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More doors bolster Aston

Blasphemy is running rampant in the auto industry. BMW is building mid-size hatchbacks. Porsche is making sedans from SUVs. Heck, even Mini is going to try to sell you a crossover.

Published February 6, 2010
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VALENCIA, Spain–Blasphemy is running rampant in the auto industry. BMW is building mid-size hatchbacks. Porsche is making sedans from SUVs. Heck, even Mini is going to try to sell you a crossover.

So when we got wind that Aston Martin – longtime maker of British sports cars and grand touring coupés – was introducing the Rapide, the brand’s first four-door since the 1991 Lagonda, our hackles were raised accordingly. Four years after the Rapide’s debut as a concept, though, Aston has stayed true to its “four-door sports car” ethos with the production version.

First things first: The 2011 Rapide is not the British brand’s response to Porsche’s Panamera. Or a “four-door coupé” cobbled together from sedan parts (Mercedes-Benz CLS, come on down!).

Instead, Aston’s approach is more along the lines of a Mazda RX-8 – a more accommodating 2+2 sports car with more doors – but, obviously, in a grander, more luxurious and higher performing package.

Porsche made obvious aesthetic compromises to make the Panamera as roomy as the BMW 7-series or Mercedes-Benz S Class. The Porsche isn’t exactly, um, gorgeous …

One look at the Rapide, though, and you can see Aston’s head pen, Marek Reichman, did the opposite. Especially when viewed from the rear, the Rapide won’t be confused as anything less than an Aston.

The Rapide arrives in Canada later this year, starting at $215,000; about $16,000 more than a DB9 2+2 Coupé, with which it shares many nuts and bolts. And like a $201,100 Bentley Continental GT or a $134,200 Maserati Quattroporte Sport GTS, it will be a rare commodity on our roads.

The plan is to eventually have Rapide make up about one-third of Aston’s global production.

“Before 2007, we would have expected to sell 3,000 to 4,000. But in today’s market, where some of our competitors are facing drops of up to 50 per cent in sales, we expect to sell 2,000 to 3,000 Rapides per year,” explained Aston Martin’s chief executive, Ulrich Bez.

Or about one-tenth of the Panameras Porsche hopes to sell annually.

You open the Rapide’s rear doors in the typically Aston butterfly fashion. The company readily admits the rear seats are only suitable for children, or adults out for an evening.

Designer Reichman is talented. But he’s no miracle worker. In real estate terms, sitting in the back is “cozy.”

“In Formula 1, they design the cars for the ultimate in performance. And if you don’t fit, well, you don’t drive the car,” said Bez in defence of the car’s tight rear quarters.

Regardless, the Rapide is way more spacious for those in the back than a DB9. I could fit in with my hair just brushing the headliner. The 301-litre hatch area is compact-car size. The twin rear seats, though, fold flat, increasing the carrying capacity to 750 litres for things like riding saddles or fox-hunting rifles. And, overall, Aston has ratcheted up the build quality a couple of notches over its current offerings.

There’s good reason Aston’s four-door looks like its two-door brethren. Although it’s about 300 millimetres longer, it shares many nuts and bolts with the DB9.

Under the hood is the coupé’s 6.0-litre V12, making 470 hp and 443 lb.-ft. of torque.

A six-speed automatic (there’s no manual gearbox available) with manual shifting via steering column-mounted paddles delivers power to the rear wheels.

Despite a 180 kg increase over the DB9 – now 1,950 kg – the Rapide will go from zero to 100 km/h in 5.2 seconds – only 0.2 of a second behind an autobox DB9.

And what of the automaker’s claims that its Rapide offers uncompromised sports-car handling?

The route Aston chose for the Rapide’s launch in and around the Spanish seaside city of Valencia hinted at the Rapide’s uncompromising road manners. Even along tight, twisty mountain roads that could qualify as tarmac rally stages, the Rapide didn’t disappoint.

For a car as long as a Chrysler 300, the Rapide is communicative and a delight to drive. Not only are its driving dynamics more sporting than a Continental GT or Quattroporte, in some regards, it’s a better car to drive than the five-year-older DB9.

Despite the added weight and length, Aston says the Rapide has the same torsional rigidity as the coupé it’s based on. The car’s rigid aluminum body and linear power delivery from the big V12 come to the fore after only a few klicks driving the four-door like, well, a sports car.

Through back-to-back esses, the four-door Aston is laser sharp and ballerina light on its feet, with the stability control system allowing just a titch of oversteer when exiting corners hard.

Yes, in full-on, take-no-prisoners driving mode, the Rapide will understeer. But a bit of trail braking will bring its bodacious rear end in line.

Hydraulically assisted, the steering is quicker than the DB9 to counter the Rapide’s longer wheelbase. It’s evenly weighted, smooth and accurate. And even with the rock-solid chassis, over bad pavement, kickback has been dampened.

Magnetically controlled dampers allow three settings: normal, sport and sport-plus. Regardless of which mode you’re in, the four-door Aston won’t rattle your teeth. Like all Astons, the Rapide’s ride is supple, yet tightly damped.

Smooth can also be used to describe the six-speed automatic.

It’s not one of those new-fangled dual-clutch setups. Left on its own, though, it responds quickly to down- and up-shifts. When using the paddles, the V12′s torque allows for quick cog swaps. And when you’re performing low-speed parking manoeuvres, there’s none of the jerkiness inherent in dual-clutch systems.

In fact, the Rapide’s chassis is so good – so balanced, so composed – experienced drivers may ask for more tire grip, downforce (the car gets light above 180 km/h) and power.

Aston officials wouldn’t say if a Rapide S is in the works. So, simply view the new Aston four-door as a “better 2+2.” And be thankful Aston’s been able to keep threats of automotive blasphemy at bay.

Travel for freelance writer John LeBlanc was provided by the automaker.editors@straight-six.com