Hooligan With Four Doors and a $200,000 Price

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On a scale that ranges from "coolly rational" on the left to "totally berserk" on the right, Aston Martin's newly updated Rapide S four-door sports car is way over to starboard -- just short of monster trucks and jet-powered dragsters.

There's lunacy in each atom of its structure and overwrought emotion in every revolution of the crankshaft in its 550-horsepower 5.9-liter V-12. It's a $200,000-and-change car that demands to be taken on its own crazy terms. And if you can manage that, it can be wonderful.

To oversimplify only slightly, the rear-wheel-drive Rapide is a version of the DB9 sports car with a wheelbase that's been stretched 9.8 inches -- more than long enough to shove in a pair of rear doors. In fact, at 117.7 inches, the Rapide's wheelbase is 4.5 inches longer than that of the midsize Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan and 2.7 inches longer than that of Porsche's Panamera four-door.

First shown in concept form in 2006, the Rapide entered production in 2010. The 2014 Rapide S, on sale now, is the first significant update since then.

The basic structure -- made of aluminum forgings, castings and extrusions that have been glued and riveted together -- is Aston's VH platform, which also underpins the DB9, Vantage and Vanquish. To balance the weight of the V-12 up front, the 6-speed transmission is mounted between the rear wheels. Each of the four wheels is independently suspended on its own set of double wishbones. Those wheels are huge: 20-inches in diameter covered in 245/35 ZR20 Bridgestone tires in front and 295/30 ZR20 rubbed in the rear.

The body that covers the structure is the Rapide's greatest asset. This is a ridiculously sleek car; the shape doesn't merely cut through the air but slices it into fillets. It's so perfectly and provocatively proportioned that at first sight the rear doors are easily overlooked. Compared with the Rapide, the Panamera looks like a sausage.

But there was something generic in the appearance of the original Rapide; the nose was too bland and ordinary. So the Rapide S gets a new front end with a revised hood, sparkly LED headlamps and an open-face aluminum grille that looks more substantial and ferocious than before. And the rear deck now concludes in a ducktail spoiler. Over all, the Rapide S seems more serious and mechanical than before. It's no longer a rolling sculpture, it's now a muscular beast.

To meet European pedestrian-protection regulations, Aston has moved the engine down by three-quarters of an inch. That's about the only thing that's down about the engine, though. Thanks to revised cylinder heads and a few electronic tweaks, output has swollen from the original's 470 horsepower. But it's the quality of that power that distinguishes the Aston from German hot rods like the 560-horsepower BMW M5, the 550-horse Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG or Porsche's top-of-the-line 550-horse Panamera Turbo S.

The Germans have been moving from high-revving naturally breathing V-8s to turbocharged V-8s that make their power at relatively low engine speeds. In contrast, the Aston V-12 needs to be spun up to make power; the peak torque of 457 pound-foot comes at a thumping 5,500 r.p.m. and maximum horsepower at 6,750 r.p.m.

And the engine loves to romp at those elevated speeds. As the engine builds speed it sends out a thrilling tenor trill that the driver can feel as a vibration at the base of the skull. Making an upshift with the paddles behind the steering wheel feels like directing a choir to drop an octave. Such a move is so aurally satisfying that for a moment the horrifying mileage ratings -- 13 m.p.g. in the city and 19 on the highway -- seem almost reasonable. But leaving the transmission to shift itself in automatic mode makes the car feel relatively lazy. This is a powertrain that needs its master's spur to stay engaged.

The steering is a touch heavy, but the rack itself is quick and communicative, and that helps the big car feel smaller than it is. At the limits of adhesion the Rapide S will push its nose through a corner. But if this Aston is going quick enough to test those limits, it's either on a racetrack or fleeing a crime scene.

Car and Driver measured the Rapide S, which weighs 4,410 pounds, ripping to 60 miles per hour in just 4.7 seconds and blitzing the quarter mile in 13.1 seconds at 111 m.p.h. There are quicker four-doors -- the all-wheel-drive Panamera Turbo S runs to 60 m.p.h. in 3.3 seconds -- but none that perform such feats more flamboyantly.

But that melodrama severely compromises other aspects of the Rapide S. All four doors swing up as they open to ensure that every entry and exit is an event, but actually lowering in under the low roof takes care, and hauling the doors back down to close them would be easier with a rope and a grappling hook.

Looking forward from the driver's seat, the roof is so low that it's hard to see overhead traffic signals, and the pillars are so thick that a Hummer can hide behind them. But that's still better than the rearward view that, if it were any more restricted, would be nonexistent. Cargo room is negligible under the hatchback.

The cockpit can feel claustrophobic with all four occupants in narrow seats fitted between a center tunnel and thick side sills. It's a beautifully crafted and decorated space, all covered in carbon fiber and beautifully stitched leather, but it's not a sumptuous luxury environment. This is, instead, a distinctive, eccentric and theatrical four-door sports car. It should be appreciated as such.

With a few options aboard, including a Bang & Olufsen stereo, the test car's total price came to $223,595.

So crazy costs money. How crazy do you want to be?

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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