Remember the poor old Aston Martin Lagonda? Well, keep it to yourself. Not content with first making it the most unreliable car in its history and then last year exhuming its name to append it to a concept car of breathtaking ugliness, Aston Martin has now bestowed the ultimate indignity upon its 1970s anti-hero: as of now and officially at least, it no longer exists.
I know this because Aston Martin describes this Rapide as the first four-door sports car in its history, thereby neatly excising all those painful memories of the Aston that no longer dares speak its name. But you can see why; this Rapide is as beautiful as the Lagonda was hideous and as well finished as the Lagonda was loosely assembled.
But how good is the Rapide to drive? As good as – let's aim high here – a Porsche Panamera Turbo? The answer is now known, because over one weekend and many hundreds of miles on road and track alike with Stuttgart's sledgehammer in close company, the much-awaited, sorely anticipated Rapide has bared its soul.
This was always going to be an epic confrontation, made all the more intriguing by the fact that for it to happen at all, both manufacturers have had to stray far from their traditional comfort zones into areas unknown by Porsche and conveniently forgotten by Aston Martin.
But most beguiling is that despite the narrowness of the brief – both firms set out to build high-performance, front-engined sports cars that look like coupes but function as sedans – the two vehicles are so different in design and execution. Porsche decided to place the colossal weight of its engineering know-how behind the Panamera, because it could. So, the Turbo comes to market with forced induction for its direct-injection, 4.8-liter V8, plus a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, four-wheel drive and a state-of-the-art information interface.
Truth is, Aston Martin couldn't build a car like that even if it wanted to. Now, as ever, it appeals on more traditional level to a more conservative audience, with a conventional 6.0-liter V12 breathing at atmospheric pressure and transferring its energy to the rear wheels alone through a normal, six-speed automatic gearbox. As for the on-board electronics…let's just say the Rapide's navigation system is complex.
But at least it's an attractive chattel to park outside your house, something only those employed in Zuffenhausen might rush to say about the Porsche. The Aston only looks a little strange because your judgment is unavoidably informed by knowledge of the DB9, and leaves the impression that the Rapide is the result of one being heated up and gently tugged at either end until the desired interior package was achieved.
Judged on its own merits and to these eyes at least, it is not less than gorgeous. As for the Porsche, even really quite ugly cars usually become easier on the eye over time, but not the Panamera – or not yet, at least. To say the light cast on it by running side by side with the Aston is unflattering is to grossly understate the truth.
Still, the Porsche puts a devastating escape strategy under your right foot. Look at the headline figures and you'll conclude there should be little to tell between the cars; the 493hp Porsche has a little more power than the 470hp Aston, but a touch more weight with it.
But these are not the numbers to focus on. Imagine instead the effect on real-world pace of the Panamera's 516lb ft of torque relative to the Aston's 442lb ft, and of the fact that it generates it at 2250rpm, fewer than half the revolutions required by the Rapide to provide its lesser urge.
We discovered that even on a wet track the Porsche would consistently bludgeon its way to 60mph in substantially less than five seconds – with four large guys on board. You'd need to push the Aston off a cliff before it could do that in the dry.
But do not equate being outpowered with being outmaneuvered. The news Porsche won't want to hear is that the impeccable behavior of Aston's most recent new offering, the V12 Vantage, was not a one-off.
In fact, the Rapide suggests Aston's chassis department has had something of an epiphany. No longer is eight out of 10 good enough; the Rapide's chassis feels as if has been honed until no further detectable improvement was possible. It rides more firmly than the Porsche, but with no greater harshness. Aston Martin has ruthlessly exploited the potential of the Rapide's extended wheelbase to deliver the right blend of primary body control and secondary ride resolution for such a car. Yet at the other end of the dynamic spectrum, it will execute some of the most elegant 100-yard drifts you have ever seen.
More relevantly (albeit less amusingly), this excellence is underpinned by steering that is bizarrely communicative given the Rapide's weight. It may be only 44lbs lighter than the Porsche, but when you're out there running hard down the length of a decent back road, the Aston feels to be carrying closer to half a ton less heft.
Here the Panamera's numerical advantage is not enough. Yes, it's quicker in a straight line, better braked (at least with the test car's optional ceramic rotors) and decisively grippier than the Aston, but step into the Porsche after a good run in the Rapide and it feels like you're driving while wearing oven-proof mitts.
We discovered this along the length of a mountain road in Wales. It was narrow, more suited to a Lotus Elise than brutes like these, and it showed in the starkest terms how a bit of confidence can more than make up for any comparative deficiency in shove or grip. By being that bit easier to place and conveying precisely the nature of the changeable conditions underfoot, the Aston had no problem at all keeping up with the Panamera, while amusing and enthusing its driver in a way the Porsche would not even recognise, let alone be able to emulate.The Panamera felt dulled and dull next to the slower Rapide. The Aston never got away from the Porsche because the Panamera's traction and torque could recover any lost ground on the shortest straight, but it was a strangely remote and joyless experience by comparison.
Where the Porsche makes more sense is in everyday use; you don't even need to sit in the back of the Porsche to know it wins the space race with derisory ease. But its advantages stretch further still. It is a far easier car to operate. There's no glass starter to plug into (and fall out of) the dashboard, no illegible dials or unintelligible navigation.
The Panamera also offers Porsche's best interior (left), a place of genuine luxury and quality from which to watch the miles flash by, and one fully commensurate with the six-figure price tag.
Anyone familiar with any Aston cabin (below) since the launch of the DB9 nearly six years ago will find no great surprises in the Rapide's driving environment. It gives the impression of having been designed more to be looked at than operated, and in that regard it has aged well. But it's not just its layout that's inferior to that of its rival. All around you can see where Porsche has been able to spend more money finding better solutions. The Panamera's seats are more comfortable, its ventilation is more effective, its headlights are more piercing, its driving position is more variable, its on-board stowage opportunities are more generous.
In more practical terms, the Porsche will use a load less fuel than the Rapide and, thanks to its gargantuan 100-liter 26.5gal fuel tank, will require refueling even less often – though it should be said that we were pleasantly surprised by how far even the Aston could be pedaled between stops. And there's not just more room in the back, there's hugely more in the Porsche's trunk too, whether the seats are up or down, and when families use cars such as these for holidays, such considerations are important.
Important, too, will be the Panamera's four-wheel drive for anyone fancying a blast to the Alps for a few days, a trip for which the Rapide would be wholly unsuited, for a range of diverse reasons. Interestingly, however, we'd put the Aston down as the quieter car. Huge work, including the installation of double-glazed glass, has been done to make the Rapide the most refined Aston in history, and in the way you can hear the V12 when you want to, and not when you don't, all of Aston's targets in this respect appear to have been met.
Should we have expected more from the Rapide, particularly as it costs almost half as much again as the flagship Panamera? That was never likely; for every Rapide built by Magna Steyr in Austria, 10 Panameras will be built by Porsche in Leipzig. Now, as ever, Aston Martin will be asking its customers to trade ability for exclusivity, that extra level of designed-in functionality for a less tangible but no less important slug of designer desirability.
For me, in this case at least, it's a formula that works. I admire the Panamera and can see how such abundant talent and the way it has been refined by Porsche's peerless engineering know-how may appeal to those happy not to focus too much on how it looks. And, crucially, if you are looking for a business tool, there is no comparison to make; it is the Porsche you must have.
In truth, the Panamera has but one serious failing, and that is its inability even to communicate on an emotional level, let alone convince. I cannot recall another car for which I have felt so much respect and admiration that has left me so unmoved.
And this is exactly the ground upon which the Rapide treads with such confidence. No, it's not as technically able as the Porsche, but it's far closer than you'd think. And whether you look at it, listen to it or just get in and drive it, the Rapide grabs your heart on your first meeting. Even now, some days since the end of my brief encounter, it feels disinclined to let go.
So while you may think you need a Panamera in your life in the way that few, if any, will need a Rapide, so too will people desire and even burn to own the Aston, feelings it is hard to imagine ever popping into the head of a prospective Panamera buyer.
Which is the better car? The cheaper, quicker, more spacious, efficient, functional and useful Panamera. Which would I have, given the ability to afford either? The Rapide, without a second thought.