It’s the most beautiful four-door sedan you can buy. It’s the Aston Martin Rapide, and for 2014 it’s gotten a new letter – the letter S. And that means… what, exactly? Is the Rapide S a thoroughly modern luxury four-door GT, or just the same, old crumpets? There's only one way to find out. Read on.
(Full Disclosure: Aston Martin wanted us to drive the Rapide S so bad, they flew me to Spain for a spirited drive on the twisty, narrow byways winding through Catalonia, toward France, in the shadow of the Pyrenees mountains. George Orwell would have been appalled.)
We all have our gripes. For some, it’s asshats who hog parking spaces. Others harbor a deep distrust of owls that manifests – in ten percent of the population – as outright owl hatred. Mine is the lack of Aston Martin Rapides on the nation’s highways. That and owls. Owls give me the creeps.
We could speculate why sales of the Rapide haven’t met Aston’s expectations – compromised interior usability, intense competition from cheaper offerings. But really, the only ones who should be thrilled at the lack of Rapides in the wild are all other carmakers, whose vehicles appear clumsy and overwrought by comparison.
Surely, the Rapide, Aston Martin’s four-door, four-seat GT, should have a wider following. It’s the most gracefully styled four-door luxury car currently on sale, its engine sounds like stars being born, and it has a curbside presence that makes schoolchildren gather, then go supernova with excitement at the bark of the V12.
That bodes well for the Rapide S, and car enthusiasm in general among the younger generation – always a concern among the frequently-concerned – assuming cars like the Rapide S that can excite and delight the young masses still find an audience among those who can afford to buy them.
And so, here we are having a look at how the new Rapide S differs from the Rapide-no-S that precedes it. Mainly, the new parcel comprises incremental improvements that give an already good car a wider dynamic range on the road, and also some new drama on the outside.
First, there’s 80 more horsepower and 14 more torques than previously. More notable than the amount of torque is where it’s made – lower in the rev range, giving it a bit more attack than the non-S Rapide had. Second, like the recent Vanquish, the adaptive dampers from Bilstein now get a third, firmer setting. That is, “track,” which generally is too firm for most road use. But with “normal” mode now more compliant, overall ride quality has been improved considerably, with the “sport” setting now just about perfect for most standard-issue corner-carving on public roads.
The changes also involve cosmetics, and the front end is where most controversy lies. The Rapide S’s monumental grille appears far more dominant without a bumper splitting it in two, as it was on the previous Rapide. Whether or not you find the new, wide-opening trellis needlessly demonstrative depends on whether or not you’ve just wandered into traffic.
You see, the goal here was to satisfy European laws demanding that, whilst careening into a pedestrian at a great rate of speed, one must provide the softest landing possible. Solving that problem, and retaining visual impact, meant creating a new structural assembly such that the grille now pushes backward to absorb the impact with a pair of human legs at 40 mph. The aluminum hood itself – now separated from the top of the engine by an extra 19mm – will more readily yield to a fast-moving human head, rather than crushing it like one of Gallagher’s melons.
The result is, an errant streetwalker will still receive destructive automotive force, but the results should be a bit closer to being gently lifted up and deposited, cocktail in hand, atop a silken hammock in the South of France. Just a bit.
For you, however, it means never seeing another front clip like the Jaguar XKE’s (or even the XK8’s) that could probably cut a pedestrian clean in half, which is a big no-no these days.
But the bottom line on the Rapide S – compared to its very tempting lower-priced rivals – is how it drives and how it feels to drive. How sharp and full of tactility its single-mode steering is; how well and accurately it turns – despite its size and width – how it seems about a foot shorter than it is, even on European B-roads designed with the Fiat Topolino in mind.
All that, plus the touch of a proper, hand-made interior. Granted, it’s an interior that demands everyone on board find comfort in snug spaces. Like baby owls. Sure, there are cars in the Rapide S’s class that are cheaper, that look better on the spec sheet, and that offer more stuff for the money. But few of those rivals make one feel as good as one does behind the wheel of the Rapide. You just have to decide whether that’s worth it.
But if Aston Martin can corral enough starry-eyed voluptuaries among the moneyed class to make the Rapide S a success, it will go a long way toward sweetening up the looks of our highways. Then, all we’d have to deal with, aside from ugly cars, are those goddamn owls.
The Rapide remains the most classically exciting-looking four-door car in the world, and may even be the best-resolved, visually, of all the current Aston Martin sexpots. Its proportions are roughly perfect – perhaps the least compromised of all modern car designs – and there are hundreds of pleasing angles and convergences on which to look, misty eyed.
That grille? It’s not bad, though it does tend to minimize the effect of some of the more subtle lines surrounding it. But it may, one day, save your life. For that it probably deserves the Red Cross award for public service. Also, there's a more pronounced rear deck-lid spoiler, better to keep the Rapide S stable at its new, 190 mph top speed, as well as attractive new optional 10-spoke wheels and carbon-fiber package. Otherwise, the looks carry over.
While the Rapide S generally provides a glorious experience inside, with supple materials and stunning, glass switchgear, its rear space remains hampered by an intrusive transaxle and driveline tunnel shrouded by a massive rear console. That means, sitting in a rear seat is probably a lot like what the first class cabin in NASA’s lunar module might be like, if there was one. You’re surrounded by beautiful, fragrant leather and good design, but it’s a snug fit, and certainly not for the claustrophobic.
The situation is better for cargo, which benefits from the Rapide S’s hatchback and fold-down rear seats, making this the most utility-minded Aston Martin you can buy.
Horsepower of the traditional Aston V12 – now in its "AM11" build, shared with the latest Vanquish – increases to 550 hp, and torque to 457 lb-ft, correcting earlier criticisms that the Rapide was under endowed. Tweaks to the intake manifold, a more robust fuel pump, throttle bodies with greater throughput, dual variable valve timing, CNC-machined combustion chambers and hollow cams comprise the updates.
The most notable result is an earlier torque peak – 29.5 lb-ft more torque between idle and 4,000 rpm and 36.9 lb-ft more at 2,500 rpm – which gives the Rapide S plenty of extra crackle to go with the snap and pop of its accurate, hydraulically-assisted steering and tight chassis setup.
Simple reportage here. Great feel and massive power to keep all 4,387 lbs in line. You get what you pay for.
In normal mode, the Rapide S rides even more deluxe than the previous Rapide, owing to the adaptive dampers being retuned for three modes rather than just two. The results speak for themselves while cruising – it’s compliant, but never feels slack or underdamped. That leaves sport mode better tuned for more aggro drives on harsh roadways, though track-mode damping is pretty strictly left to the smoothest of terrain.
Maybe the most alluring thing about the Rapide, other than its design is its handling dynamics. It starts with accurate, feedback-rich hydraulically-assisted steering, and continues through a handling profile in which the Rapide S feels smaller the more aggressively you push it. The length, width and prodigious weight fall away, leaving a big car you’d actually want to flog, if just because it reacts so well to it. It's a very agile, entertaining big car.
The ZF six-speed automatic may seem dated for a top-end luxury entry, but the controlling software does make the most of the gearing. Normal mode makes the most of the V12’s torque curve for smoothness, sport explores the rev range a bit more (while sharpening the throttle response and employing the exhaust bypass valve). In manual mode, shifts click off very quickly among torque-converter boxes.
The latest Bang & Olufsen Beosound is an excellent system. A more intuitive iPhone interface would go a long way toward delivering a more exclusive experience. Luckily, the sound of the AW11 V12 can be dialed higher in the mix by way of the bypass valve that activates in sport mode. A luxury car that'll let you blow your neighbor's ear drums out? That's a win.
The Garmin nav system is still sub par compared to systems from larger automakers – remember Aston's an independent these days – but the optional six-disk DVD changer and rear LCD screens give passengers something to do other than hang on for dear life while reaching for the Dramamine.
With a price starting around 200 grand, the Rapide S demands a buyer who can both appreciate its looks and driving dynamics, and obtain enough satisfaction with how special a well-sorted GT with a naturally aspirated V12 is to drive.
Otherwise, there are top-line offerings from other makes that come achingly close to the Rapide’s feature set for far less outlay, and as such, sticklers and "savvy shoppers" need not apply. Aston Martin buyers have always had to suspend their disbelief a bit at the hard numbers to get the most of their purchase. In return, they get to feel special, if not completely cutting-edge.
- Engine: 5.9-liter V12
- Power: 550 HP at 6,750 RPM/ 457 LB-FT at 5500 RPM
- Transmission: Six-Speed ZF Automatic
- 0-60 Time: 4.7 seconds
- Top Speed: 190 mph
- Drivetrain: Rear-Wheel Drive
- Curb Weight: 4,387 LBS (1,990 KG)
- Seating: 4 people
- MPG: 13.2 City/28 Highway/19.9 Combined (EU test cycle)
- MSRP: $199,950 + $2,815 dest. (n/a as tested)