Maker Aston Martin calls the Rapid the most beautiful four-door car in the world.'The Rapide is a sports car', says Ulrich Bez, the chief executive of Aston Martin. Normally, he wouldn't feel the need for such emphasis: expensive, hand-crafted British sports cars are Aston's business. But the Â£140,000 Rapide is something new, the company's first four-door, four-seater car since the Lagonda of the 1970s. Bez doesn't want this car to be misunderstood. It is not a rival for the Bentley Continental Flying Spur or the uber-sedans from Mercedes, BMW and Audi and it differs fundamentally from its most obvious counterpart, the Porsche Panamera.
As Aston sees it, the Porsche was designed as a low-line car providing generous space for four adults and the body was shaped accordingly, hence its hump-backed look; the Rapide is an Aston Martin DB9 with more room for people and luggage but no compromise to its gorgeous, flowing style. Bez describes the Rapide as "the most beautiful four-door car in the world" and adds: "The proportions had to be perfect. If we couldn't have achieved this, we wouldn't have made it." So this is not a car for the part-time driver who likes to conduct business from the back seat. Neither is it suitable for making the grand entrance at a film premiere or society ball for a skirted lady (or a Scotsman) in context of modesty while emerging from the back.
The Rapide is a more versatile and more practical version of a traditional Aston. Unlike the DB9, the rear seats are comfortable for adults, providing the passengers are not too tall or bulky. The Rapide's rear doors hinge forward and slightly upwards and there has been extensive paring of the structure and trim around the seats to allow the maximum amount of space and ease of entry and exit. There is more room in the Panamera but the Rapide's rear passengers are cosier and also have better visibility due to higher seating position. I really appreciate the Rapide's stowage space and easy access through the rear hatch. A hinged divider located by magnetic catches separates the trunk from a generous space behind the rear seats. The backs of those seats can also be folded to extend the load area.
Technically, the Rapide is rather more than a DB9 extended by 30cm. The space required in the Rapide dictated a new rear subframe to support the transmission and rear suspension. The re-designed assembly saves weight and allows a larger (90-litre) fuel tank. Surprisingly, the over 5m in length Rapide is only 200kg heavier than the DB9. The Rapide has the same drive-line and suspension layout as the other Astons but it has been set up for slightly more gentle behaviour than the DB9 and DBS. It has variable dampers with two programmes, normal and sport, but unlike the DBS, both settings are usable. The steering is higher geared to aid the feeling of agility on a winding road. The brakes - which have a new kind of dual-cast steel and aluminium disc - are mighty effective but the pedal has a longer travel than in most sports cars. That makes for smoother progress in normal driving.
The 6-litre V12 engine is familiar and has the same power (474PS) and torque output as the latest DB9. The ubiquitous ZF six-speed automatic transmission is the only gearbox available. It works beautifully and allows manual operation from paddles behind the steering wheel. A facia switch marked Sport speeds up the automatic shifts and sharpens the throttle response. The effect is not as marked as in some other models, as Aston seeks to make the Rapide a more comfortable Grand Tourer while maintaining its sporting character.