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When we first heard Aston Martin was making a four-door supercar known as the Rapide, we weren't terribly happy. It looked as if the company was turning its precious DBS, one of the most beautiful automobiles ever, into a hideously deformed hatchback -- all in the name of practicality. To us, that's like sewing pockets on to Elmo's face -- you end up with something slightly more useful, but at what cost?
Having driven one in the real world, we're happy to report the Rapide is not, in fact, a pocket-faced monstrosity. On the contrary, it's actually one of the prettiest cars on the road today -- particularly from the front and rear. These pictures won't do it justice, but in the metal, the Rapide will cause children you've never met to hug your shins and call you Mummy or Daddy.
Those rear doors swing open to reveal a pair of bucket-style rear seats that fold down to extend boot space from 301 litres, to a Volvo-rivalling 750 litres. They're also a surprisingly comfortable place to rest one's weary buttocks, provided the owner of said buttocks isn't over 5ft 10 inches tall and doesn't mind head-butting the inward-sloping window frame whenever the driver makes a sharp turn.
The Rapide's extra girth has presented Aston Martin with the opportunity to furnish the car with a smorgasbord of technology. Those sat in the back can busy themselves with the rear-seat entertainment package, which consists of a pair of 5-inch displays mounted on the headrests, an infrared remote control for independently controlling what's on each screen, and a pair of wireless headphones that allow your passengers to listen to a different soundtrack to the one being played over the car's loudspeakers.
Sadly, Aston Martin's missed a trick here. The Rapide doesn't have the option of a TV tuner, neither analogue nor digital. Instead, occupants are restricted to watching DVDs -- via the in-dash six-disc changer up front -- or attaching their own video sources via two composite video inputs located between the rear seats.
There's no video playback of any variety to be had in the front, but driver and passenger can busy themselves them with the Rapide's stunning Bang & Olufsen sound system. A £3,000 extra on the DBS, this audio setup consists of a 1,000W amplifier and a whopping 15 speakers. It's not all about sheer auditory grunt, though -- the B&O system's forte is its ability to deliver a level of tonal precision not seen since the death of Pavarotti, a level usually reserved for high-end home cinema setups.
We'll go out on a limb and say it's not quite as breath-taking as the Burmester audio system in the rival Porsche Panamera, but it does have its moments. There's a very good level of bass (once you manually crank up the equaliser) and the sound is well balanced, providing lots of detail that would be inaudible on lesser systems. Sources include an AM/FM radio, the six-disk CD/DVD changer, an iPod dock, and a USB port that reads MP3 and WMA audio. The absence of a DAB radio receiver is highly conspicuous.
The Bang & Olufsen audio setup's party piece is its motorised acoustic lenses -- speakers that rise and fall majestically from the dashboard. Even these play second fiddle to its sound-focusing technology, however, which 'points' the sound on different areas of the cabin depending on where passengers are sitting. If you're driving up front alone, it'll adjust the soundstage, aiming the music seemingly at your face. Should you have passengers (the Rapide checks to see which of the seatbelts is in use to determine the location of occupants) the soundstage is readjusted to focus audio in the direction of all occupants.
The Rapide's sat-nav is a pleasant surprise. It's essentially the same unit we saw in the Aston Martin DBS, but its software has been updated, making it much less of a nuisance. It now supports six-digit postcode entry, has door-to-door navigation and runs off a hard disk, making route calculation and re-calculation lightning quick. The system has its fair share of usability quirks (there's no off button, for example -- you have to press the 'Nav' and 'back' buttons to switch the system off) but on the whole, it's a major improvement on the previous setup.
All the extra room in the Rapide makes it ideal fodder for fitting a shedload of gizmos, but that fatness is, in principle, detrimental to the car's handling and performance. Indeed, our overriding impression of the Rapide was that it was rather docile in comparison to other Aston Martins. Its suspension is soft and forgiving, its steering light and its accelerator so progressive and malleable, it's easy to forget there's a 470bhp V12 engine under the bonnet.
That all changes, however, when you hit two innocuous-looking buttons on the dash. One causes the suspension to become noticeably more firm, allowing the Rapide to corner with more stability and at higher speeds. The other, marked 'sport', sharpens the throttle response, makes the engine more eager to rev and causes the Touchtronic 2 six-speed automatic gearbox to change up a little later, eking out extra speed.
The Rapide isn't quite as agile as a DB9 or DBS, but with these modes active, it really does feel and sound every bit the supercar, dispatching 0-60mph in 5 seconds dead, and racing up to a maximum of 184mph.
It's fair to say that having driven the Rapide, we've completely revised our opinions. The transition from two doors to four could have been painful, but this car has lost very few of the traits that make an Aston Martin so desirable. If you're looking for a car that can transport four adults at speeds approaching 200mph (and aren't we all?) this thing should be at the very top of your list.