The world of luxury cars has been grappling with the notion of a four-seat sports car or a four-door coupe since Mercedes-Benz unleashed the Vision CLS in 2003 at the Frankfurt motor show, followed by the production CLS-Class in 2004. Success? Rivals think so, from Audi to Aston Martin.
Many chuckled at the then-audacious Mercedes idea for squeezing yet another model out of E-Class mechanical bits and pieces. Coupes, by definition, are two-door cars and sports cars have not only a pair of doors, but also light, nimble handling, and tight packaging.
Apparently, that's an old-fashioned notion. Not long after the CLS arrived, Audi, with the A7, and Aston, with the Rapide, jumped right in, vesting massive energy and street cred into this sort of car – and they weren't the only ones. The car business is, after all, a copy-cat game.
Nonetheless, it's hard to argue with the results. The CLS, the A7 and the Rapide have all been winners, with the latter being updated last year and re-badged the Rapide S. Unlike the Merc and the Audi, the Rapide S, at $210,500 – plus options like Piano Black facia trim ($2,925), ventilated seats ($1,740) and shiny, 20-inch, 10-spoke Gloss Black ($5,705) wheels – isn't chasing volume, but defining exclusivity.
And so I spent a recent long weekend tooling around England in a Rapide S. My cousins and my hosts grew weary of the "tap-tap-tap" on the door from neighbours inquiring about who had won the EuroMillions jackpot. This happens when a Rapide S replaces a Subaru Forester in the drive.
The car had the Cato middle-class estate buzzing. The Rapide S is that interesting and rare. Aston sold about 4,000 cars around the world last year, perhaps two or three of them in Milton Keynes. The Rapide S, what Aston calls a luxury GT, is a bomb and a beast and it not only leaves the masses gob-smacked, it overwhelms them with performance.
Ulrich Bez, for 13 years the CEO of Aston Martin who was closely involved in the car's development, calls it, "without doubt, the most beautiful four-door sports car on the market today." From the striking grille to the bold rear deck – including a pronounced trunk lid "flip" or spoiler designed to create downforce at higher speeds, the Rapide S demands attention.
Snuggling into the tight-fitting cabin requires some measure of flexibility and a minimum of girth. Thick side rails that provide tremendous structure, smallish door openings and racy bucket seats conspire to demand some measure of commitment from driver and passenger to a diet and yoga program. This is a fairly large four-door car, but it's not roomy. Those in the back seat shouldn't be taller than a 12-year-old.
The cabin's instruments and controls are functional and interesting, but not sumptuous. More than a handful of cows gave their hides to the cabin's cause, and the leather is beautifully done, though not in a showy way. The mirror-like shine of the black interior finishings is one standout; the standard-fit, pure-glass transmission selector switches in the other. The takeway: this is the cockpit of a serious car.
Proof? Nothing is more scintillating that the V-12 power plant, all 550 horsepower of it, delivering 0-100 km/h in less than 5 seconds. This engine is an engineering gem, with machined combustion chambers and light and hollow cam shafts and an exhaust note so guttural and intimidating, it makes lesser engines weep and cower.
The chassis is a match, too, and the ride and handling story begins with a low centre of gravity. Just give the steering wheel the slightest input, and the nose turns in with the precision of a fencing master. The Adaptive Damping System lets you choose "Normal," "Sport," or "Track" and it's not kidding. Sport works best when you're feeling frisky and willing to trade comfort for high-speed poise, but most of the time you'll stay in semi-comforting Normal. Track is firm and strictly for Silverstone or thereabouts.
It's a lovely driver's car, so serious I forgot that this "coupe" had two extra doors in back.
2014 Aston Martin Rapide S
Type: luxury GT
Base price: $210,500 ($220,870 as tested)
Gas engine: 6.0-litre V-12
Horsepower/torque: 550 hp/457 lb-ft
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 16.2 city/10.7 highway, using premium fuel.
Alternatives: Rolls-Royce Ghost, Bentley Flying Spur
***** ***** *****
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Correction: The tech specs above incorrectly stated this car's fuel requirements. It uses premium fuel.