, 5.9 liters, but who's counting) V12 mounted aft of the front axle and a rear-mounted, six-speed automatic transaxle, the weight distribution is 51 percent front/49 percent rear, so the Rapide behaves more like a sports car than a 4,299-pound four-door on a wheelbase of 117.7 inches. Thanks to responsive steering that gives excellent feedback, the Rapide drives as if it's much smaller than it is. Certainly you'd never guess that it measures 197.6 inches overall.
With two-stage adaptive damping and a Sport mode that provides more aggressive throttle response and gearchanges, the Rapide is as good on twisty mountain roads as it is on high-speed motorways. The longer wheelbase not only makes for a better ride, but also encourages attacks on corners in a boy racer style that would have the Aston Martin DBS nervously wagging its tail.
Aston is looking into an eight-speed transmission, but the Rapide's ZF-built transaxle deftly doled out the V12's 443 pound-feet of torque whether in full automatic or via the shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel.
The engine noise is muted, as you would expect in a luxury four-seater, but still sounds satisfyingly sporty when your foot is planted. Aston quotes zero to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds and that feels about right.
The Four-Door Sports Car
The 2011 Aston Martin Rapide is as fun to be seen in as it is to drive. You have to look hard to notice the extra doors, while its gorgeous proportions drew waves and raves from little boys of all ages throughout our drive in Spain.
In comparison, the Mercedes-Benz CLS is not as sporty and its styling impact diminishes daily. The Maserati Quattroporte is a beauty, but lacks the performance. The Porsche Panamera offers more hard-edged performance, but, well, just look at it.
With a base price of $199,950 and only roughly 500 cars expected annually for U.S. delivery, the 2011 Aston Martin Rapide is obviously not for everyone. But it is significant for Aston Martin because it is the best-looking and all-around best-driving car it offers.
Dr. Ulrich Bez has taken Aston Martin from a good idea to a serious, performance-minded player on the boutique car scene. With the interest that is bound to be aroused by the Rapide, perhaps Aston Martin can become a serious money-making machine, too.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report, which originally appeared on insideline.com.