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Astonishing

16th Feb 2012 7:15 pm

We drive 120km from Pune to Mahabaleshwar in an Aston Martin Rapide as part of our Castrol Edge Great Car Great Road series.

Whirrrrrr… Phwoarrrrr… Early birds scatter as the tranquil Pune neighbourhood wakes up to the symphony of an Aston Martin V12. The plan was simple: have breakfast. But then again, when you have the keys to a Rs 2.35 crore (ex-showroom, Delhi) Aston Martin Rapide, a simple meal at one of Pune’s famous breakfast joints just won’t do.

We need something a bit more exciting between us and a full stomach, something more than what Pune’s streets offer. And so, the Rapide’s low nose starts sniffing out NH4, the brilliant four-lane highway that will take us part-way to Mahabaleshwar, our chosen hunger-kill station. Sleeping dogs wake up and give chase as the Aston growls past and I’m sure we will be the subject of animated classroom discussions as we pass drowsy schoolchildren waiting for a bus.

As soon as we get to the Pune bypass, the road straightens out, becomes billiards-table smooth and, apart from a few lumbering trucks, is ours to play with. Right. Time to see what 470bhp feels like. Foot down and gasp as the power squeezes you into the sports seats. This kind of road is perfect for a Grand Tourer like the Rapide. It’s got wide, flowing corners and long straights to fully experience what 61kgm of torque can do to your senses.

From behind the wheel, it’s easy to forget this is a four-door, four-seat automobile. Considering the Rapide weighs two tonnes, the way it performs comes as a genuine surprise. And because it’s as refined as it is, you simply don’t expect it to accelerate with so much vigour. The way in which it gathers momentum so smoothly in the higher gears is testimony to the strong flow of torque that’s available.

And, between 5000rpm and the redline, it becomes an altogether more aggressive, more responsive machine, emitting a fairly magnificent V12 sound from its previously subdued engine bay. We revel in the truly astonishing way this car covers ground. Because it’s so effortless, and so unintimidating to drive, we end up motoring at rather ridiculous speeds. You can see for miles ahead on this road bordered by fields and the occasional small town.

And then we get to the Katraj tunnel. Windows down and a healthy dose of throttle – the purr turns into a yowl and then into a sound that fills your ears and engulfs the deepest recesses of your brain. A startled Indica darts out of our way and we exit the tunnel howling like wolves on a full-moon night.

October’s heat hasn’t really kicked in, so the windows remain down – the V12’s growl is infinitely better than the 1000-watt Bang & Olufsen system. Atleast to my ears. We’re about 70km away from Pune when we start climbing the brilliant Khambatki ghat. It’s a one-way road and has corners that will punish any handling shortcomings with either a drop off the edge or a brush with unyielding hillside.

Sport damping on, aggressive engine map on, and the Rapide suddenly becomes quite different a kind of car – one that feels very close to a full-blown sporting GT. Phenomenal steering feel, a supremely engaging six-speed auto gearbox and the body control of a gymnast, the Rapide shrinks around you as you feed ever-so-small corrections to the steering wheel and throttle.

The disdain with which it blows past slower traffic, the way it darts into corners and the way the power comes in is simply mind-boggling considering it weighs so much and is so long. Still, this is India, so there’s the odd villager on a tractor, a wayward motorcyclist and members of the bovine species to watch out for. Good thing then that the Rapide stops extremely well for such a heavy car. The 86-odd kilometres to the village of Wai are demolished in a flash. Our little adventure is not over though. Ahead lies the true test of the Aston’s capabilities – 34km of snaking, narrow ghat road.

It’s a good thing the Rapide’s rear-wheel-drive platform is unusually stiff for a big saloon and provides an excellent basis from which the all-round double wishbone suspension system can operate. It’s also got an electronic adaptive damper system with anti-lift and anti-squat geometry as standard, plus dramatic 20-inch wheels wearing bespoke Bridgestone Potenza S001 tyres.

In simple English, this means the car simply doesn’t feel its size, which is good – these roads are quite narrow. You see, the Rapide feels so naturally easy to drive, you can place the car exactly where you want it. There’s no guesswork involved and when you do need to shed speed quickly, the strong brakes allow you to accurately judge how much pressure you need to apply on the pedal. We reach Panchgani, Mahabaleshwar’s sister hill-station, before we know it.

It’s here that we notice how many heads the Aston turns. The Rapide’s shape is so stunning, the Panchgani municipal toll collector simply gawps at the car and forgets to claim his due. We spot him collecting his jaw from the floor in the rear-view mirror. It is arguably the most beautiful four-door saloon on the planet, and everyone on the road seems to agree. Stop anywhere for pictures and crowds swarm out of nowhere and swamp the car with camera phones.

We purr through Panchgani and just when we think the best bit of the drive is done, we begin the final 13km stretch to Mahabaleshwar which, it turns out, is just as invigorating. It’s on a plateau, has gentle undulations and is full of brilliant corners. So with the Rapide’s exhaust bouncing off the surrounding forest, we carve corners and blow through the straights.

The bungalow we’re heading to is a bit off Mahabaleshwar, and there’s a gravel road leading up to it. The Aston clears this road easily, sending our concerns about its low ground clearance out the window and into the cool mountain air. There’s excellent scrambled egg, sausages, ham and crisp toast waiting for us and it’s polished off almost as quickly as the Aston devoured the 120km road here. 

What a way to build up an appetite!
 

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