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km : First Drive

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13 May 2010

My first thought was, “Sure, South Florida sounds like a great place to spend some time in a new Aston Martin.” Then it occurred to me that at few places in the world are the locals so blasé about exotic cars as this part of the country, especially Miami. Money attracts beauty, and the tip of the Sunshine State is home to countless wealthy celebrities, professional athletes and entrepreneurs as well as a fair collection of shady dealers. In Miami Beach it seems Lambos, Bentleys, and Ferraris are as common as sand, the nannies drive Porsche SUVs and the housekeepers scratch by in last-gen Bimmers and Benzes.



So on second thought, what the hell is the point of driving the Rapide if no one’s going to pay me any attention?



Oh yes, right; well there is that part about getting to drive the all-new, not-yet-in-dealers Aston Martin Rapide. In South Florida. After all, the white sand beaches, the palm trees and the intense skies of the southern coast do provide a pretty awesome backdrop for something as unique and stunning as the Rapide. The plan wasn’t to stick around Miami anyway, but to do a little “grand touring” through the Florida Keys before ending up at Key West.



If there’s one way to get noticed in Miami with a rare car, it’s this: take possession of it at a cheap tourist hotel, preferably one near the airport. Which is exactly what we did, meeting our liaison at the lovely La Quinta Inn Miami Airport Hotel to the awestruck amazement of a couple dozen outta-towners slamming down the last of the complementary breakfast in the lobby-side Café de La Quinta. Or maybe it was just the sight of two guys with a bunch of luggage travelling in a fancy car together (my wingman for this trip was fellow staffer/photographer Jamie, who like myself is married but happens to have three times as many kids). Either way, everyone was looking at us.



A quick walkaround before the key was handed over reaffirms all our previous encounters with the Rapide, which so far consisted only of auto show displays: the car is hands-down the sexiest production car to roll out of a factory in 2010. Like all other current Aston Martin products, its lines are feminine and its surfaces uncluttered. The paintwork is truly flawless; perfect from every angle. The “Quantum of Solace” Silver coachwork provides an ideal canvas for showing off the Aston’s aluminum grillework. The optional dark-finished wheels look right at home here in Miami.



With the crystal-festooned key in hand and all our luggage carefully situated in the somewhat stingy cargo hatch, we’re soon headed west. Admittedly the drive from Miami to Key West rates among one of the least interesting coastal drives on the planet, at least from a driving enthusiast’s perspective. There’s plenty to see if you feel like stopping, but the act of driving becomes mind-numbingly tedious after a hundred-plus miles of single-file, 45-mph traffic. Seems almost a shame to have a hand-built V12 under the hood when you can barely keep the tach off the idle mark. The upside is that even with 470 horses on tap from the 5.9-liter aluminum mill, the Rapide manages to stretch twenty-one miles worth of travel out of every gallon of premium gas, besting its EPA highway figure by 2 mpg on the way there. The downside, of course, is that we rarely get to open it up and hear the beautiful, lusty song that forty-eight valves make when pumping massive volumes of air through such a precision instrument.



At least the Rapide’s cockpit is a pleasant place to pass time on a monotonous drive. The sculpted high-backed buckets are a pretty perfect fit for each of our six-foot, two-hundred-pound frames. Every surface in the car that isn’t aluminum is covered in soft leather (seats, doors, sill plates, roof pillars, dash and console) or Alcantara (headliner). Wool carpets grace the floors and cargo hold. The absence of wood trim in a $211,000 car — especially an English one — is refreshingly modern.



For such a big car, the cockpit can feel a bit confining; the windshield is steep, the hood is long, the roof is low, the side windows are high and narrow, and there’s no sunroof. The view through the rear window is practically worthless, especially when the hatch is filled with luggage. Not that the cockpit itself is small, it just feels like it is. I haven’t studied the sales brochure that carefully, but I’m guessing Aston Martin probably describes it as a “cozy, intimate driving environment” rather than confining.



Three hours after leaving the city we arrive in Key West, famished and a little bored. We park the Rapide on Duval Street, right in front of the Hard Rock Café, which, oddly, doesn’t seem any more touristy than anything else on the strip. It’s still the heart of lunchtime, and people are simply everywhere. We feed the meter and walk across the street to grab lunch, and the Rapide instantly becomes the center of attention. Cell phones and digi-cams suddenly pop out of pockets and start snapping. The car is a celebrity, and most of its admirers don’t even know why. As we walk away, we hear the voice of a spring break jackass (cargo shorts, too-tight polo shirt, flip flops, backwards ‘Cocks hat, mirrored aviators) tell his girl it’s the new Maserati. It won’t be the last time we hear that.



We watch with amusement from the balcony of the Hard Rock as we order lunch. Maybe it’s the fact that I wore a pink shirt, maybe it’s the overtly sexual aura of the car we’re driving; either way, we both somehow end up ordering fish tacos. Ironically, they’re out of the main ingredient (on Key West?) In the absence of fish, we naturally fall back to the old standby, pulled pork. (Hey, it’s your innuendo, not mine. We’re just two dudes hanging out in Key West. Is it wrong?) For the half-hour or more we sat and ate, the crowd around the Aston never recedes. When we return to the car briefly for a well-being check, every window has been christened in sunscreen-enhanced palm prints. We’ve created quite a scene by simply showing up with this car. Mission accomplished.



To walk off lunch, we take in the numerous tourist shops all along Duval and the nearby streets. T-shirt shops by the dozen, key lime pie on every corner. We pass up numerous fine drinking establishments (world’s smallest bar, boobies-and-beer-no-cover-charge, and so on). The place is like the French Quarter with a tropical breeze, minus the aroma of urine at every turn. Getting away from the main event we make the obligatory visit to Hemingway’s shack and then down to the southernmost point of the continental United States, marked by the legendary bullet-shaped concrete monument.



We return a couple hours later to collect the Rapide, whose magnetic charm seems to have worn off a bit as the port-of-call masses flock back to their docked cruise ships to board in time for dinner. A handful of admirers still lingers, bathing us in jealous glances. After a bit of kibitzing about the car, we head to our hotel to wait for the sun to go down. We’re in the final days of winter, and the ideal window for sunset photography will be slim.



“What’s her name?” a young man passing on a bike asks as we’re shooting the car a couple hours later. “You know when something’s that sexy, you have to give her a name!” We smile, wave him out of frame, keep shooting. This car is mystical; it holds a power over everyone within its sight. Getting our full battery of shots in before the sun is gone proves tougher than we thought; no one can pass it without talking to us. And for the last time, no, it’s not a Maserati.



Shooting done, we head back to Duval for a bite to eat. The nighttime scene is even nuttier than mid-afternoon. With all the crazy people wandering about, we park the Rapide discretely on a side street and walk several blocks back to the action. We’re on a hunt for the best key lime pie, and a reliable tipster clues us into the fact that a little place called Kelly’s is where it’s at. Kelly happens to be actress Kelly McGillis, and it turns out you can make a dinner out of gin and tonics and key lime pie. In Key West, anyway.



Afterwards we cruise the island like a couple of high schoolers — windows down, tunes cranking, using the transmission’s manual mode to hold first and second gear as we rip from block to block. The sound of the engine is so addictive, especially when it barks between shifts, and so is the attention the Rapide garners. We can’t help but think even in South Beach this car would turn heads left and right.



Next morning we’re back on the road to Miami. Traffic’s a bit more sparse, allowing for a few opportunities to actually drive the car a bit. The Rapide is long at sixteen-and-a-half feet, but it drives like a smaller car. Aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber make up the bodywork — there’s no steel in the structure — helping keep the weight in check, but at 4300 pounds, it’s actually heavier than it feels.



The bonded aluminum chassis is rigid, providing a solid foundation on which to tune the dual-wishbone suspension setup at each corner. The adaptive dampers prove unnecessary for our conditions, as the standard setting strikes a pretty ideal balance between sport and comfort; the sport setting takes the Rapide outside its comfort zone as a grand tourer, inducing mild creaks and groans over pavement imperfections. The steering wheel feels incredibly small for the size of the car, but the speed-sensitive steering rack is light, direct and responsive. Six-piston front and four-piston rear brakes are overkill for this trip, but would make perfect sense if we were on the Autobahn, an opportunity we’d love to experience in this car.



Before we get back to Miami, I take a stint in the back seat. After all, it’s a four-door four-seater intended for long-distance travel in style. The first challenge is getting through the narrow rear door opening, but once I’m inside, the Rapide is pleasantly accommodating. The rear bucket seats, which are sculpted almost identically to the front set, hug me in all the right places without feeling cramped. Headroom is at a premium (but I’m more torso than legs anyway), and footroom is even dearer with the front seat slid rearward. The view from the rear seats is not for the claustrophobic, and the very shape of the rear door glass is ample reason why Aston doesn’t fit roll-up sunshades to its windows.



Rolling into downtown Miami, the trip computer tells us our average fuel economy has dropped to a little over 18 mpg over the course of 350 miles. Not bad for an exotic sedan with a V12. The final stop on the trip is the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the waters of Biscayne Bay in the shadows of the city’s high-rises. We pull up to the valet stand, where he takes the key and unloads our bags, initially unaware that the car isn’t a DB9. When we open the rear doors to give it a final lookover, he flips out, immediately reaching for his camera phone. Clearly it’s the first Rapide he’s had the pleasure of parking, and clearly it meets with his approval.



As we check into the hotel, our new best friend makes sure the Aston is parked prominently in front. I think he’s enjoying the sight of it as much as I have. Two days isn’t quite enough for a car like the Rapide, but I feel very lucky to have had the chance. It isn’t easy to let her go; she has me under her spell.


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