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2011 Aston Martin Rapide

Aston Martin's beauty is mostly on the outside Add to ...

It's a battle of the head and heart with the Aston Martin Rapide, as well as its DB9 fraternal twin.

To admire the DB9, Aston's long-serving and continually beautiful two-door V12 coupe, is to adore its more practical sibling, the four-door Rapide.

That alluring shape encourages forgiveness of the Rapide's many less desirable traits, ones which escape me as I gaze at photos of it, but will surely come back to me once I can't see it.

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Aston calls the Rapide the brand's first production four-door sports car, highlighting the close relationship with it and the DB9, while glossing over its blocky Lagonda luxury sedan of the 1970s and 1980s. And while Aston insists that every body panel on the four-door hatchback is unique to the Rapide, it has managed to preserve the sexy come-hither sports car look of the DB9, even while stretching it by 309 mm. Most of that length went into providing its cocoon-like rear seating area - which has both surprisingly reasonable headroom and a massively bulky drive tunnel that separates the two heated and cooled rear seats.

It's not just me who finds it gorgeous. The Rapide is one of three finalists for the World Car of the Year Design of the Year award, battling the lusty Ferrari 458 Italia and Alfa Romeo Giulietta. The winner is to be announced at the New York auto show, along with the WCOTY green car and overall winner.

Out for dinner with a group of fellow auto writers, the word quickly went round that I had the glass-topped key to the Aston Martin Rapide parked front and centre outside; three of them bailed on other transport for a ride in Aston's super-slinky four-door.

One wisely called dibs on the front passenger seat, affording him an up-close view of the classic old world charm emanating from the Rapide's interior, with fragrant leathers and your choice of highly polished woods.

Instead of a regular gear shifter, the six-speed automatic transmission is controlled with buttons up high in the instrument panel, flanking the receptacle for the seemingly crystal-topped key, different enough to confuse the occasional valet. Or you could always shift with magnesium shift paddles behind the wheel, watching as the tach strangely runs counter-clockwise, starting from the six 6 o'clock position at idle, then on up to about the 12 o'clock position at redline.

Even with four people in the car, that massive V-12 engine provides a speedy and hormonal rush to triple-digit speeds, although it needs lots of revs to really get to its maximum 470 hp, which come along at 6,000 rpm, while its 443 lb-ft of torque peaks at a similarly lofty 5,000 rpm. This means it doesn't feel as quick as most of its super-fleet four-door rivals and it isn't, with Aston officially quoting a 0-100 km/h time of 5.3 seconds.

Aston insists on calling this big 5.9-litre V-12 engine a 6.0-litre, but at 5,935 cc of displacement, don't believe everything you read on cam covers. It's not super-car quick, but still super sedan fast.

Unfortunately, this drivetrain does not impress nearly so much on the technology or fuel economy front as on the performance side. Sure, folks who can muster up more than 230-grand of after-tax income are likely not complaining about their Aston's thirst for premium. But when you figure that technologies such as direct injection help increase power, while dual-clutch transmissions speed up shift times and acceleration, there's also very valid performance arguments for such response-enhancing technology that can save fuel as well. Plus most of its rivals have them, which should be good enough reason to have them.

This engine is available in every car in Aston's lineup, in various states of tune, so it is surely wringing out its money's worth on this rapidly aging engine. It also begs the question of when - not whether - it is going to drop the more powerful supercharged DBS engine under the Rapide's bonnet.

But with Aston now controlled by two Kuwaiti investment groups, one has to wonder whether the corporate will or the R&D money will be there to engineer more fuel-efficient Aston Martin sports cars, four doors or two. The tiny Aston Martin Cygnet, the Smart-fighting version of the Toyota/Scion iQ that Aston plans to bring to market, suggests that it'll be a tough road to travel without co-operation with other auto makers. Daimler is expected to be the next corporate dance partner, with potential co-development work done with the next-generation Maybach, as well as with the S-Class and future Lagonda models.

But for now, cars like the Rapide still provide a major rush, both from the driver's seat and the sidewalk. And with four doors to provide a bit more real-world practicality, well, at least your head has that much.

Tech specs

2011 Aston Martin Rapide

Type: Mid-size, luxury four-seat sports hatchback

Base price: (estimated) $232,189

Engine: 5.9-litre, 48-valve, V-12

Horsepower/torque: 470 hp/443 lb-ft

Transmission: Push-button, six-speed automatic with shift paddles

Drive: Rear-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 16.8 city/10.4 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Bentley Continental Flying Spur, Jaguar XFR, Maserati Quattroporte, Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG, Porsche Panamera Turbo

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