Three years ago, almost to the day, we slid behind the wheel of the all-new Aston Martin Rapide for the very first time.
After unabashedly calling it "the world's best-looking four-door sedan" – a statement that is as accurate today as it was in 2010 – we piloted the Aston Martin on a meandering route from Miami to our final destination in Palm Beach.
Our conclusion, at the end of a very long day, was that British automaker had built a peerless sedan cleverly disguised as a coupe, and it offered more accommodation and utility than anything else in the automaker's two-door lineup. With that as its primary mission objective, it excelled. However, in terms of overall performance, our realization was that it fell short.
Enter the Aston Martin Rapide S, a thoroughly refreshed sedan that appears, at first glance, to have addressed our very frustrated concern.
Unveiled at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show, the Aston Martin Rapide is built on the automaker's familiar VH platform, shared with everything from the entry-level Vantage to the range-topping Vanquish. Like its siblings, the sedan also boasts aerospace manufacturing techniques, which means the automaker starts with a very stiff bonded aluminum chassis and then covers it with composite, aluminum and steel body panels.
It has emerged extensively upgraded enough to wear the almighty "S" badge.
After completely skipping the 2013 model year, the Rapide has emerged extensively upgraded for its 2014 presentation, significantly enough for it to emerge wearing the almighty "S" badge.
The original Rapide, introduced as a new-for-2010 model, was fitted with the automaker's hand-assembled all-alloy 48-valve "6.0" V12. With a displacement of 5.9 liters (5,935 cc), the naturally aspirated engine was rated at 470 horsepower (at 6,000 rpm) and 443 lb-ft of torque (at 5,000 rpm). A carbon-fiber propeller shaft sent power to a mid-mounted Touchtronic 2 transmission, the Aston's electronically controlled six-speed automatic, and then to the rear wheels through a standard limited-slip differential.
The Rapide S has quite a bit more muscle now, 80 more horsepower to be exact, thanks to the fitment of the "AM11" engine. Shared with the Vanquish, this reworked powerplant has been upgraded with larger throttle bodies, a revised intake manifold, dual variable valve timing, an improved fuel pump, CNC-machined combustion chambers and hollow camshafts. The result is 550 horsepower at 6,750 rpm and 457 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm (eagle-eyed readers will note the horsepower is down slightly when compared to the Vanquish, but the torque peak is hit earlier). The six-speed Touchtronic 2 automatic is retained, as is the limited slip differential, but both have been recalibrated to the new powerplant.
There's quite a bit more muscle now, 80 more horsepower to be exact.
Aston Martin has announced that the Rapide S, with a curb weight of 4,387 pounds, will now accelerate to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds (about half-a-second quicker than its predecessor) and hit a maximum velocity of 190 mph.
But the Rapide S is more than just an engine upgrade, as the automaker has gone through many areas of the vehicle to improve performance and luxury.
As expected, the Rapide S features an independent double-wishbone suspension with a standard Adaptive Damping System (ADS) that automatically adjusts the suspension settings based on road conditions and driver input. Compared to its predecessor's two-mode system, the ADS has been enhanced to three modes (Normal, Sport and Track). The brakes are six-piston calipers up front, with four-piston calipers in the rear, clamping down on slotted steel rotors. Like the Rapide, the Rapide S wears staggered Bridgestone Potenzas (245/40R20 front and 295/35R20 rear) wrapped around 20-inch alloys.
With the exception of the wheels, most all of the aforementioned goodies are invisible to the naked eye, but that isn't the case with its new appearance.
The broad new face is part of a comprehensive redesign to meet stringent European crash standards.
The British have resculpted the front and rear of the Rapide S to better aerodynamics, alter its aesthetics and improve safety. The larger "ducktail" aft of the rear hatch reduces lift at speed, improving high speed stability and grip. The new front grille, however, is much more complicated.
The broad new face is part of a comprehensive redesign to meet stringent European pedestrian crash standards while retaining the automaker's traditional manufacturing technique. Instead of going with a urethane front end, like most in the industry, Aston's patent-pending design features a "keystone" construction that enables the grille to move rearward in an impact, absorbing energy, thus allowing it to retain the aluminum hood. It is also interesting to learn that the engine itself has been dropped nearly three-quarters of an inch inside its bay. This allows more deformation of the hood, in terms of pedestrian safety, plus it provides an added benefit of lowering the overall center of gravity to improve handling.
Aston Martin has improved the luxury and sport quotient with optional packages. To enhance the cabin, customers may choose the Piano Black interior package (black mirror-like instrument panel, transmission tunnel center plate and door handles) and headliners in tan or gray. Unlike our solid black upholstery with contrasting red stitching, customers may also opt for the optional Duotone perforated leather in red and black. The Rapide S is also offered with a reverse camera and a twin screen rear entertainment system, both fitted to our tester. A Carbon Fiber Exterior package (adding the woven composite front lower splitter, mirror caps, tail lamp surrounds and lower rear valence) adds a sporty touch. Those who find the standard options list too restricted may opt for the "Q by Aston Martin" bespoke treatment – designers will do just about anything your check book requests.
The $64,000 question – no, make that a $200,000 question – is whether or not the updated and upgraded Rapide S has the chops to take on the Bentley Continental Flying Spur, its closest competitor that has also recently been extensively redesigned.
We've yet to drive the new Flying Spur, so considering just the current model, after a few days running Rapide S through its paces in our own Southern California backyard, we can answer that question with an emphatic yes. We'll known soon enough if that answer holds up.
Aesthetically speaking, everyone we spoke to had nothing but positive comments to say about the Rapide's new appearance and we couldn't agree more. Most live shots from the Geneva Motor Show made its new eight-slat grille look oversized and ungainly, but in person the aluminum grin is both aggressive and menacing. Same with the rear spoiler, with its more pronounced flip, as it smartly ends the smooth line that flows from the nose of the sedan to its tail. Interestingly enough, this was the first time we really noticed that Aston Martin has hidden the blackened B-pillars behind glass. It's a clever execution that tricks many observers, upon first glance, into thinking they are looking at a coupe.
Everyone we spoke to had nothing but positive comments to say about the Rapide's new appearance.
We have always found the cockpit of the Rapide to be extremely upscale, but ergonomically challenged. The Rapid S does nothing to alter those impressions. Switchgear, in glistening glass and brushed aluminum, is wonderful to touch and actuate... once you actually find it (we had fun filling our wallets by betting those unfamiliar with the sedan five bucks that they couldn't turn on the overhead reading lamps within 30 seconds). Nevertheless, most of the oddly placed switchgear we initially cursed became second nature to our hands after a couple of days.
The rear seats aren't as restrictive as they first appear. We put both kids and adults back there, and all seemed to find the cushions and backrest first rate even if knee and legroom were, ahem... challenging. Dropping the rear seatbacks effectively adds a large amount of rear storage, all accessible through the hatchback, but we found the need to throw a thick blanket down to protect the leather on the shoulders of the seats when we filled the trunk with lacrosse gear.
The most drastic improvement was found precisely where we begged it to be: under the hood.
But the most drastic improvement was found precisely where we begged it to be: under the hood.
Adding 80 horsepower to any street car's resume does nothing but marvelous things, and the Rapide S is no exception. The V12 snarls at start-up and delivers a throaty roar under full throttle. The Rapide was never a slouch, but it always seemed to leave the driver wanting just a bit more kick in the tailbone. The Rapide S provides a nice boot to the backside, as 550 horsepower moves the four-door every bit as fast as its sleek appearance suggests.
The 5.9-liter is old-school in its power delivery, and it enjoys visiting the upper ranges of its tachometer as often as possible. Torque down low is more than adequate, but the power really starts to come on strong when it passes about 3,500 rpm. The accompanying sound is intoxicating (watch the Short Cut above for a taste).
We saw the on-board computer register nearly 20 miles per gallon during a few of our longer drives.
While most will leave the Touchtronic 2 transmission in its default "D" setting with standard shift logic, we toggled the "Sport" button to allow higher engine speeds before shifts and to keep the twelve-cylinder engine out of its tall sixth gear (kudos to Aston Martin for allowing the button to stay in its last setting even after the sedan is restarted). The column-mounted paddle shifters proved entertaining, but we found the engine was so smooth and willing to spin that we would often miss the upshifts and annoyingly hit the fuel cutoff. Instead, we used the paddles to drop gears for deceleration, as the engine braking on the 5.9-liter was substantial. Of course, driving like this meant fuel economy suffered around town. More out of curiosity than anything else, we shut off Sport mode on the highway and saw the on-board computer register nearly 20 miles per gallon during a few of our longer drives. Not bad for a V12.
Aston Martin has enhanced the adaptive suspension, but we were challenged to tell a difference in the settings (we left it in its default setting most of the time). Regardless, the Rapide S handled astonishingly well, Even though there was a bit of body roll, the aluminum chassis settled immediately in corners and stuck tenaciously. A low center of gravity and meaty tires do wonders for cornering capabilities, and the multi-piston brakes pulled down the speed upon command. The biggest Aston Martin in the showroom is still a bundle of joy to drive.
The biggest Aston Martin in the showroom is still a bundle of joy to drive.
Of course driving impressions have never sold the big Brit - they may have been deemed unnecessary as the sexy four-door has always evoked heart palpitations just sitting still. Yet the updated Rapide S, boasting its 550 horsepower V12 and flashy new grille, changes the game. Owners no longer need to hide behind the sleek aluminum shell and watch as others leave it at the light. This year, the sedan's heart and soul is now every bit as engaging as its visual aura.