Dream machine: Has Aston go the nerve to build its Rapide?

Aston Martin's latest concept car has the same template as the ultra-stylish DB4, and it's as smooth as you'd expect from James Bond's favourite brand. John Simister reports
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Like most small boys of the time, I really really wanted my father to have an Aston Martin DB4. The best he could manage was the Corgi model. But then Lagonda - like Aston Martin, part of the David Brown group - revealed its four-door Rapide saloon. A saloon! Maybe now we could have one, it being so practical and all.

We could not, sad to say. We could not afford to buy this virtual DB4 in a four-door suit, this encapsulation (to a six-year-old) of everything a saloon should be. Too bad: a Vauxhall Victor would have to do.

Now, Aston Martin (eschewing the Lagonda name as too confusing) is giving a new generation the chance of the same dream. Meet the Aston Martin Rapide, a virtual DB9 in a four-door suit. The name is the same as its 1961 forbear's; the similarity to its DB basis is much greater. Today's Rapide is a DB9 with an extra foot between the wheels, but there's rather more to it than that.

The Rapide looks like a production car. Almost. But it's a concept car, revealed last January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and conceived six months earlier when Aston Martin's design director, Marek Reichman, joined the company. It's the sort of concept car that's designed to show serious intent, and public response has so far been very positive.

It's also designed for a little Aston Martin trumpet-blowing, showing how versatile is the VH (vertical/horizontal) platform introduced with the DB9 and shrunk for the V8 Vantage. Built of extruded and cast aluminium, and variously riveted and bonded together, the VH can be made shorter, longer, narrower or wider as needed: it's the future of low-volume, high-prestige, specialist car manufacturing.

Aston Martin plays down the saloon aspect, preferring to see the Rapide as a four-door coupé. That's because sacrifices had to be made to keep the Aston style, part of which is a "greenhouse", which slopes and tapers towards the rear above broadening rear haunches that represent, says Reichman, the "powerhouse of delivery". So rear headroom is tight, shoulder room more so, and the rear doors are extravagantly thick at waist level - almost a foot. Elegant egress is elusive.

But it's bearable for short journeys. "The Rapide is designed for friends who want to go out together," says Reichman, "or for people who can tolerate a 45-minute ride to the airport." In fact, the Rapide's rear quarters look roomier than they are, helped by the light-coloured leather upholstery. There's also a lot of light coming from above.

It comes in through the roof, a giant polycarbonate sandwich containing thousands of LCD crystals that can alter from clear to translucent grey in an instant. So there's no headlining, which creates some much-needed extra headroom. There are also plenty of apertures to give an air of space. For example, the centre pillars are set well inboard of the interlocking, frameless side windows: "It allows a rear occupant to see through it and forward," explains Reichman.

His name leads you to expect an ancestry in Mitteleuropa, but Reichman is from Sheffield. He's worked for Ford in the US, and at BMW's Design Works studio in California before that, and started designing the Rapide even before he got to Aston Martin's ultra-modern factory in Gaydon, Warwickshire.

"We had two themes, one with an even longer wheelbase but this had the right balance. We signed off the exterior in August, the interior at the end of September, and built it completely in-house - six months from sketch to completion."

About 60 per cent of the Rapide's parts are common to the DB9, including V12 engine, six-speed ZF automatic gearbox and most of the front as far as the windscreen. Inside, it's DB9-meets-concept car: the dashboard is similar but contains a Jaeger-LeCoultre clock and knurled aluminium air-con controls, and the so-called shagreen leather panels in the seats and door trims are embossed with what looks like fish skin, complete with eyes whose positions are mirrored exactly on each side of the car.

The rear seats, separated by the tunnel that covers the combined gearbox and rear differential, can be folded down electrically. This creates a flat load floor, with access gained through a hatchback. Under the floor are playing cards, a chess set, a bottle of champagne and four glasses: concept-car fantasy.

But this is a concept car that works, as well it should. How well it works I'm finding out on the expanses of Gaydon's test tracks, driving it faster and further than any other journalist has done. It is interesting to see the Rapide in the open air instead of under motor-show spotlights; the curves are consistently lit, the future-retro-future shape flows from light to dark.

And now it's flowing along the road, speed curtailed because of the worry of unique concept-car parts falling off, engine revs limited to 3,000rpm. But there's enough residual urge in this 480bhp, 5.9-litre engine to give a taste of Rapide rapidity. It feels like a longer DB9, but what I hadn't expected is the DB9-with-attitude exhaust note and the ease with which the tail can be flicked out in a corner by the merest hint of an accelerator-foot flex.

It's great fun, but I suspect a production version would be calmer. It would need to make less road noise and have more supple suspension than the fidgety DB9; an edginess and aural backdrop on a par with Maserati's Quattroporte Sport GT (report soon) would be about right. There will also be Porsche's Panamera four-door to add to the rivals.

So I've driven the Rapide, felt its ambience, been ensnared by its looks. Will Aston Martin build it? A production car wouldn't have the carbonfibre panels, but they can be replicated in aluminium or steel. It might have the multi-LED headlights, but they need to be brighter. It could even have 20in wheels.

"We wanted to gauge reaction, and we've had a very positive response. It's not a dream, but based on reality. We want to build it - we just need to be sure of the business case," says Reichman.

With the DB9 costing more than £100,000, the Rapide will be expensive. But then again several people have cancelled orders for other cars in the hope they can have a Rapide. Case proven?

TWO DOORS GOOD, FOUR DOORS DARING

LAGONDA RAPIDE, 1961
The first Lagonda Rapide was a fine pre-war sports car. But a decade or so after the tractor magnate David Brown had acquired both Aston and Lagonda to create Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd, the company resurrected the Rapide name for a new four-door saloon powered by Aston's 4.0-litre straight-six. Its distinctive nose bore pairs of slanting headlights and a version of the upright Lagonda grille, and the whole entity was surely irresistible. But only 55 were sold between 1961 and 1964, and some at Aston Martin regarded it as an expensive red herring when the company should have been concentrating on meeting demand for DB4s.

ASTON MARTIN LAGONDA, 1974
In 1969, Sir David Brown (as he had become) had a four-door, long-wheelbase version of the then-new V8 version of the William Towns-styled DBS built, and named it Lagonda. It didn't go into production while he owned the company, but eventually did so in 1974 with a Lagonda-looking front grille. It was a handsome car but very few were sold - perhaps because Aston Martin Lagonda was having such a turbulent time staying in business.

LAGONDA, 1978
Crisp-edged, wedgy and futuristic, this last Lagonda model had cathode-ray instrumentation and myriad electronic features. It proved less than reliable and it is said that wealthy oil-sheikh buyers used to abandon them in the desert when they went wrong. A mid-1980s facelift softened the edges, but this was a troubled car. You can understand why Aston Martin is not keen to reintroduce the Lagonda name.

Search for used cars

Comments