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Leaving Las Vegas in an Aston Rapide S

  1. It’s Sunday morning, I’ve managed to get a brand-new Aston Martin Rapide S beached in a sand dune and am currently excavating underneath trying to affix a strap, so that a couple of passing Navajo Indians can rescue me. Really. There are a couple of issues, not least that the towing eye for the Rapide S is a couple of inches too short to actually screw into the thread mounted behind the new widescreen grille, and the bottom of the car is entirely encapsulated in aerodynamic plastic, meaning that an easy hook-up on a solid bit of chassis is frustratingly absent. After a bit of head-scratching, Melton, Kim (the Navajos in question) and I decide that we’ll just have to be very gentle with a suspension arm.

    Justin the photographer is standing about taking pictures and laughing up his sleeve. Probably because my unfortunate ‘incident’ has occurred not in the hazy desert dirt roads around Oljato on the Utah/Arizona border we’ve just spent the afternoon traversing, but roughly three feet from perfectly good tarmac. I was turning around. Still, we hook up the Aston to the careworn and Appaloosa-spotted pickup of the local Samaritans and retrieve ourselves without damage. I blush a little, shake a few hands and we head out over to the precious, immense views of Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii. Or Monument Valley, if you don’t speak fluent Navajo.

    In 24 hours, we will be in a very different environment. Rewind the same in the other direction, and you wouldn’t have recognised it, either. Welcome to the ultimate test of an Aston Martin GT car.

    Pictures: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in the May issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. We began our quite-literally epic test of Aston’s newest take on the four-door Rapide in Las Vegas and quickly came to the conclusion that Sin City is not Aston Martin country. Where the Aston feels confidently 21st-century traditional, crafted from an ingot of pure, timeless brand identity, Vegas is a turbocharged anomaly that spurts up through the red Nevada desert like a septic neon fountain. It abuses decorum and attacks restraint until your sense of taste becomes sore and tattered from constant attack. Inside, the Aston is a leathery microclimate of calm, a bubble of warmly aristocratic serenity.

    Outside, Vegas on a weekend is like being trapped inside MTV, saturation set to maximum, eye-watering contrast and volume plus. Doesn’t stop people liking it, though: there are proper crowds, the sidewalks thick and crushed with flows of polyester-clad humanity, a fleshy rip tide so rich in man-made fibre that if someone could only make them move in specific directions and harness the static, Vegas might be able to power its own lights.

  3. The human swarm pauses in little clots to admire a volcano-red Rapide S. A pair of men wobble across six lanes of static traffic to take a quick look, clutching long-necked bulbs of something alcoholic, and steer themselves with the skew-whiff determination of the truly inebriated. They pause in front of the endless bonnet, and shout, as if I’m a few hundred feet away, rather than six: “YEAH! Like… YEAH! Sweet ride, man! LET’S HEAR IT!!!” They then cup their ears and stare in the manner of the whiskey-simple. I prod the Rapide into ‘P’ and blip the throttle a few times, causing the young men to fall about in a flurry of whoops and catcalls. This happens a lot. Somehow, it never gets boring.

    It’s not just people, either. The roadway that makes up the Las Vegas Strip, the broad artery through the middle of the town, is eight lanes wide, clogged like a fat man’s heart. Saturday night, and it is gridlocked with cabs, buses, tour coaches, rented Mustangs, SUV limousines stretched past practicality - or, in a couple of cases, plausibility - pickup trucks, the odd supercar… and us. Yet another advertisement flares from a 60ft television just above the roadway, bursting into life like a firework. The Aston slides between stoplights with a lazy, deep-lunged burr as it pulls away, the initial growl like the herald of a lightly orgasmic lion. A purring rawrr of lazy V12. It’s not got the whipping revs of a mid-engined supercar, but feels more stately, more grown-up. But, as time passes and dawn breaks, the new day leaches some of the night-time glamour from the neon, and it really does become obvious that this Aston has more to offer than the simple kitsch of The Strip.

  4. We slip away north to find a more suitable tableau. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long. Vegas falls away quickly, sucked into the rearward horizon and replaced by scrubby, exhausted-looking desert. The roads are long and straight, and it gives me a chance to wind out the Rapide and consider what’s new. The basics are these: this is the revised Aston Martin Rapide S, which translates as Aston’s most practical GT, with four seats and a usable hatchback, wrapped in a profile that means you don’t sacrifice style for semi-practicality. There’s a new - controversially colossal - front grille and a reprofiled bootlid with an extra degree of kick in the vestigial ducktail, and it remains the kind of car the Porsche Panamera hopes to look like when it grows up. On the other hand, it is in no way as practical as any of its competitors (think Porsche Panamera Turbo S, Mercedes CLS63, Maserati Quattroporte or even the forthcoming BMW Gran Coupe M) and remains claustrophobic in the back for more than short hops. But one suspects that anyone who buys a Rapide in favour of those cars knows exactly what they’re doing. And doesn’t give a hoot.

    We take a small detour into a place called Valley of Fire, marvelling at the whipcord roads threaded between the broken stumps of red-rock mesa pushing up through the desert. Park Rangers take a dim view of speeding, but the parks are big, the roads good and the traffic light. Pick your moment, and you can have a little fun in safety. It would be rather rude not to. And the Rapide feels… like a very healthy Rapide. The engine - the AM11 in Aston-codespeak - has changed a bit and been repositioned to drop the block 19mm, but this is more of a refresh than a substantial core-change. So it’s still 12 cylinders of half a litre each, arranged in a vee and breathing natural atmosphere. There are relatively subtle tweaks, dual-variable timing on camshafts hollowed for lightness, more precise machining of the block and the like, but this is generally just good old-fashioned engine tuning.

  5. Power is up from the 470bhp at 6,000rpm of the old car to 550 at 6,750, and peak torque is up a marginal 14lb ft to 457lb ft at a relatively lofty 5,500rpm, though there are small improvements in muscularity throughout the rev-range. It’s more efficient too, dropping emissions from 355g/km CO2 to 332, but it still hasn’t breached 20mpg on the combined cycle - the official figures reporting 19.9mpg. But that’s not all that surprising; the Rapide S is still mighty fast, more so now than ever, and clocks 62mph in under five seconds (4.9), with Aston reckoning it will run out to 190-ish mph. That’s probably enough, four-up with a kitbag for each. It’s certainly more than enough for this slice of America. This close to Vegas, there are plenty of tourists, and the howl of an Aston V12 travels a mighty distance. We start to attract a bit too much attention, so it’s back on the freeway to our next destination.

    A clear-for-miles slip road allows for a satisfying lunge through four of the six gears of the Touchtronic 2 auto. It’s not the fastest, most reactive or most sophisticated transmission, but it does the job in the Rapide, a car that requires regularity over reaction, subtle over absolute sparkle. And you never get bored of allowing that V12 to sing out, valves loosening above 3,500rpm, roaring defiance at Newton’s theories. It’s not devastatingly quick, but it feels strong, vigorous and deep-chested. Plenty fast enough. And we have it filled with bags and kit. More than that, when it settles back into a cruise, the Rapide is fine company for the longer haul. Aston may have recalibrated the dynamic stability control in line with the power hike, and sorted out the adaptive damping system to give the appropriate responses in Normal, Sport and Track modes, but it doesn’t feel that much different to the old car when settled into a sub-2,000rpm cruise. So it’s comfortable for a car with so much potential, but still has a slightly fizzy edge on bad roads: the big stuff is squished and separated easily, but small vibrations can still make the car tingle.

  6. We drive for a pair of hours towards our next stop - the Zion National Park - and hopefully a little more revelation. Now, for those unfamiliar with the area, the Zion National Park sits within Utah and is aggressively picturesque. The park itself is made up of the same kind of rock as the rest of the area, but seemingly poured over various lumps and bumps in tiered swaddles, and the roads wend their way around the formations and down through gigantic cracks and crevasses. There are tunnels and switchbacks, long, flowing mountain corners and tight, little squiggles. But Zion is also soul-destroyingly busy. Infested with dull-witted SUVs and the Park Rangers required to prevent them driving into, or falling off, cliffs. Busy enough to drive you insane, or simply make a 6.0 V12 utterly pointless. So we do the decent thing and head off again. The sun is setting, and there are miles to go.

    Next day, we’re up early and off to find some big country. Bigger country. So we head out of the Lake Powell area on the SR98 and head off towards a place called Kayenta, planning to catch the I160 heading east. Here, you realise that Fire and Zion are but preludes. We’ve run out of town on the American equivalent of B-roads, and the vistas are eye-popping: broad, sweeping turns connected by mile-long, dead-straight lunges through shallow valleys. Every corner is a postcard view, every new horizon enough to rob an exclamation from your lips. You’ve seen it in countless movies, but the first time you get here, you realise that the telly really doesn’t do it justice.

  7. We start to hunt out side roads, just for the hell of it. Out here, ‘side roads’ generally mean unpaved desert sand roads. Roads referred to as ‘Indian Routes’ on the slightly shonky map I’m working with, thanks to having developed a deep and unlikely hatred for the Aston’s onboard satnav, which seems to think we’re 150 yards to the left of wherever we actually are. Still, it’s nice to be able to initiate the unexpected, and these are definitely not the kind of roads on which you tend to see £150k-ish British GTs. But the Rapide shimmies down the dusty roads as if born to them, sunlight glinting off the bodywork, fine sand rooster-tailing behind. It looks… utterly incredible.

    Long corners on a loose surface make the Aston’s rear-wheel drive a vigorous presence in the cabin, but it’s all quite easily dealt with as long as you’re ready for the car’s general dimensions (it’s as near-as-dammit a pair of metres wide, five-and-a-bit long and weighs 1,990kg without load). And running it down a sand road becomes slightly ludicrous, but informative fun. The Rapide is genuinely well balanced, with a 48:52 front-to-back weight distribution, more delicately poised from the wheel than you imagine, and as connected as
    I remember. It doesn’t feel cutting-edge, or surgical, but it does feel characterful and exciting. Big. Strong. Epic. What you might imagine an Aston to feel like if you haven’t ever driven one.

  8. Unfortunately, it is with a head full of epicness that I get lost, and decide to turn around. As I swing wide to make better use of the dusty margin, I realise the sand just past the edge of the tarmac is a little deeper than I had assumed. With no chance to back out or change tack, I clench and continue the arc, being as gentle as possible. The rears immediately lose traction in soft, silken sand, and the enormous 295/30 rear tyres dig a pair of neat little holes the exact depth of the rear bumper. Which is where we came in. We invoke the Navajo rescue clause, and are off again.

    Within an hour, we’re miles from the nearest real road, with the Rapide parked precariously on a cliff edge, huddled in the shadow of a 1,000-foot escarpment. I have never, ever been to a place as immediately impressive, as dwarfing, as Monument Valley. Created by 50 million years of erosion by wind and water, this was once a plateau, gradually peeled away over millennia to reveal the monstrous sandstone buttes that vary in height from about 400ft to the 1,000ft monsters that dominate the landscape. And you can get up close and personal - $15 gets you access to a valley trail and one of the most amazing roads in the world. Only one issue. It’s sort of off-road.

  9. “Hey. How low is that car?” asked the attendant at the beginning of the trail, staring dubiously at the Rapide’s carbon front valance. “Probably low enough.” I answered, not really getting his meaning. “Well, uh, whatever,” came the answer. And off we went, trailriding in an Aston Martin. It was somewhat bumpy, and drivers of ‘trail-ready’ SUVs we came across stared slack-jawed at the sight of us, but the Rapide made it all the way without even a graunch. Ok, so maybe a little scrape or two, but nothing that won’t… er… polish out.

    Eventually though, we had to head off, and disappeared north and east. Another few hundred miles, and we find ourselves in Grand Junction, Colorado, with the weather definitely turning. We’ve been climbing, the temperature has dropped 30 degrees, and there has been - oddly - snow on the roadside cacti for the last few miles. We seek out more back roads on our way up to a ski resort called Vail and remain committed to finding the roads off-freeway. But there’s a fairly major problem: the Rapide is mounted on summer sports rubber, and where we want to go is alpine - pure ice and snow. To try to avoid the ice-free freeways on summer tyres in a 550bhp, RWD GT car would be pushing the clauses of our insurance policy. Already, I’ve been slithering around in a graceless fashion, and it’s starting to make me nervous.

  10. A quick pre-arranged rendezvous and half an hour with an impact wrench later, and we’ve swapped all four points for snow tyres. Handy that. The difference is night and day. Turns out the summer tyres had the absorbency and grip characteristics of Bakelite up here, irritating the ride and leaving the Rapide skating and nervous. The winters transform the ride and generally make the Rapide S into the car you wish it to be. Confident, absorbent, full of clear messages. And, yes, those messages might be telling you that this is a big, heavy car with a tendency to pendulum if you push too hard, but these are not muddied or confused titbits of information: if you ignore them, you do so deliberately.

    And so, within 24 hours, I find myself slowly drifting an Aston Martin Rapide not on sand, but on snow. With more practice and the confidence of over a thousand miles between us, the Aston starts to gel even more. It’s better when treated with a firm hand, and Track mode handles pretty much anything. Press and hold the traction button for a second time, though, and you get the full Off position, which allows for some dignified on-demand showboating through gorgeous American back roads bracketed by pine forests. It looks and smells like an advertisement for fabric softener here, all clean and fresh, sunny and white.

  11. We end up running towards Vail on a road called the 10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway, past Leadville and up towards the White River National Forest. It’s just as incredible as Monument and Vegas, but for entirely different reasons - big white mountains, crisp and frigid, compared to big red mesa, hot and dusty. And it’s all - in American terms, at least - just up the road. We make it to Vail and basically collapse in several untidy heaps - we’ve covered four states, 1,273miles, 30°C, some of the world’s most incredible scenery and every type of surface and condition you care to mention.

    A lengthy lesson in what it takes to be a usable GT car, then. And the Rapide S stands up. It is, however, not without its faults. If we’re being brutal, the Rapide is not a revelation - if you weren’t fond of the Rapide, then the S will do little to change your mind. It’s still cramped in the back, not - ultimately - as relaxed in terms of ride as it could be. It is starting to feel its age - especially when you take into account the awkward and clunky satellite-navigation and screen animations, and can’t offer the slick finality of advanced contemporary eight-speed gearboxes that would suit the car so well. Stuff available on GTs a third of the price.

  12. But I’m not sure it actually needs any of that. Because you don’t buy this Aston to be the cutting edge of anything. You buy this Aston because it’s charming, artful and has more personality than it knows what to do with. After such a glorious drive, for me, it’s like this: a £10 digital watch is more reliable than a mechanical one, and will tell better time. This is fact. Objectively, it is a better tool. But it won’t look half as good, or be even a tenth as satisfying to own and use as a more expensive, objectively less good watch with cogs and springs.

    The Aston Rapide S has that kind of vibe: ultimately not perfect, but a warm, personable, lovable, desirable thing. A depth of singular experience, rather than breadth of point scoring. And when it comes to turning a journey across America into an adventure, I can’t think of a car I’d rather have been in.

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