Automaker apps are a dime-a-dozen. But unless you're shopping for a new car or a hyper-obsessive brand devotee, they're about as entertaining as a trip to the service department. So when Aston Martin put out its Experience iPhone app, we weren't entirely enthused. Nor were we ready to shell out $5.99 for another me-too marketing ploy. But then we took a closer look.
In addition to the standard model listings and engine/exhaust sound player (surprise! the One-77 doesn't sound as sweet through a puny set of phone speakers), Aston upped the app game by including a video function that can record your drive, a telemetry display that shows your speed and Gs, and a database of the world's best roads. That last part sold us.
So we called up the crew from Aston and made a pitch. Let us test out the app on one of the routes in North America. All you have to do is supply the car. Two weeks later, Autoblog Director of Photography Drew Phillips and I are blasting up the Pacific Coast Highway in the world's largest iPhone accessory: A 2011 Aston Martin Rapide.
Admittedly, the road database is on the small side in the States. As someone who came of licensing age in the backroad bonanza that is Northern California, the omission of any of my favorite mountain climbs was mildly offensive. But expect the same throughout the country. Of the 30+ routes, Aston has only included two (two!) roads in North America. One is the Overseas Highway that stretches across the Florida Keys (hardly a driving mecca) and the other is a circuitous route that runs up and around Southern California's stretch of Highway 1. Naturally, we opt for the latter. But if you're across the pond, Aston recommends a host of roads in Switzerland (the Furka Pass from Goldfinger), France ( LeMans, Monte Carlo and the DBS Launch route) and the UK (natch), among others.
We decide to follow Aston's route and stopovers to the T, beginning with a late breakfast at Shutters On The Beach, a stone's throw away from Santa Monica Pier.
After I enjoy an over-priced Eggs Benedict while starring longingly at Drew's French Dip, we set out north on an uncharacteristically traffic-free Highway 1. The app doesn't provide turn-by-turn directions, opting for an embedded (and slightly small) Google Map of the route and a list of 17 waypoints. This means that memorizing turns and briefly glancing at your iPhone makes navigating a chore, but it gets the job done. Just don't tell Lord LaHood.
The Rapide, on the other hand, is damn-near faultless. Being a stretched DB9, it plays the part of elongated GT to perfection on this particular stretch of 1, with the additional wheelbase providing a few extra ounces of sure-footedness when stretching deep into the center of the speedo.
Parrot MiniKit SmartIf you're curious about the mount we used during our test, it's the Parrot MiniKit Smart. We've been testing the setup in a variety of vehicles for the last month and it's one of the slickest (and priciest) mounts out there.
For $129.99, you get integrated charging, Bluetooth connectivity and voice recognition (on compatible Android phones). Aside from being one of the sturdiest universal mounts we've tested, it's also equipped with some indispensable features. Audio for calls and turn-by-turn directions are wirelessly transmitted to the MiniKit's speaker, easily outshining the underpowered speakers on your smartphone. And with a microphone built in to the bottom of the cradle, it's the perfect solution for hands-free calling sans a Bluetooth headset.
How much do we like it? We're placing an order right now...
The next stopover is the King Gillette Ranch, a 588-acre park that LAMountains.com calls "a rare unspoiled view of California's rich archeological, cultural and historic resources, including a Chumash settlement, and nationally significant structures designed for razor magnate King C. Gillette in the 1920's by Wallace Neff, architect of California's Golden Age." We don't care and leave a few minutes later. After all, there's a stretch of Mulholland I've never driven but am assured is one of the best bits along this historic route.
Drew insists we stop by the Paramount Ranch before we get deeper into the twists, and anyone who's a Westerns nut should do the same. The Ranch has played host to dozens of films, ranging from The Cisco Kid to a few of director Cecil B. Demille's flicks, not to mention being the set of 1957's The Devil's Hairpin – a year after the Paramount track was closed following three fatal crashes. Drew snaps a few shots and we head out, ready for a cool beverage before getting back to business.
The Rock Store is the traditional stopover for drivers and bikers on the weekend, but only being open Friday through Sunday means we've got to find something to drink down the road (we chose a Thursday test to avoid the weekend melee). The Rustin Canyon General Store and Grille fits the bill, but only after a half-dozen bike-straddling California Highway Patrol officers move out in unison from the parking lot. When we get back in the car with beverages in tow, we're reminded that European luxury automakers do many things well. Cupholders aren't one of them.
So, with Gatorade wedged between seat bolster and seatbelt latch, we finally head back onto Mulholland, which turns into Encinal Canyon Road before the app instructs us to make a right then quick left onto Decker Canyon. It's narrow. And twisty. And the Rapide is outside its element.
With dozens of switchbacks, blind curves and perilous drop-offs, the grand touring flavor of the Rapide isn't quite suited to the road. It drives like a big DB9 – predictably – and while there's nothing wrong with that on the open road or across high-speed sweepers, Decker Canyon would be better served by something from another British brand. But despite this, we're having a blast. I drop Drew off at the ledge of one majestic 180-degree right-hander so he can get a few pics and I can treat the Rapide like a freshly-licensed teen would his father's car. He gets the shots. I get a Clarkson-sized handful of opposite lock. Fun all around.
We continue heading south on Decker and finally meet back up with Highway One. The Rapide is instantly back in its element. The finger-stretching length between the paddle shifters and the steering wheel suddenly feels natural; the small indent at 12 o'clock on the back side of the steering wheel, reassuring; and that V12, its thrust constantly playing second fiddle to the exhaust note banging off the multi-million-dollar beach fronts, sounds crafted from God's own garage. Right next to mid-summer thunder and the rumble of Icelandic volcanos.
Our final stop off is at the Malibu Beach Inn, where Drew and I enjoy a duo of $18 cocktails and the best barbecue shrimp quesadilla Southern California has to offer. Hey, it's the Aston lifestyle and when in Rome – and driving a Rapide – you're inclined to splurge.
After dropping Drew back off at his car and heading to the hotel, I realize I left my Amex at the Inn. Irritation turns into a sense of opportunity – both to take another trek in the Rapide and to test out the telemetry app and give the video recorder a spin. In the interest of avoiding self-incrimination, I'll just say that both work as advertised, albeit a bit buggy.
Avoid the pricy drinks and the tasty crustaceans, and $5.99 for a guided tour of one of SoCal's famed roads seems like a bargain. Sure, enjoying them in a $180,000 Aston obviously isn't a requirement, but it makes the trip that much more memorable. More importantly, one lone web geek in Gaydon developed the Aston Martin Experience app himself, putting the driving front and center, and doing something nearly every automaker can't quite seem to pull off: making an iPhone app that doesn't suck.
NOTE: Aston Martin is well-aware that its app is lacking for North American roads. And their team wants to rectify that. Leave you favorite routes in the comments and we'll be working with Aston's team to give the app new routes, roads and waypoints in future updates.