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Aston Martin Rapide S: The confluence of centuries

We celebrate 100 years of Aston Martin against the backdrop of 100 years of Indian cinema, along with 100 issues of TopGear India magazine

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It was strange to see Amrish Puri’s over-the-top chest piece quiver. This over-the-top chest piece is part of Indian cinema’s most famous over-the-top costume adorned by the most memorable over-the-top villain in Indian pop culture – Mogambo from Mr India.

I am inside the all-new Aston Martin Rapide S in Mumbai’s Film City. It’s a place that churns out the yarn that forms a good share of India’s dream factory. Everybody at TopGear gave up a month’s salary and made three massive flexes with a collage of Indian cinema. And the quivering Mogambo was only because I was seeing him on the flex through the heat coming out of the vents on top of the Aston’s bonnet.

The hot vapour was from the 6.0-litre naturally-aspirated V12 under the bonnet. In the old Rapide, the engine made 470bhp. In the Rapide S, power has shot up to 550bhp. I will get back to that in a bit and come back to movies. There is little point romanticising movies in India. They are all over the country. In every conceivable language. Of course, just as a lot of Americans think the world begins at their Pacific coast and ends at their Atlantic coast, a lot of us think Indian cinema is Hindi cinema. But let me not get into that.

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Indian cinema has never been perfect. It has also crossed the boundaries of atrocious. But in the one hundred years since Dadasaheb Phalke converted what people mistook for insanity into a motion picture, Indian cinema has provided food for thought, an excuse for outings, influenced a lot of families, been the cradle for many dates and provided enjoyable, even mindless entertainment. The world could very well have survived without cinema. But movies do make the world a better place to live in.

As does an Aston Martin. Since 1913, it has been evocative, but never perfect. It has had pedigree, but never sound finances. And it has always made cars that are much beyond transportation. They have been cars that exist to thrill, excite and make your personal cash balance diminish rapidly. Of course, the world would function perfectly fine even if they didn’t exist.

But then, the world also tends to come to a halt when an Aston passes by. The drama with this car starts even before it is in your line of vision. When the Rapide S is on song, you will only hear an orchestra of intoxicating sounds before you see a streak of black whizz past. And they say only Rajnikant makes dramatic entries. Then, the intoxicating sounds slowly fade out of hearing range. Yet, even after you stop seeing the streak, you will continue hearing sounds from the wastegate of the V12 reverberating through the concrete maze. This is not a completely new-gen Rapide. Still, it’s got an all-new grille. And the extra horses and torque make the S more macabre.

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Honestly, there will never ever be a time when 470bhp in a car will be considered less. And the old Rapide was a seriously fast car. What makes the Rapide S significantly better is not the horsepower, though. It’s the slight tweaking of the suspension and positioning of the engine. The engine sits 19mm lower than before, it’s tucked more toward the centre of the car than before, and the damper settings can now be changed between Normal, Sport and Track. And all this has severely altered steering feel.

I had criticised the earlier Rapide for being great as a thrill machine, but lacking steering feedback. I don’t know if it’s the lower engine or the smart damping, but the Rapide S offers way better feedback from the steering. While the Rapide has always been beautiful, dramatic and thrilling, these tweaks to the S make the car that much more thorough and competent.

There’s a bit of lean around corners, but the steering manages a nice balance between lightness and feedback. Kiran, our art director, had a minor heart attack when he found out he had to make flexes for a car more than 16-feet long. But when you take this Rapide around a bend, you will forget that you are wringing the neck of a super-long machine that weighs two tons. The Rapide S sticks to corners like a wet saree on the waist of an actress in a typical movie rain-dance sequence.

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Unlike a Porsche Panamera, which takes corners with a lot of control and composure, this Aston keeps your vital organs slightly more alert. What the S update has done is retain its lightness and agility, while adding some more communication into the mix. The old Rapide needed a narrator to explain things to the audience. The S binds everything together with a very clear and simple screenplay.

Besides, when you aren’t pushing the Rapide, it’s as quiet, comfortable and refined as a movie star who has been ruling the box office for decades and has zero insecurity issues. But shift the suspension from Normal to Sport or Track and the difference in ride quality is clear.

It’s a bit like the difference that editing makes to a movie. Everyone makes a big deal about the engine and the power of a car, just as all the attention is on the director and the main stars in a movie. But the work of the suspension is a bit like the post-production, behind-the-scenes job of an editor. It is the difference between a good movie and a great movie. With the new selectable damping, you get to choose between comfort or a schematic of the grooves on the road.

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The gearbox remains traditional. No dual clutches, no microsecond-quick shifts. But it’s very simple and effective. It has six speeds, and a fully auto mode and a paddle-induced manual mode. The best bit is when, in manual mode, you see the lights on the instrument console glow red as the rev needle shows 7,000rpm, urging you to change. And just as you expect it to change anyway, it doesn’t. Despite being an automatic, the Aston lets you hold on to the revs for as long as you want. This is when the engine sounds its best and no post-production studio work or sound enhancements can match the shriek of a large capacity, naturally-aspirated V12.

The interior is a delight and a pain at the same time. It’s blatantly, unashamedly, mindlessly form over function. The materials and design are as exquisite and rare as the things you’d find in the lair of a movie super villain, minus the flesh-eating sharks. The stitching, the shape of the seats, the buttons on the console, the speedo and rev binnacles… Topping everything off is the sapphire crystal key fob. It prods the 6.0-litre behemoth nestled just a couple of feet ahead of it into a crescendo of growls and rasps, a sign that it’s just been woken up.

But the beauty inside the cabin also throws up ergonomic beasts. The storage bin between the driver and front passenger is beautifully finished, but will come right in the way of your left elbow when you take a left-hand corner. First-time passengers will struggle to open any of the doors from inside because Aston has merged the door handle so seamlessly with the rest of the door, you can’t find it.

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But that’s the thing with the Rapide S. Form comes over function. Thrills come over practicality. Design comes in the way of everyday usability. Oh, as an everyday driver, the car is enormous. It’s fleet-footed on an open road, but you’d feel its tyres are bound by clay on a regular, traffic-infested road. It’s long, and all-round visibility isn’t great. Forget a Porsche Panamera – a two-door Ferrari FF has more space at the back than this four-door Rapide S.

When Aston calls the Rapide S a four-door sedan, think of it as Shyam Benegal or Adoor Gopalkrishnan hoping that their next movie can make economic sense and creative sense. And when you spend time with this car, you realise the Rapide can’t help being the way it is. The first Rapide seemed to be rebelling against the idea of having to put up with rear seats. The Rapide S is still that rebel. It still doesn’t have much room at the back, but the rest of the car has regained the essence of an Aston Martin – fine craftsmanship, scintillating road manners and killer looks.

In the long run, the Aston is more likely to develop creaks than a Porsche Panamera, it’s wilder and more eccentric than the Porsche. And just as a superstar charges a bomb if you want him or her in your movie, the Rapide S throws quite a fit if you want one in your parking lot. The car you see here does not have sat-nav or a reversing camera. Equip it with everything and you are looking at Rs 5.5 crore on-road. Give or take a few tens of lakhs depending on the weakening or strengthening of the rupee against the pound.

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In the past, I have driven Astons that seemed like overpaid superstars who can’t emote beyond a fight or a dance sequence. This Rapide isn’t a fancy car that will go wooden at the sight of an open road. It has the dynamic breadth of ability to back the drama and the spark of the rest of the package.

And just as Indian cinema is slowly throwing up brilliant movies like Paan Singh Tomar, Kahaani and The Lunchbox, the Rapide S is the first sign of a company wanting to break out of its rut of familiar designs, familiar platforms and familiar engines. For a while, Aston has been stuck with limited tech, limited platforms and that same V12 engine. With the signing of a partnership with AMG, and under new ownership, Aston Martin will be out with a new generation of vehicles, bolder designs and cars that will put the verve back into something that was only known as James Bond’s car.

With this Rapide S, I won’t get into the buy-it-with-your-heart-over-your-head spiel. But in the 100 years since Indian cinema and Aston Martin have been in existence, one thing’s for sure. They are both quite a character. Flaws and all.

(Words: Sriram Narayanan, Photos: Bajirao Pawar)

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Aston Martin Rapide S
The numbers

Engine: 5,935cc, V12 petrol
Power: 550bhp at 6,750rpm
Torque: 620Nm at 5,500rpm
Transmission: 6A, RWD
0-100: 4.9sec (claimed)
Top Speed: 306kph (claimed)
Weight: 1,990kg
Tank capacity: 90.5 litres
Boot capacity: 393 litres (min), 1,029 litres (max)
Price: Rs 5.5 crore (fully-loaded, on-road, Mumbai)

Pros: Handling, ride quality in Normal, steering feel, cabin materials
Cons: Rear-seat space, cabin ergonomics

The verdict
Expensive, but tremendously entertaining – in motion and when stationary.

Rating: 8/10

We thank Performance Cars, the official importers of Aston Martin in India, for the Rapide S. Check out www.astonmartinmumbai.in or call  +91 22 6581 1007 if you want one in your parking lot.

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