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The carmaker's chief designer explains how the luxurious Rapide coupe aims for a fluid, flowing look. Says one rival: "it's a stunner"

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Aston Martin's new Rapide four-door coupe earned lavish praise as the most beautiful luxury contender at the press preview days for the Geneva Auto Show, which runs from Mar. 2-15. Geneva is a key showcase for premium autos with sticker prices over $100,000, and executives who attend from luxury auto companies anxiously visit each others stands, eyeing the competition up close. "It's a stunner," proclaimed a senior manager at one German rival, over a glass of Bordeaux. "Hats off to Aston Martin."

The Rapide, a concept car with an aluminum frame that is due out in 2009, looks immensely powerful and graceful at the same time (see BW Online, 3/6/06, "Aston Martin's Lap of Luxury"). At five meters, or 6.4 feet, the Rapide nearly matches a Mercedes S Class or Audi A8 sedan in length. But its low center of gravity, raised haunches, and long front overhang, preserve the look of a purebred sports car that exudes speed even while standing still.

Aston Martin Chief Designer Marek Reichman penned the first sketches of the new concept car just hours after he signed on as chief designer last May.

GOLDFINGER PEDIGREE.

Ford Motor F) bought 75% of Aston Martin in 1987 and installed ex-Porsche manager Ulrich Bez as CEO in 2000, to turn around the venerable-but-ailing British sports car maker. In 1994, sales at Aston Martin fell to an all-time low of 42 cars. Last year, the four new models Bez introduced since 2002, including the DB9 and the V-8 Vantage, powered sales of over 5,000 vehicles.

In November, the James Bond film Casino Royale will feature a new Aston Martin model, the DBS, that is being built only for the movie. But a production model is also a possibility. The link between Aston Martin and James Bond started with the film Goldfinger in 1964 and was revived under Bez with the last Bond flick, Die Another Day, which featured the Aston Martin Vanquish.

Reichman, 39, a graduate of London's Royal College of Art, was chief designer for the Ford and Lincoln Mercury brands in Irvine, Calif., where he headed product and interior design strategy for those brands. Reichman joined Ford in 1999, leading the development of concept vehicles at Ford, Lincoln. and Mercury. Prior to that, he worked for BMW's Designworks USA unit in Irvine, where he led the redesign of the Land Rover, pioneering the new look of the 2003 Range Rover.

Reichman spoke with Senior European Correspondent Gail Edmondson about the Rapide and Aston Martin's new design DNA at the Geneva Auto show.

What makes the Rapide's design so visually striking?

Our criteria was to make the most beautiful and elegant sports car in the world. It shouldn't be a shocking design. Aston Martin doesn't make fashion statements. The Rapide has perfect proportions. No line jars the eye. It's all fluidity and flow.

It also has to do with the length of the car. It's like a racehorse and the muscles on a racehorse, with the power of the car lying above the rear wheels. The car sits very low to keep the center of gravity down -- which is important for a sports car.

How would you explain the design DNA of Aston Martin?

The new look is connected to the car's heritage but is forward-looking. You see the common traits in the shape of the front grill, the side air takes, and the hockey-stick flick-up at the rear of the car, and also the shoulder line. The long overhang in the front contributes to its grace and elegance.

There is a purity of surface that is part of the Aston Martin DNA. The forms are soft, and there are no corners. The light plays on the surface to hide the mass of the car, like it does on a sculpture.

What are the key design elements of the new Rapide?

The three-quarters view of the car highlights the importance and beauty of the rear wheel to the overall look. The area around the wheel is the most important design element for a sports car because its power is centered there. You need to create strength around the wheels. That comes from the shoulder and the correct positioning of the C-pillar. It's like building a house on top of a foundation.

The roof of the Rapide looks transparent. How does that play into the design of the car?

The roof is photochromatic glass and liquid crystal. It can be either opaque or transparent. The idea is to give a light and airy feeling to the car and to the interior. That's especially important in the cockpit of a sports coupe. It enhances the feeling of space.

We even pulled the rear-view mirrors away from the car to give passenger and driver better visibility -- and a less-constrained feeling.

How involved was CEO Ulrich Bez in the design of the Rapide?

We had weekly conversations from the clay modeling and beyond. He gives a very clear brief. That's important to have for a designer. It helps with the execution.

You are also working on the next model -- the DBS.

Yes -- the DBS is a muscular sports car designed for the next James Bond film. We will decide whether to produce the car based on the public reaction. The Vanquish was made for Bond in the movie Die Another Day. There was a massive reaction to the product.

How many people do you think would want to buy a car that James Bond drove in a movie?

This isn't a high-volume model. But there are people out there who want to purchase a bit of fantasy.

What's special about the interior of the new Rapide?

We used a combination of wood and leather for a luxury statement. It's natural oiled wood, not lacquered, so you can see the grain of the wood. The leather pattern for the steering wheel and part of the seat we took from the pattern of a fish leather called chagrin, and had it embossed on the leather. The embossed pattern makes for better grip.

Then for the carpets, I wanted something robust but luxurious, and I started thinking about Persian carpets. I chose mats that are hand-knotted silk from Tibet -- in gray and beige stripes. They are very soft, yet durable.

Any other super-luxury touches?

In the rear, we have an option for a special champagne-storage setup, with a built-in cooler which is designed into the trunk space. It also has a chess set. Buyers can also simply opt for no cooler and more truck space.


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