DOES SPAIN HAVE the best roads in the world? That’s a question I’m seriously pondering as we head from the Costa Brava on an exhilarating six-hour journey into the Pyrenees and back. Under a blue and almost cloudless March sky and in golden Mediterranean sunlight, we’re driving up from the sea through a landscape that gently transitions from rolling farmland to deep valleys, and eventually into high pine forests as we almost reach the snow line. On tarmac so smooth it could easily host a Formula 1 race, we’re sweeping through scenery so beautiful it’s hard resisting the urge to stop, get out and admire each spectacular vista that rolls into view around almost every perfectly cambered corner.
Hard to resist, but by no means impossible, as our transport today is even more addictively compelling than the constantly unfolding loveliness of this especially fetching corner of Catalonia. We’ve been brought here to test the mettle of the latest offering from one of the world’s best-loved and most revered car companies – one that, by happy coincidence, is also celebrating its 100th anniversary this year – and that same automobile is turning out to be every bit as alluring, adrenalised and awesome as we’d hoped it would be.
Launched in March at the Geneva auto salon, the Aston Martin Rapide S is a reworking of the four-door, four-seater that first went on sale four years ago, when it looked as eye-wateringly gorgeous as every other recent car produced by the British-based brand. Ultimately, however, the Rapide failed to ignite sales with quite the ferocity that its long, sweeping and sensuous silhouette suggested it should, which is perhaps why they’ve gone back to the drawing board so soon. The result is this thoroughly revamped S, a car that shares much of the essence of its predecessor – indeed, as is the case with most Astons, it’s hard to tell them apart, in spite of subtle changes to the sheet metal – yet is nonetheless sufficiently different to be considered a brand new model.
At more than five metres long and 2.1 metres wide, the Rapide S is a big car by any reckoning, yet clever artistic sleight of hand – the side strake running from the front wheel arch to the forward end of the rear door, and those pronounced rear haunches – by design chief Marek Reichman has created a look that appears shorter, and infinitely more sporting and purposeful, than any similarsized limo. And though the distinctive Aston grille looks bigger than on the previous Rapide, the new car’s nose is actually lower, thanks to dropping the position of the 5.9-litre V12 engine in the chassis by 2cm. This not only helps bring the S into line with current European pedestrian-protection legislation, but also drops its centre of gravity even closer to the road.
Even the engine has been heavily revised. Dubbed the Rapide Gen 4 AM 11, this normally aspirated 12-pot boasts improved breathing and remapped software that together have contributed to sizeable increases in power and torque: the former is up by 17 percent to 550bhp, while the latter now peaks at 620Nm (compared with the previous 600, and with an extra 50Nm torque at 2,500rpm). That, of course, means greater performance, with maximum speed now touching 305km/h and 0-100km/h acceleration in less than five seconds – eminently respectable numbers for a 2-tonne vehicle and easily fast enough for me, if not quite as rapid as, say, a top-end Panamera.
If there’s a weak link here at all it’s probably the six-speed autobox, which though commendably smooth isn’t as lightning-fast through the changes as a more modern set-up. Hitting the Sport button or the paddle shifters definitely sharpens things up, but doesn’t hide the fact that the S could do with at least another ratio, as well as a proper dual-clutch mechanism. That said, the rear-mounted transmission endows the car with 48:52 front:rear weight distribution, which promises to deliver superb handling.
Taken together, though, the changes to the Rapide mean that Aston can now credibly position the S more as a super grand tourer – or even a luxury sports car that happens to have four doors – than as an extremely costly family car with sporting characteristics. I just can’t wait to put it to the test on our 300km jaunt through northern Spain.
Prior to the programme, the AM people have put their heads together with the local constabulary and agreed on a bargain that should keep everyone smiling. The cops have kindly divulged the locations of every speed trap along our route; so long as we obey the limit while passing these – as well, of course, as following a similar procedure through built-up areas – they’re content to turn a blind eye to other, ah, indiscretions. And how civilised is that?
Thus reassured I slide the Rapide’s key into the slot that turns it into a starter button, press it firmly, fire up the V12 and ease the car out onto the road. Throttle response is almost instantaneous, and as the revs build up and the speed increases the engine’s agreeable burble transforms into a veritable wall of sound, a symphony of wails, roars, barks and crackles that sends shivers down the spine and demands replay after replay.
Repeatedly flooring the pedal on long country roads that vanish into a pinprick near the horizon, I’m initially puzzled as to why the speedo says we’re going slower than it feels – then realise the instrument on this left-hand-drive car isn’t calibrated in km/h, but mph. My God we’re going fast – are they sure there are no cameras round here?
And then as we climb into the mountains, the highway clinging to the contours before threading up and over saddles that lead to the next valley, the fun begins in earnest. Selecting Track – the firmest of the three active-damping setting modes – is hardly an issue on roads as well made as these, enabling us fully to exploit the Aston’s excellent chassis and balance with little compromise on comfort or refinement.
In and out of every bend the brilliant hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering and chassis unfailingly place this big car precisely where I want it to be, and though the tail breaks away just once when I pile on the power on a tight right-hander, it snaps instantly back into line when I ease off the gas. It’s elegant, effortless…and the Aston folk are right: the Rapide is as thoroughbred a sports car as they come.
Of course, when you add the word “British” to the equation it does mean there’ll be some trade-off in terms of quirkiness. The interior is sumptuous, reeking like a tannery and gleaming like a Bösendorfer, but I’m as bamboozled by the array of knobs and buttons adorning the high centre console as I was the last time I sat inside an Aston. Among them are the controls for the 1,000-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo, but as the one in the test car doesn’t interface with my iPhone 5 this sadly goes unplayed. As for the seats, mounted low in the body and clearly stitched together from the hides of the most pampered cows on Earth, passengers at the front can look forward to the ride of their lives, but if you’re taller than 178cm and relegated to the back, make sure it’s just for a run to the shops.
No matter, because this is an Aston Martin, which – whether it has two doors or four – will always be among the most beautiful cars in the world, and certainly the most desirable. Yes it’s a tad old-school, but that’s part of the charm and the charisma, both of which the Rapide S possesses in spades. It’s seriously fast, utterly thrilling and makes a racket like a dive-bomber – and ahead of me lie a hundred or so more kilometres of what I’m now convinced are the greatest roads on the planet. If it’s possible for a petrolhead to achieve nirvana, I think this might just be it.