Wonka’s Golden Ticket.
Fall through the looking glass, pass through the wardrobe, hit all the buttons in the Wonkavator, or take the Hogwarts Express one stop past the wizard school and there’s Aston Martin’s updated, five-door Rapide S sports car. It’s engineered for an alternate reality where up is left, down is sideways, rabbits wear top hats, and four-door exotic sports cars are the norm.
It’s an inverted universe where practicality is a burden, beauty always trumps convenience, and a 550-hp 5.9-liter V-12 is considered reasonable and ordinary. The car is a pain in the ass, and wonderful for it.
First seen as a concept back in 2006, the Rapide is an uncompromised sculpture. It’s a dramatic sliver of a car, with a windshield so brutally raked that it’s impossible to see some overhead traffic lights from the driver’s seat, and a fastback roof that would have even Bilbo Baggins ducking to get in through the rear doors. But when it entered production back in 2010 and promptly became sales-proof, the big complaint was that it wasn’t quick enough. In Narnia, 470 horsepower may seem like a lot, but in Car and Driver’s world, that left the regular old Rapide behind muggle-spec competitors like the bulbous Porsche Panamera Turbo S. And Aston’s claimed 5.0-second zero-to-60-mph performance? Nowadays, five seconds is enough time to conquer Middle-earth.
So Aston has rewritten the Rapide fable with the version of the company’s latest AM11 V-12 that debuted in the new Vanquish. The revised block is stuffed with a new crank and capped by new cylinder heads with variable timing on both the intake and exhaust cams and a new “big wing” intake manifold breathing in through 0.2-inch-larger throttle bodies. The re-machined combustion chambers flow better with a slightly increased compression ratio. All that thumps output up to 550 horsepower at a screaming 6750 rpm and 457 pound-feet of peak torque at 5000 rpm with, Aston asserts, significantly better torque production below 4000 rpm. There are no turbos, no superchargers, and no dark arts involved.
To deal with European pedestrian-protection standards, Aston has mounted the engine 0.8 inch lower in its bay while redesigning the front grille and hood. Throw in LED lighting and 20-inch wheels inside 245/35ZR-20 front and 295/30ZR-20 rear Bridgestone tires, and this is a car that visually punches its own Golden Ticket. That noted, what remains virtually unchanged is Aston’s glue- and rivet-bonded aluminum space-frame architecture, and the rear-mounted six-speed automatic transaxle.
Though the Rapide S has a long, 117.7-inch wheelbase—8.4 inches longer than a Honda Accord sedan’s—the door openings are puny and the roof very low. It’s easier to get onto King’s Cross Platform 9 3/4 bound for Hogwarts than it is to enter the Rapide with one’s dignity intact. It’s an ergonomic wonderland in there, too, with seatbelt anchors sunk down into the seats, seat-adjustment controls mounted on the center tunnel, and narrow footwells. And it’s nearly impossible to see out the back.
But start the beast, and the V-12 roars awake like Aslan the Great Lion. It’s a glorious sound that wipes away the Rapide’s deficits. There’s a fine and fancy Bang & Olufsen sound system aboard, but it’s almost criminal to turn it on.
The transmission is controlled by big, round buttons on the center stack that seem to be ripped right off an early 1960s Otis elevator. Put the rear-drive Rapide S in D, and the acceleration is soft and unexciting as the transmission shifts along lazily. But use the shift paddles behind the steering wheel, and the car realigns itself with the fantasy promised by its styling. It thunders to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds and rips down the quarter-mile in 13.1 seconds at 111 mph. That, however, is still well behind the all-wheel-drive Panamera Turbo S, which makes it to 60 mph in an insane 3.3 seconds and runs the quarter in 11.5 seconds at 122 mph.
But there’s a fundamental difference in character here. The $176,275 Panamera is a grunting, turbocharged tetrapod engorged with low-end torque. It’s so hyper-competent that the driver sometimes feels as if he’s only along for the ride. In contrast, the Rapide S needs to be worked, to be revved hard and let loose to run near its redline. It may not carry as much thrust as the quickest Panamera, but it produces an almost unparalleled sensation of speed.
Thus, reducing the Rapide S down to performance numbers misses the point. Like a British fantasy tale, this is a car girded for the adventure of arriving and the thrill of leaving. It means feeling a shudder when you hear it approaching, gaping as the doors swing up, and getting goose bumps as the engine growls to life.
Yeah, the driver can feel the Rapide’s structure twist a bit when cornering. It helps to be an elf if you want to be comfortable in the back, and the ride is brutal if the shocks are left in sport mode. And prices start at $202,775 before hitting Aston’s rich options catalog, which means only a veteran Quidditch pro with a fat contract could afford one.
And so far, those are the only people who are buying the Rapide. With the changes, perhaps Aston will find a few more ordinary mortals to fill the seats.