Aston Martin Rapide

It might not look like it, or sound like it, but the new Aston Martin Rapide could be a classy five-door family hatchback

Will I fit in the back? There is no bigger question than this for Aston Martin's new Rapide. It can have the greatest performance delivered with the most spine-tingling sounds, it can meld svelte looks with stupendous dynamic abilities – but if the rear seats are uninhabitable then the whole enterprise will have been pointless. You might as well have a DB9 instead.

Back in 2006, I drove, and sat in the back of, the concept car that led to today's Rapide. Sat? Cowered, more like, with my knees under my chin and my shoulders crushed. The rear seats' backrests were vertical, the roofline ran where my head needed to be, and the rear passenger doors were at least a foot thick thanks to the divergence of the concept Rapide's lower body and its glazed section. If the designers can make this a usable four-seater, I thought, they will next be creating wine from water.

The wine in our Valencia tapas bar the night before my drive in the "real" Rapide may or may not have been the product of such a miracle, but my ride to the bar in the back of a new Rapide was enough. Were I female and wrapped in clothes terminating above the knee, my exit would have been indecorous. My feet had trouble finding a relaxing resting place, too. Otherwise, it works. Aston Martin design chief Marek Reichmann, over 6ft tall, says he fits in easily here, but then he would hardly say otherwise.

What, then, is the secret of the extra space? First, the roofline has been raised by two inches. Second, the "glasshouse" is a little wider at the rear, so the doors are less thick and rear occupants have room to move. You might expect claustrophobia in here, but the way the front seats' backrests taper makes it easy for those in the back to see what is happening ahead.

A hefty central armrest and storage box separates the rear seats. Leather T-shaped straps on the centre pillars help ingress and egress; concealed magnets in the pillars to stop the straps swinging when not in use. The top sections of the rear backrests fold forward and flat to extend the high floor of the boot, beneath which the fuel tank straddles the central chassis like a saddle. The bulkhead between boot and passenger space, held in place by more magnets, folds down out of the way if needed. There is a rear tailgate rather than a bootlid so, prosaic as it sounds, the Rapide is a five-door family hatchback.

All the more remarkable, then, that it still looks like an Aston Martin grand tourer. For, in essence, the Rapide is an extended DB9 with a restyled nose (an extra grille below the main one) and tail (number plate now set in the bumper) plus further modifications to suit. These include bigger brakes, stronger suspension joints, and a higher-geared steering rack to bring back the speed of response that the lengthened wheelbase took away.

Time to move from the back seat to the front. As I open the driver's door I observe what Aston describes as the "window choreography". All four doors are frameless, and front and rear window glasses meet in the middle. This means they drop a little when you pull the handle, to release them from the seals, and also jink sideways to release them from each other.

Now I'm in a cabin which, here in the front, is much like a DB9's apart from a new electric parking brake and windscreen pillars thickened to the extent that they badly impede vision. US roof-crush tests are to blame. Press the D (for Drive) button – all Rapides are six-speed automatics – and we're off. The 5.9-litre, 477bhp, V12 engine sounds as magnificent as ever, cultured when ambling and aurally fiery when roused. It needs to be revved to give its best, but that is a pleasure in itself. A Sport button sharpens the accelerator response and the gearshift's actions, including manual control via a pair of paddles with automatic throttle-blips to smooth the downshifts, and it suits the Rapide so well there's little reason to drive it any other way.

Not so the Sport setting for the adaptive dampers. In the Aston Martin DBS, this practically locks the suspension solid. That doesn't happen in the Rapide, but short of a smooth racetrack there's no terrain where Sport makes things better. Left to normality, the suspension's as taut as it needs to be and as supple as it should be.

Thus set, in fact, the Rapide turns out to have the most fluent ride, the most natural handling, and the most progressive-feeling steering of all current Aston Martins. Thick pillars apart, it's a joy to drive. And now the whole family can share the pleasure, for a mere £139,950.

The Rivals

Jaguar XFR: £62,055

Under half the price, more power and lower CO2 from supercharged V8, wonderful cabin and a great driving experience. Just not as exotic as a Rapide.

Maserati Quattroporte GTS: £91,810.

Rear passengers have proper space here, and this fastest QP does looks and luxury in a very Italian way. Needs to be driven hard to give its best.

Porsche Panamera Turbo: £95,298.

V8 uses twin turbos; rear space is cosy but greater than Rapide's. Has 4WD, is a technological showcase, but slightly soulless and no beauty.