Torque shows

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 March, 2010, 12:00am

Performance-car engines are sometimes like comedians in that they depend on good timing. When a good comic delivers a punchline the audience can sometimes take a few seconds of silence to geddit - until they burst into uproarious laughter.

In a similar way I was involved in an extremely good example of the advantages of torque over power the other week - and of how timing its use is important to avoid being a laughing stock. I was test-driving Aston Martin's new four-door sportscar, the Rapide, in Spain. The six-litre V12 engine has been retuned and delivers more torque, lower in the rev range (because that's more useful in a street car), at the expense of a little top-end power. Nonchalantly, I tapped off the traction control and planted my right foot. It took the car a second or two to comprehend the depths of my stupidity - and then all hell broke loose. The rear wheels spun, the car jiggled, my heart raced, palms sweated and I had that hair-tingling feeling which suggests a week's worth of adrenaline used up in a split-second.

My passenger Alan Judd - novelist and contributor to The Daily Telegraph - probably raised an eyebrow (I was looking elsewhere) but remained remarkably calm considering we could have disappeared stage-left into some of Valencia's orange trees. I suppose Alan doesn't get flustered by very much since the day he was blown up (obviously not entirely effectively) by the IRA when serving with the British army in Northern Island.

So, the Rapide. It has four doors, though you have to look hard for the rear ones so well concealed are they. I rode in the back for a comfortable 30 minutes (with Mr Judd at the wheel taking a more sedate pace) amusing myself with the video screens set into the back of the front seats. There are cubby holes perfectly sized for bottles of Evian, Moleskine notebooks and BlackBerrys. I suspect Aston Martin will come up with a version for the iPhone too.

It's a fabulously handsome car as all Aston Martins these days are and most often have been. Marek Reichman's the reason for this: the 43-year old design director drives a DBS Volante (which he designed) to one of the most ergonomic offices in the world (overlooking Aston Martins in the design and prototype stage), in the corner of which is a saxophone (which he learned to play, by ear, hanging out in jazz bars when working for Ford in Detroit). This is the kind of person who one should instinctively want to see step in dog dirt.Yet Marek sails above that by having both feet on the ground and a fine sense of humour. I ask Marek about the 'swan wing'' doors which rise up as they open and which magically stay in whatever position you leave them. Thinking I would be told something artistic I found out instead these have practical application in places with tall kerbs, such as the US. 'You can't design in a vacuum,' he adds.

The car? It's up against the Panamera, I suppose. Porsche will sell more of those in a year than Aston will make of the Rapide, ever. And, well, let's say the Aston has a more traditional beauty. Maserati's Quattroporte is a popular good-looking alternative, seats five and will probably be less expensive. On the road the Rapide has certainly got some poke, as described earlier. The 470 horsepower power plant drives the rear wheels via an almost seamless six-speed auto box (with fingertip paddles for Sunday mornings). It was difficult to test the handling within the constraints of legal limits so, thankfully, the Spanish police were more interested in looking at the engine than using lasers. In particular, the steering is a joy to use and breeds enthusiasm and confidence.

None of this should be a surprise, Aston's chief executive, Ulrich Bez, told me over dinner. Like all Astons, the Rapide was tested on the Nurburgring-Nordschleife - the 25-kilometre roller-coaster ride through the Eifel Mountains - during its development. In fact they're going to prove the four-door's sporty credentials by racing it there in the 24-hour race this May. Bez himself will be one of the drivers, he explains, before asking me to join him. Now that was a good line, and few would argue with its timing.

AT A GLANCE: Aston Martin Rapide

What drives it? A 5,935cc V12 front mid-mounted engine, rear-wheel drive, with a rear mid-mounted Touchtronic 2 six-speed gearbox with electronic shift-by-wire control system. Rack and pinion, Servotronic speed-sensitive power-assisted steering promises 3.0 turns lock-to-lock on 20-inch alloy wheels, the marque says.

How fast is it? The block can bang 470bhp at 6000 rpm, belt 600Nm of torque at 5000 rpm and sprint to 100km/h in 5.2 seconds with a top speed of 296km/h, Aston Martin says.

How safe is it? Dual stage driver and passenger front and side airbags with head protection for front and rear occupants. Electronics include dynamic stability control, anti-lock braking system, electronic brakeforce distribution, emergency brake assist, traction control, hydraulic brake assist, torque control and more

How thirsty is it? The 1,990kg fastie drinks 14.8 litres/100km on a combined run on a 90.5-litre tank, says carsguide.com.au

Available: HK$3,088,000 at MF Jebsen Automotive (tel: 2366 2017). The demonstrator model arrives in Hong Kong late next month and customer deliveries are due in June, the dealer says.