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Aston Martin’s “practical” exotic, four-seater sports car concept

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January 11, 2006

Aston Martin’s “practical” exotic, four-seater sports car concept

Aston Martin’s “practical” exotic, four-seater sports car concept

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January 12, 2006 Exotic four seater sportscars have not exactly been plentiful in the history of automotive evolution, though there’s a definite trend towards four berths in recent times with the Maserati Quattroporte, Porsche Panamera and now Aston Martin has shown a 4-seat concept car at the 2006 Detroit Motorshow. To be known as the Rapide, the 6.0-liter V12, 480 hp coupe is the work of Aston Martin Design Director Marek Reichman, in conjunction with CEO Dr Ulrich Bez. P The Aston Martin Rapide concept is a four-door, high performance coupé of remarkable grace and poise. Based on Aston Martin's unique VH (Vertical/Horizontal) architecture, the Rapide combines the company's commitment to power, beauty and soul with space and practicality for every eventuality. It stands for stylistic excellence, market innovation and flexible manufacturing. The Rapide is the epitome of Aston Martin’s low-volume, high-technology approach, the synergy of modern methods and materials with traditional skills to create a new form of craftsmanship for the 21st century.

While the Rapide retains Aston Martin's inherent design characteristics the additional length and extra doors build upon the DB9’s taut, poised stance, generating a natural, even flow and a dynamic sensation that's conveyed even when the Rapide is standing still. “In terms of elegance the Rapide is adding value to the DB9’s undisputed elegance and subtle understatement,” says Dr Ulrich Bez, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Aston Martin. “Our cars must look beautiful from all angles, and the four-door is very well balanced.” Practicality and power are the Rapide's signature qualities, but above all it is recognisably an Aston Martin, a testament to the strength of the marque's design language. The Rapide's four-door body provides greater access to the extended architecture, making it a performance car for every occasion. “The proportions must be perfect,” says Dr Bez, “if we couldn’t achieve this then we wouldn’t have made the car.”

ARCHITECTURE

Underpinning the Rapide concept is Aston Martin's VH architecture, developed to offer exceptional manufacturing flexibility. This high-strength, low-mass architecture forms the backbone of the current generation of Aston Martins, spearheaded by the DB9 Coupé and flanked by the DB9 Volante and the Vantage.

The extruded aluminium construction of the VH architecture can be modified in both length and width, providing a myriad of packaging options, and the chemically-bonded structure (using glues derived from aircraft manufacture) is mated with bodywork that mixes aluminum and composite materials. The architecture’s flexibility is further demonstrated by its use in the _ DBR9 racing car, where it is combined with carbon-fibre composite body panels to produce a modern race car of rare beauty.

Aston Martin’s traditional hand-finishing, craft skills and attention to detail operate side by side on the ultra-modern production line at Gaydon in Warwickshire. The VH architecture is at the heart of this manufacturing operation, its modular structure providing such inherent rigidity that it has given the company’s designers and engineers the same levels of freedom as their predecessors, 50 years before. In today’s marketplace, even low volume manufacturers like Aston Martin are governed by strict legislation and the need to balance power, weight distribution, handling and safety. Utilising the VH architecture as the foundation for the new Rapide concept, Aston Martin has illustrated how their current range might be expanded, a four-door coupé that complements the formidable DB9 2+2, DB9 Volante and the compact and muscular Vantage.

DESIGN ETHOS: EXTERIOR

The visual language of Aston Martin is highly distinctive. Across a range of three cars, the company's design team, led by Design Director Marek Reichman, fulfils Aston Martin’s core values – power, beauty and soul – with bodywork that is taut, poised and muscular. “The brand is about the driving experience,” says Reichman, explaining how the concept is intended to provide everything customers have to come to expect from an Aston Martin, and more. “We wanted to make the most beautiful four-door car in the world,” he says, as he traces the Rapide’s development from a series of exploratory sketches in the Summer of 2005 to the finished, fully-functioning prototype. In the process, Reichman and his team explored the way the Rapide might be used, where and when it would be driven, even who would be driving. The four-door body was a natural way of providing access to the Rapide’s increased interior space, part of Aston Martin's commitment to design usability. “If there’s a space then you should also offer accessibility, otherwise you’re not being honest,” explains Dr. Bez.

Reichman describes the 'beautiful harmony' of the line that runs through the Rapide's bodywork, giving the car the appearance of motion even while stationary, an athlete in flight, rather than crouched and coiled upon the starting blocks. “It’s not a wedge, it’s graceful and flowing,” he explains, “we decided to let the lines flow right through the body to the tail, which ends very beautifully. In silhouette, the Rapide shares the same sinuous line as its two-door siblings, although when compared with the poised stance of the Vantage with its sprinter-like forward thrust, the Rapide is a long distance runner.” Reichman believes that proportion is fundamental to how a car is perceived. “There are forms that appear at ease and forms that _ appear tense and uncomfortable,” he says, “we wanted to make everything on the Rapide work in harmony.” Achieving this required the intuitive skills of Aston Martin’s modeling team, who work with both raw clay models and advanced computer modelling. “We put character and feeling into the surface,” says Reichman. “Our designers and modellers work with a sculptural language here at Aston Martin - the play of light on the surface are incredibly important to us.” Full-scale models are viewed in daylight and dusk conditions, for example, to ensure that the dramatic surface forms remain an integral element of each and every Aston Martin. Reichman believes that technology like the VH architecture allows him “to keep the form language and soul of the product.”

The Rapide represents the pinnacle of Aston Martin's design ethos, a formal language developed through the carefully balanced combination of elegance and aggression. In silhouette, three-quarters view and from both the front and rear, the Rapide is instantly recognisable as an Aston Martin, regardless of whether it is wearing the famous winged badge (still faithfully rendered in pewter and enamel on every model). The soft curves of the flank kick up into muscular haunches above the rear wheel arches, with the roofline staying low, true to the distinctive Aston Martin silhouette. The Rapide also features the metal side strakes, another signature feature, while the doors feature Aston Martin's unique 'swan wing' design, opening upwards at a 12-degree angle away from the kerb to provide greater access. The rear doors cut unexpectedly deep into the flank below the C-pillar, increasing the width of the opening to improve access. At 5m long, the Rapide is 30cm longer than a DB9, and only 140kg heavier. “Aston Martin should always be about the proportions,” Reichman says. “Although the Rapide is slightly taller than the DB9, the proportion of the section is the same, allowing the flowing lines to encase a spacious passenger compartment.”

DESIGN ETHOS: INTERIOR

The Rapide continues Aston Martin’s reputation for highly-tailored, individual cockpits. The trademark glass starter button is a small element of theatre that is also beautiful and tactile, the perfect first point of contact with the car. Providing sporty accommodation for four passengers in such a low and beautiful coupé presents a formidable packaging challenge.

Sitting low to the ground, just four centimetres higher than a DB9, the interior is an exquisite leather-swathed package, with custom-embossed shagreen hide specially sourced for the Rapide . “It’s very cosseting,” admits Reichman, “it’s about creating a personal experience of the journey.” Like a set of exquisite hand-tooled luggage, the interior is compact yet also surprisingly spacious, with great attention to detail, like the extensive map and accessory storage and the mood lighting that maximises the feeling of volume.

Aston Martin has always been about truth to materials: wood is valued for its structural properties and appearance, as are aluminium, glass and leather, while carbon fibre is utilized for its strength and weight-saving abilities and not just a showy finish. A transparent polycarbonate roof brings an increased sense of spatial awareness, opening up the passengers' vistas beyond the driver’s focus on the road ahead. This ultra-light transparent material is a first for the company. The Rapide has dual climate zones, and the luxuriously appointed rear seats come with their own DVD screens and controls for the audio system and environmental system.

The dashboard is very driver-focused, the three passengers can also be as engaged and involved in the journey. For example, the satellite navigation system is fully accessible to all passengers, with a handheld Bluetooth unit that allows rear seat passengers to add their input to the route ahead. It’s this level of involvement that characterises the Aston Martin experience, and it is vital that both driver and passengers can share it.

The generous rear luggage compartment is accessed via a hatchback, a practical feature shared with the Vantage and the pioneering DB2/4 of 1952. In addition, each rear seat folds down individually, allowing for myriad interior options, be it three players plus three sets of golf clubs, or four people and their skis, which slot neatly above the central console. To give the concept a real sense of occasion, the feeling that every journey ends in an event, the interiors team have incorporated a chiller cabinet in the boot, perfectly shaped to hold a single Magnum of Jacquesson champagne, along with four elegant flutes.

The clock is an integral part of the Rapide's elegant dashboard. For this element, Aston Martin turned to their existing partners Jaeger-LeCoultre, world leaders in fine timekeeping and original manufacturers of dials in Aston Martins as far back as the 1929 1.5 Litre First Series. The Swiss watchmaker, which dates back to 1833, also created the exclusive AMVOX collection of understated gentlemen's timepieces. Aston Martin's engineers and designers collaborated with Jaeger-LeCoultre on the design of the Rapide concept's timekeeper, which takes on the characteristic traits of the AMVOX watches. The 270 degree sweep of numerals, dark grey dial with circular brushed surface, hands, numerals and raised sapphire crystal combine to make a beautifully refined object at the heart of the car, a series of sophisticated volumes created by the layers of the dials.

TRADITION

Aston Martin has always acknowledged the need for elegant, high-speed touring sports cars. The four-door, four-seater saloon displayed at the 1927 Olympia Motor Show began a long tradition of cars that combined elegance, style and power with usability. The Olympia car was a closed-body tourer that sported long, flowing lines for the era, tapering to a luggage trunk and mounted on a tubular frame. The car was also low to the ground, purposeful and sporting. Four years later another four-door saloon was exhibited, with an aluminium-panelled body by Bertelli, finely engineered, detailed and upholstered throughout, with intriguing touches like the roof-mounted opening glass panel above the rear passenger compartment.

Experimentation and innovation continued. The 'Atom' project began in 1939 as a response to materials shortages, packaging design and post-war needs. A four-door saloon, the Atom was built around a steel tube chassis, upon which the bodywork was mounted. The strictly geometrical bodywork drew upon the new science of streamlining, and the car was smaller and lighter than what had gone before, with an innovative chassis design that ensured the company retained its image as a technical ground-breaker. In the decades following the war, the David Brown-era cars created the quintessential image of the grand tourer, two-door fourseaters that remain icons of car design. Beneath the supremely elegant skins there were yet more technological firsts, like the strong chassis-and-tube 'Superleggera' construction of the early DB series. In the 1970s and 80s, Aston Martin was uniquely positioned to accommodate almost any customer request, and four-door variants of the V8 and Virage models were built for a select number of discerning customers.

THE JOURNEY

Every journey in an Aston Martin is an occasion, proving that the most enjoyable way of getting between two points isn't always a straight line. The Vanquish S, DB9 Coupé, DB9 Volante and Vantage are all designed to sharpen the senses, extracting every grain of texture from the road surface, with high levels of driver feedback and involvement. Yet when conditions preclude making progress or spirited driving, an Aston Martin adopts a relaxing, restrained character, with the massive reserves of torque and power combining with the uniquely cosseting interior to envelop the driver and their passengers in the Aston Martin experience.

The Rapide continues this tradition - a fast, cross-country machine that excels in any driving conditions. The Aston Martin customer doesn’t need to have their choice dissected in minute detail: these are cars which appeal primarily to the heart, strong emotional design that is also subtle and discrete. The Rapide is a uniquely personal machine, its interior representing the _ very best of the company’s immensely skilled workforce, demonstrating how each Aston Martin is still tailored to a customer’s precise requirements. It also represents the high degree of personalisation offered by ultra-modern production facilities and a model line-up underpinned by a flexible architecture - a new model that could broaden the range to cater for every requirement.

Like all Aston Martins, the Rapide is a superlative performer. Powered by the V12 engine from the DB9 but uprated to 480 brake horsepower mated to a ZF Touchtronic gearbox, the car has performance equivalent to the DB9, although the gearing has been adjusted to suit the longer wheelbase and more refined ride. Carbon brakes and callipers, a first for Aston Martin, give the Rapide immense stability and stopping power. “A sports car is not simply characterised by the number of doors,” says Dr Bez, “so a four door car can still have the looks and performance of a sports car and the Rapide is certainly true to its name, providing an unrivalled way of taking four adults on a long-distance journey along any type of road.”

The Rapide is serious about the business of driving, a chassis that is equally at home amongst winding back roads, mountain passes or high-speed carriageways. It has the expertise to devour trans-continental distances while leaving the driver feeling fresh and alert, however far or fast. The rich exhaust note is intended to be heard echoing off the sheer rock walls of the Alps, the steering demands to be taken to the switchbacks of Austria's Grossglockner Pass, while the engine begs to be opened up along a stretch of German Autobahn. Although the power delivery is unrelenting, this is also a car designed for every day use, with ample space for a golfing weekend for three in Scotland , a lengthy trans-American journey or even a trip to a Bordeaux vineyard, with space to bring back 20 bottles of wine. You can sweep up to a hotel, restaurant or première and the four doors allow your passengers to enter and exit with style.

An Aston Martin is about elegance, power and innovation, a bespoke form constructed to high standards that provide the model definition of 21 st century design and engineering execution.

The Rapide is a seminal evocation of Aston Martin's recent history, proof positive that the high performance four-door automobile need not imitate the conservative three-box saloon; it can be a car of extreme elegance and beauty. A sporting coupé with real heritage, the Rapide is a practical choice that expresses the pure emotion and passion that underpins the Aston Martin marque, its rich heritage and design DNA.

Aston Martin begins the 21 st century with almost limitless potential. As one of the strongest and most recognisable brands in automotive history, the company now has the products, technology, production facilities and distribution network to offer unparalleled choice in this market segment, able to move rapidly from prototyping to concept to production. The company's fast-expanding global dealership network continues to revolutionise the highperformance sales environment, with a series of crisp, contemporary showrooms that highlight the very best in modern architecture and design, making them the perfect backdrop for the product

About the Author
Mike Hanlon After Editing or Managing over 50 print publications primarily in the role of a Magazine Doctor, Mike embraced the internet full-time in 1995 and became a "start-up all-rounder" – quite a few start-ups later, he founded Gizmag in 2002. Now he can write again.   All articles by Mike Hanlon
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