'It’s still a sports car.’ Of all the things I was told yesterday when I collected the Rapide from Aston’s slick Gaydon HQ, that was the one that struck me most, the statement that snagged in my mind like a bur on a woollen jumper. Mostly, I guess, because I wanted it to be true. I then got in and drove the Rapide for six hours and 331 miles, but I still can’t vouch for its sports-car credentials because 99.5 per cent of those miles were on motorways stretching from the Midlands to Scotland’s east coast.
I can say that Aston’s new four-seat five-door is a pretty good GT, except perhaps for an elbow issue, but there will be plenty of time for that later. Right now, on this hazy, overcast morning, we’re clear of the suburbs of Edinburgh heading south for Selkirk, and the A7 is getting interesting. It flows invitingly along the valley, meandering like a river and even looking like one in places because the snow that’s blanketed the hills for weeks is finally thawing.
This road and the A708 from Selkirk to Moffat were scouted out by an advance party driving a selection of the Aston’s obvious rivals. Leading the way this morning is Ollie Marriage, news ed, in the (deep breath) Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed, while behind is the feistiest Maserati QP, the Sport GT S, and behind that the Porsche Panamera Turbo.
Mooching around town, the Rapide had felt a little lazy, the responses of its torque converter auto soft, its 5.9-litre V12 surprisingly subdued after the flourish of revs and throaty roar that announced its firing up. There’s a ‘Sport’ button that sharpens throttle and gearbox response, and prodding it and using the wheel-mounted paddles puts the car on higher alert and puts you more in charge, which bolsters your confidence.
The view from behind the wheel is pure DB9, but you’re aware that there’s more mass along for the ride. That said, the button to select a firmer damper setting goes un-pushed because the big Aston is quite firmly sprung, nicely taut, and feels rewardingly precise as it is. In places you can read a couple of hundred yards of this road’s curves and plot where you’d like to apex, and the Aston delivers. Its front end is faithful and accurate and although there’s occasional mild kickback through the rim, the ideally weighted steering feels more natural than that of any other recent Aston. It has a faster rack rate than the DB9 in order to give it the same feeling of agility, and it does that and more.
I had expected the Bentley to stomp off up the road and it’s certainly going for it when it can, lunging down the short straights with impressive determination as its 600bhp twin-turbo W12 gets its shoulder behind the Spur’s considerable mass – almost 2.5 tons. But despite four-wheel drive and a set of very effective Pirelli cold weather tyres, it’s not dropping the Rapide. Grip from the Aston’s bespoke Bridgestone Potenza S001s is strong and there’s hardly a flicker from the stability control light as the 470bhp V12 digs deep.
Aurally the V12 comes alive from 3000rpm, as if a dozen trumpet mutes are doffed in unison, the sound becoming heavy, gravelly, glorious. Up to that point it is out-hollered by the loud, fluty exhaust bark of the Maserati’s V8, which is wonderful but ‘Look at me!’ loud in Sport mode. Mind, having settled at a pace that is brisk but smooth and affords a good view of the Flying Spur at work, it’s a surprise to glance in the mirror and find that the Maserati and Porsche have lost touch.
‘Yes,’ says features ed Henry Catchpole when we muster at the nominated photography spot, ‘the Maser couldn’t keep up but I was having fun too.’ Features writer Roger Green, bringing up the rear in the Panamera, says he was being held up by the QP, though when asked how the Turbo was, he shoots us a grim look.
We didn’t enjoy the Panamera Turbo last time we tested it (evo 137), but we wanted to try another and it’s an obvious rival for the Rapide, despite the price difference. The Aston is £139,950, the Porsche £95,298, yet the German car has more power, four-wheel drive and is roomier. Same goes for the Bentley, though at £137,000 it’s only a modest option or two away from parity. And then there’s the Maserati. At £91,810 the Sport GT S is the most expensive Quattroporte, and with 433bhp the most powerful, but in this company those are the smallest numbers. However, what it lacks in potency the QP makes up in style and dynamic flair, and technically the Maserati is most like the Aston, being naturally aspirated, rear-wheel drive and boasting a near-perfect weight distribution. It’s a benchmark.
We haven’t driven all the way to Scotland just because we liked the look of the A708 on Google Earth. The dynamics of this selection of grand saloons are important, but these four-seat saloons deserve a decent run to show off their long-distance comfort too. So we thought it would be neat to visit the capitals of England, Scotland and Wales and their seats of power (geddit?): the Houses of Parliament in London, Holyrood, home of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, and the Senedd, home of the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff. The only hitch was that none of them wanted us there, so we had to wing it.
The National Gallery of Scotland has a lovely wide, smooth area around it and friendly staff, so that’s where I met the rest of the gang for the first group shot when I arrived late in Edinburgh. The Rapide garnered mixed reactions. It uses the now familiar Aston ‘V/H’ bonded aluminium architecture with 250mm added in the wheelbase over the DB9, but its torsional stiffness is better than the DB9’s, so Ian Minards, Aston’s product development director, had told me. He’d also explained that, externally, only the front doors and bonnet are carried over from the DB9. ‘It’s not a stretched DB9,’ he’d stressed.
‘Well if it’s not,’ says Green after I recount this, ‘why did they make it look just like one?’ Catchpole agrees: ‘It could be argued that Aston is as much stuck in a design rut as Porsche, though it’s arguably a more attractive rut…’
The Rapide does have some terrific angles, one of them being the rear three-quarters, the sight you’d get when it passes you. For us it’s the front view that’s the problem, perhaps because the eye is expecting the shape to develop into a tapering coupe back. However, a bigger worry is that Aston simply hasn’t made the Rapide big enough. The doors open wide, but the space that’s there for two rear-seat passengers looks only just enough. Our young staff writer, Stephen Dobie, will have the final say; he’s here to compare the back-seat experiences, sharing the 1200-mile trip between the four contenders. It’s a hard life…
The Rapide has impressed me down the A7 and A708, and I’m intrigued to see how the others handle the same terrain. First up is the Maserati. The Sport GT S is big on Alcantara and has a lovely suede feel to its small steering wheel, gearlever and grippy seats, but moments after I’ve climbed in I’m stabbing at the seat height adjuster, convinced there’s another couple of inches to drop. There isn’t. Glancing round, the Quattroporte feels as big as a sports hall after the low-slung, snug-fitting Rapide.
The amazing thing about the Quattroporte is that it transforms itself into a much smaller car if you’re prepared to believe, to listen to the feedback and trust that it will deliver. With the Sport button pressed the 4.7-litre V8 is raucous with a wonderful blare and feels initially torquey too, though the gears soon seem long. Also quickly revealed is less grip compared to the Aston, initially signalled as a smudge of clearly relayed understeer and a bit more skip and slip at the rear.
I’m not surprised that the Maserati lost touch with the Rapide, but as Catchpole pointed out, it’s an enjoyable car to hustle; there’s poise and balance and exploitable feel aplenty here, and crisp throttle pick-up, too. What there’s not a lot of is suspension travel or bump-stop subtlety. Crests and bumps the Rapide navigated without effort thump so hard through this Quattroporte’s passive, fixed damper and spring set-up that you expect to see suspension parts punched through the bonnet or boot. And while it doesn’t feel like a big car once you’re up to speed, the brake pedal lacks feel and bite mid-travel, just when you want a reassuring grab of retardation.
You at least know where you are with the Maserati, though. Slip into the Porsche’s firm seat, get comfy and survey the cabin and there’s much to like, to feel good about. All-surface sandy brownness not withstanding, it is obviously a high-quality item, the stoutness of its build and fineness of its finish matched only by the Bentley. It feels nicely polished pulling away, too, the PDK gearbox smooth, the V8 throbbing softly, but the contrast with the dynamic feel of the Maserati and Aston is stark. After a couple of corners you realise you’re more aware of the weight, after a couple more that you’re not quite connected, either through the steering – which feels quick witted but disconnected – or the seat of your pants.
On the default damper setting, the Panamera feels floaty and bothered by the surface, failing to deal with bumps decisively. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. Where in the Aston you plan your lines and clipping points, measuring out the power and rolling your wrists to get you there, in the Porsche you feel like your best hope is an approximate line. And when the road gets properly turbulent you have to set the dampers on maximum firmness otherwise when you crest and turn it feels like the body is headed one way and the chassis the other.
The Speed may be the sportiest Flying Spur, but more than any of the other cars here it feels like a luxury car rather than a sports saloon. It’s a marvellous place to be, surrounded by quilted leather, dark wood veneers and delicate bright metal trim, and you sit commandingly high, but the seat feels a little flat beneath you and I’d appreciate more under-thigh support.
It’s a consummate wafter, the Spur, its steering light, transmission take-up feather-soft, ride absorbent and its engine all but inaudible, the W12 rumbling away somewhere down below. Steering weight improves as the Spur picks up speed, but feel doesn’t, and at the first proper corner you’re acutely aware of the inertia you can build with 600bhp and 2440kg. Take stock. Adjust the dampers to their firmest setting, start using the stalk-like gearshift paddles (same as on a Gallardo) and adjust your driving style to slow in, fast out, using the massive torque and four-wheel-drive traction to rocket out of turns. Now you’re cooking. The optional carbon brakes (almost £10K!) could do with a bit more bite and you have to hang on over crests and grit your teeth for compressions, but even over the stretch of A708 that looks like a B-road the Spur has the measure of the Panamera. Even I’m surprised until I see what happens as Catchpole tries to get away from the Bentley as we cover the final handful of miles to lunch in Moffat. The Porsche looks uncomfortable over crests and dips and is finding bumps that don’t exist for the Bentley, kicking the rear out. Awful to watch, worse to drive.
‘That was as fast as I could go,’ says a troubled Catchpole later. ‘I saw you behind and thought, “Ha-ha. Bye-bye!” Then after half a mile I thought about pulling over and letting you past.’ Dobie, who was in the back, looks unwell, but bravely tackles a panini before we refuel the cars and hit the M6, destination Cardiff.
As you’d hope, they’re all refined and cosseting over a 300-plus mile haul like this, boasting low levels of wind noise and tyre roar that are easily nullified by their wonderful sound systems. After a couple of hours at the wheel we all feel that the Aston’s centre console and door pull-cum-armrest are too high; as in a Caterham, you drive elbows out or tucked in. Some think the Porsche’s driver’s seat is a little too firm too, and that it cruises better in the mid damper setting, which banishes the hint of lateral rock evident in the default mode.
Top marks for space and comfort go to the Bentley, the best sat-nav belongs to the Porsche, which makes the others’ look like Etch-a-Sketches. The Aston’s iDrive-alike is fiddly and irritating, the Maserati’s nav hard to figure out, and I’m not alone in finding the adaptive, gap-sensing cruise control systems in the Bentley and Porsche maddening.
After another 400-mile day, we arrive at our hotel in central Cardiff and hit the town looking for good food. Instead we find a Mexican that takes 90 minutes to deliver spectacularly uninspiring food. Plenty of time for banter, then. The verdict on the Rapide so far is mixed. ‘It would have been better if they’d called it the DB9-4 rather than suggesting it’s a whole new car,’ says Green. ‘If they’d done that, the compromises in terms of space and looks would have been less of an issue.’ He adds that the Maserati got loads of thumbs up on the way down and the Aston not one.
Marriage nods in agreement. ‘This is Aston figuring out how best to package four people in a coupe. It’s not a car for short-skirted starlets – or bulky road testers. But it drives bloody well, and you always feel like you’re driving it, not merely a passenger, as you occasionally do in the Porsche and Bentley.’
NEXT MORNING I decide that I like Cardiff, mainly because the sun comes out as we rumble our way down to the waterside. We can’t get the cars close to the Senedd, so content ourselves with the rather magnificent Millennium Centre next door. The saloons make quite a sight, as the man who walks into a signpost and leaves it oscillating like a tuning fork will surely testify.
Next comes a chance to stretch our quartet’s legs over another piece of prime British asphalt: the B4560 in the Brecon Beacons. The snake-like A470 dual carriageway that takes us there is unexpectedly scenic and continental in feel.Appropriately, it’s the Bentley I’m driving. Its engine reveals an odd range of noises; uphill on a light throttle its bassy off-beat pulse makes it sound like a big six that’s dropped a piston. Nail it mid-roundabout, however, and it’s gone so fast only the Panamera can keep up, and if you back off sharply there’s a sound like rolling thunder and distant artillery from the tailpipes.
The B4560 is an old favourite, and compared to the best along here the Flying Spur doesn’t really cut it. It’s impressively agile for one so heavy, but getting it to go quickly is largely a cerebral rather than a physical and tactile exercise; it’s all about planning and managing the mass you’re in charge of. If you’re keen you’ll discover that winding off the stability control can give access to a little oversteer, but what you really hanker after is direct, talkative steering, more responsive brakes and about 500kg less weight. The Spur’s range of abilities is not as evo-centric as others here. ‘It’s big, but it doesn’t feel it when you’re hustling it along, and that alone is remarkable,’ says Green, ‘and it’s fun to bludgeon B-roads into submission.’
The Panamera feels more at home on this road than it did in Scotland, even though the terrain looks not dissimilar. ‘You’ve still got to crank the dampers up to their stiffest setting and take charge of the gearbox,’ says Catchpole. He’s right; left to its own devices the Porsche feels squidgily imprecise, its movements odd like those of air-sprung cars can be. There’s no doubt the Turbo has a great gearbox and a stupendously potent engine but there remains a sense of being disconnected from the action, and it’s because the steering has no feel.
What the Porsche does do is show up the Maserati’s age and its relative lack of torque. The stiffer springs of the GT S put loads into the Quattroporte shell that test its structural integrity, and you have to work the V8 hard, the pace and sound in ‘Sport’ not quite in synch: ‘all mouth and no trousers’ as the northern phrase goes. But there’s an honesty, a directness and a responsiveness that feels borrowed from a much smaller car. As Catchpole says, ‘It’s with you all the way.’ Well, almost. Over to Green: ‘The damping is just about perfect and on a smooth twisty road it pours through the bends with just the right amount of help from the rear. It’s brilliant, right up to the point where it runs out of suspension travel.’
No such issues for the Aston. There’s an easy, natural feel to its dynamics and when you ask, it delivers. The rim of its steering wheel is busier than the others here but that’s because it’s relaying more information, and its chassis is especially good in the transient moves, flicking left, right, left. The upshot is that the Rapide isn’t ‘still’ a sports car, it’s a more impressive steer than the DB9 or DBS.
Downsides? Not many. The V12 sounds a bit strained and gritty at the top end and there’s too large a step between second and third. Oh, and when you go to find out just how poised and balanced that long-wheelbase chassis is when the traction control is off. Shame we weren’t told how to turn it off completely.
‘It dealt with the toughest roads we threw at it better than any other car here and better than it has any right to,’ says Marriage. ‘I thoroughly enjoyed driving it.’ And so say all of us.
The Rapide rides out an easy winner, then? From the driver’s seat, yes, undoubtedly. But it’s not the first choice if you’re after a properly comfortable pan-European four-seater. The Maserati is the right size, great to drive and a bargain here, yet after you’ve tried the others you wish it had a greater feeling of integrity. And it feels like a new generation QP is due. The concept of the Panamera is spot-on; it offers the right amount of room, it’s perfectly practical and useable and it’s beautifully appointed. Shame it looks so uninspiring and drives like it looks.
Bentley then? It’s got a lot going for it and costs the same as the Aston. I was very glad to be driving it out of London at the end of our epic journey. It offers first-class travel for four and driven considerately would still leave most cars in its wake. So that’s settled: it’s the Aston, and sod the rear-seat passengers.