Wit the new Aston Martin Rapide S there's more power, more torque and more rapidity. The engine is still a six-litre V12 but now puts out 558hp and 620Nm of twist, while the 100kph dash takes less than five seconds.
The man in the car approaching me, as I power on through a series of hairpin bends, is wildly flashing his lights and gesticulating with an enthusiasm that could only be Latin. This can mean a number of things when you're driving one of the world's most desirable cars - that there's a police officer around the next corner, that there's something obviously wrong with the car that I'm blissfully unaware of, that there's livestock running amok on the road ahead, or that my own headlamps are accidentally on full beam and said driver is being blinded by Bi-Xenons and LEDs. Never before, though, has this happened to me when the road ahead has been blocked by an avalanche.
If I'd been on this stretch of road just a couple of minutes earlier, there's a very real chance this new Aston Martin Rapide S could have ended its life and mine in a very white, extremely cold and heavy tomb. A chill runs down my spine and it has nothing to do with the cold Pyrenees mountain air. And as I sit waiting for the snowplough operator to come and literally bash his way through to clear some sort of passageway, in relative safety across the road from the precipitous-looking snow that's still clinging to the rather steep face of this mountain, I'm able to reflect on my past day or so of hard charging in the latest sports car from one of my very favourite manufacturers.
The Rapide always deserved to do better than it did. Perhaps the car was marketed by a committee that was confused by its real identity, but the brochure shots of a family enjoying this four-door Aston Martin didn't fool anyone. It is not a load lugger - that much is clear to anyone who's tried to spend any real time in its rear quarters. It's a sports car and an extremely good one at that. It just happens to have more room in it than a DB9 or Vanquish, and it has an extra two apertures with which to gain access. And that, to my eyes at least, has always made it quite unique.
Because, while the car's naturally perceived rivals are the Porsche Panamera and Maserati's Quattroporte, neither of those models offered the driving purity of the Aston. The Rapide, every time I got to drive one, made me question my long held belief that the DBS was the best contemporary Aston Martin. After a couple of days in the four-door, it always managed to break down my defences and, to this day, I don't know why it was such a sales flop.
Here we are, though, just four years after its initial launch, and that original car is no longer. Goodbye Rapide, hello Rapide S. Yet this is so much more than a simple midlife refresh exercise, and this new model brings a great deal to the table, apart from its controversial new front grille.
"The most beautiful four-door sports car in the world" is how Aston's people are still championing it. And it's difficult to disagree with that sentiment, especially when you see one for real, in the right colour with the right alloy wheels. That gaping front end, which initially had me gasping in horror and crying "what have they DONE?" is more palatable in reality than early press photography suggested and there are other, more subtle design tweaks that help reduce the visual mass of what is, despite its compromised interior, still a large car. The interior, though, looks almost identical to its predecessor and, while it's stylish enough at first glance, it does appear dated when you become more familiar with it, especially when it comes to things like the dot matrix digital displays for the (admittedly wonderfully sounding) stereo system.
The Rapide was always a looker, though, so more is needed if the model is to be a success. And the good news is that there is more. Much more. Quite in keeping with its new S nomenclature, there's more power, more torque and more rapidity. The engine is still a six-litre V12 but now puts out 558hp and 620Nm of twist, while the 100kph dash takes less than five seconds. And this little snippet is crucial in establishing the big Aston as a contender when choosing a car of this type. Its breadth of abilities, while not dramatically different from the original model, are now enough to allow the Rapide to shine on paper as well as on tarmac.
Aston Martin has chosen the stunning mountain roads of Catalonia in Spain to demonstrate the Rapide S to the international media, and while the twists and turns are so severe and so frequent that it's difficult to maintain a high rate of knots, the constantly changing directions and elevations allow a light to be turned on the car's chassis.
Having driven several Rapides over the years, never before have I had the opportunity to really feel what it's capable of in the role of "sports car". It always excelled at high speed, wide-open road surfaces where it showed itself to be a consummate grand tourer, but here it shows a different capability. Where the Norwegians negotiated mountains by tunnelling through them, in this part of the world the roads simply zigzag their ways up and over them, making for frustratingly slow progress, but allowing a proper sports car to show what it's made of.
The Aston, even at five metres in length, manages to feel nimble and alert. Throwing it into the tightest of corners, it feels completely neutral (at least with the traction control left on), making for quick point-to-point driving and the steering feels wonderfully precise, offering plenty of feed and information about what's going on at the sharp end - crucial when the driven road is as variable as these.
Braking, too, is strong and reassuring, although my test car is fitted with steel discs rather than carbon ceramics, and they're more than up to the job of bringing this heavyweight to a stop without fade, even after many hours of constant punishment.
Wind and road noise are noticeable by their absence, even with tough compound winter tyres fitted, and that's largely down to the double-glazing. While commendable and making the Rapide S more suitable for covering vast distances in comfort and civility, that magnificent engine deserves to be heard. When pressing on at high revs, its war cry does manage to penetrate the cabin, but a series of tunnels earlier in the day had shown what it really sounds like.
Approaching the mouths of these often extremely long subterranean passageways, I keep the speed down and lower both front windows. Once the road ahead is clear, I override the automatic transmission by selecting the manual paddles and floor the throttle. The Aston powers forward with alarming pace, holding onto each ratio until it either hits the limiter or I change up through the box, and the indescribable crescendo bounces back from the rock face just a few metres above the car's roof and into my appreciative ears. As good as that Bang and Olufsen sound system is, it's no match for 12 angry cylinders unleashing more than 500 angry horses.
The engine is mounted slightly farther down in the chassis than before, giving a lower centre of gravity, and this contributes to a sense that the Rapide S is a secure and planted machine on even the most challenging roads. The bonded aluminium platform that borrows much from the aerospace industry remains resolutely stiff and free from flex, where some other cars of this size would feel as bendy as the roads being driven.
But as good as this new car undoubtedly is, will it sell in sufficient numbers for Aston Martin to justify keeping it in the range and recoup its investment? I'm still unsure about that because I view this car as having a rather confused identity. Make no mistake, I adore it more than ever, but I have my reservations. These I share with plenty of other hacks and, despite Aston's top brass protesting to the contrary (CEO Dr Ulrich Bez demonstrating with the rather tall design director Marek Reichman sat behind him), the fact remains that the rear quarters are just too confined to be of much use.
Yes, you can fold them down to liberate some useful load space, but no Aston Martin will be used for getting the flat-pack furniture home. And the seats themselves, while comfortable and snug, are just too diminutive to allow for relaxing long journeys - which is what a GT car is supposed to be all about. The Rapide S should, instead, be viewed as an alternative to a DB9. It's just as gorgeous, it's even more powerful and despite my misgivings about its rear accommodation, it's infinitely more practical. It's a sports car, pure and simple, that just happens to have four doors and a hatchback.
More than ever, this maligned car deserves to be a success. Aston Martin has built far fewer cars in its 100-year history than Porsche builds in 12 months, meaning it will remain rare and desirable, marking out its fortunate owner as someone with individuality and taste. And while prices for the UAE are still to be announced, in other markets the Rapide S costs no more than its predecessor, despite the significant raft of changes and improvements. That makes it closer to the DB9 in price than the Vanquish - something that should work in its favour in the showrooms.
No matter how capable this Aston Martin is, though, there's not a hope of it getting through this roadblock. And when the snowplough does eventually arrive and set to work, it's the first time in two days that all eyes have been on something other than its sinewy curves. It's been upstaged by a piece of industrial equipment but, by the time the road has been cleared, every single road user will become transfixed by the Rapide's superstar good looks. Still stylish, still elegant, still beautiful, it's a welcome relief from the world's sombre and lacklustre cars. That it's so much more advanced under that gorgeous body is simply the icing on the cake. I, for one, hope the Rapide is here to stay.