Driving Aston Martin’s Analog Sports Cars

If you’re lucky enough to regularly attend launches for new Aston Martin models, you might begin to feel like Bill Murray’s character in the 1993 film, Groundhog Day. You’ll swear you were on the same introductory drive several years before, and you’ll need to study the British company’s press releases and closely examine the car’s details to see the changes. Aston’s new cars tend to be iterations of their tried and true styling, chassis, and engines.

Conversely, Ferrari is always pushing ahead with new styling, technology, and mega horsepower numbers. Ferrari’s new four-seat sports car, the FF, is powered by a V-12 that develops 651 hp at 8200 rpm, delivered through the four wheels by a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox with a separate two-speed gearbox for the front axle. The trick 4RM all-wheel-drive system adds only 90 pounds to the car’s weight. Impressive.

The new Aston Martin Rapide S carries on with a revised version of the VH platform, which traces back to the launch of the DB9 in 2004. The transmission is a traditional torque converter ZF six-speed automatic. It’s perfectly adequate, but it can be caught out at times and isn’t the fastest shifting gearbox on the market. Aston’s fourth-generation “AM11” V-12 engine is full of character and makes good power, but it lacks the spine-tingling brilliance and high-revving nature of Maranello’s V-12s. And the Rapide’s 5.9-liter falls about 100 hp short of the FF’s engine.

I recently spent the day with a new Rapide S at Atlanta Motorsports Park in Georgia, getting a a ton of track time in both dry and wet conditions. It was huge fun to drive. It’s refreshing not having to toggle through switches on the steering wheel and not dealing with a multitude of setting and configurations. The gauges are simple and clear, with no overdone digital readouts and displays. The hydraulic power steering feels pure and honest, telling you exactly what the car is doing no matter what the conditions. You can adjust the balance of the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive Rapide with the throttle. Brilliant.

Maybe Aston’s antiquated technology and shortage of R&D—especially compared with Ferrari—is a blessing for true car guys. In a way, driving the Rapide is like driving a Subaru BRZ or Scion FR-S, because it’s on the opposite end of the scale of hyper-tech cars like the Nissan GT-R.

The Rapide is like a very expensive, much heavier BRZ/FR-S. The Aston and the Japanese twins are rear-drive sports cars. Both are focused. They’re limited in their technology, offering only the kind of features that improve performance numbers without dulling the visceral experience from behind the wheel. The difference is that the BRZ/FR-S was actively developed from scratch as a pure driver’s car, while the Vantage is simpler than its direct rivals because of Aston’s shortage of funds to advance technological development.

Conversely, there’s the Nissan GT-R. I attended the launch of the Japanese supercar outside Tokyo in 2007. Its performance was staggering on the mountain roads in Japan -- I had never driven anything quite like it. When the GT-R came to America, I jumped at the chance to drive one again. Like a child who meets a far-too-famous TV star randomly on the street, I was disappointed. Sure, it was fast, but it was like driving a video game. The car left me slightly cold. Having spent a good amount of time in pretty much every Aston built since the original Vanquish, I have never been left with that impression. The feel of an Aston is lovely and organic -- analog, if you will.

Spending time in the Aston is proof that car development isn’t an exact science. It was such a pleasure to thrash the Rapide S around the track in Georgia. The balance and adjustability found in the Aston is a disappearing art. Active sway bars, transmissions that only confirm a shift to the driver via a tachometer change, and steering systems by Atari are taking over the car world. Astons are evolutionary and, even if the cars seem repetitive, each new model has been subtly improved. The Aston isn’t perfect, far from it. Still, cars like the Rapide S need to be celebrated and honored, no matter how they stack up against the competition on paper.

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