Wednesday, August 19, 2009
It’s 52 degrees Celsius, there’s a hot wind whipping up the desert into a small sandstorm, and we’re on a road arrowing us straight at the Iraqi border. Kuwait isn’t really the place I was expecting to have my first encounter with the new Aston Martin Rapide.
We’ve joined the car’s development team hot weather testing and the Middle East is a rather apt location. The eastern world prefers its premium cars with a full complement of doors, so the Rapide is set to be key in establishing Aston in emerging markets such as the Arab states and China.
When we first see the Rapide, initial impressions are of a car just like the concept – a longer DB9 with a smidge more practicality. There are subtle differences, though. Sleeker headlights and a more intricately contoured roofline adjust the proportions enough to alert trained eyes should one pop up in your rear view mirror. And the rear styling is neater and somehow better resolved than the coupe’s. That’s despite containing a sizeable hatchback in a rear overhang of near identical size and shape to the two-door’s.
Yep, a hatchback. Like the Porsche Panamera, the Rapide boasts five doors rather than four, although you won’t hear the H-word from either manufacturer. The two aren’t going to be direct foes, however – the German boasts luxurious levels of space in its rear quarters, while the Rapide is more of a 2+2. Its rear pews provide enough room for a couple of average-sized adults on a trip to the pub or a short commute, but they’ll need to contort themselves a bit, while the high transmission tunnel and shallow rear windows add to the feeling of snugness.
During its development, Aston’s benchmarks for the Rapide have been the Mercedes CLS, Ferrari 612 and Maserati GranTurismo – performance cars that all boast rear seats but are unlikely to have been bought with chauffeuring duties in mind. Kids should be just fine, though, making this an Aston for the family man. Or, indeed, for a wealthy and emerging Middle East market.
The climate is surreal – it feels like we’re bordering the sun, not Saudi Arabia, with the heat seeming to hit you as much from the ground as from the sky. Virtually the full day will be spent in or around the car, and we’re not going to see less than 45 degrees on its temperature gauge. It’s actually an environment harsher than that served up by North America’s Death Valley, a traditional hideout for prototype cars like these.
These are the advanced stages of the Rapide’s testing, with the final production-spec car being revealed at September’s Frankfurt motor show. The development programme has been going on since June 2007, when Aston Martin’s new shareholders – backed by Kuwaiti investors, funnily enough – gave the go ahead for the 2006 concept to go into production.
After a computerised design and packaging study, two very rough DB9-based mules (codenamed X1) began testing, one focused on ‘thermal and cooling’ and the other on ‘powertrain and dynamics’. Aston then built five bespoke Rapide prototypes (called M1) on which the bulk of development – especially the underbody stuff – was carried out.
We’re part of the next stage, where 14 much more advanced cars – Verification Prototypes (VPs) – are used to rigorously check lots of specific parameters in specialised locations: durability at the Ring, for instance, and brake noise testing at Nardo. Just a few Tooling Tryout (TT) cars will undergo final analysis this October and they are intended to be in saleable condition, which makes the VP stage crucial for picking up problems and ironing out any niggles.