You don’t so much as arrive in Los Angeles, as you ease into it — and there is perhaps no better way to ease into the City of Angels than in the embrace of Aston Martin’s Rapide S. In many ways, the Rapide S represents the very essence of the marque: at once muscular and graceful, aggressive and staid, understated and hard to miss, the equine lines of its dune-like curves, with the surprising addition of two gloriously comfortable rear seats and a powerful V12 engine, make for a driving experience like no other and certainly unlike any other Aston Martin four-door ever produced.
There is, certainly, no better way to arrive in Los Angeles than via the Pacific Coast Highway, that undulating ribbon of asphalt that runs, off and on, along California’s coast from top to bottom. It is these curves in fact, that truly do bring out the soul of the car: deceptively weight-efficient, the Rapide’s light aluminium skin, which has been bonded with a sophisticated epoxy resin, makes for a shockingly dynamic drive experience. Weighing just 1,990kg, there is no more powerful and featherlight four-door luxury sportscar on the market today. Coupled with a V12 engine, this dynamic machine is capable of a sprint time of only 4.2 seconds. It takes only a few metres on the Highway to experience how these extraordinary numbers translate to the driving experience.
Even in the most comfortable of the multiple distinct driving modes, 630Nm of torque and driven by 552bhp, making for a gravity-defying drive that transcends the intellectual — piloting the Rapide S is a deeply visceral experience. Step on the gas pedal and within a matter of seconds the glittering Pacific Ocean, stretched beyond the horizon like a blanket of stars, becomes a blur as the force of gravity hits the very recesses of your being like a tidal wave.
This trip through Los Angeles, a city like no other, requires a car like no other. For the uninitiated, first-time visits to this vast and sprawling metropolis can be rather disorienting: although it is such a common remark as to be a cliché, when arriving by air into the seaside Los Angeles International Airport, peering out of the plane, searching the endless grid of streets, from the vast and expansive ocean to the dramatically vertical mountain peaks, it is difficult to find anything that resembled an actual urban centre. Like an intricate patchwork quilt, America’s second-largest city (and, one might argue, its most influential), is a visual representation of the metaphor that is the American West.
The Western United States, and particularly California, is historically the American place where refuge was found by those who sought freedom from constraint and rigidity. It is no accident that tectonic shifts in the course of contemporary civilisation — the space shuttle and the internet are two examples — were invented in Los Angeles. It is a place where open space and unfettered skies afford an expanded view, both metaphorical and otherwise, encouraging a kind of personal expression that results in an abundance of intellectual and cultural production. With the rise of a technology-driven economy, Los Angeles is experiencing an exciting cultural and economic shift; it is capitalising on the qualities of creative cultural production, which have, historically, been applied only to media and entertainment and is now applying them to technology, design and industry.
Unlike arrivals in other great cities of the world, where the skyline seems to spring up from the earth, its buildings tall and supreme like great cathedrals of commerce, the Los Angeles landscape is slow to unfold — it evolves. At once serious and frivolous, gritty and glittering, metropolitan and suburban, LA is defined by its total defiance of those criteria by which we judge our global capitals.
As the open expanse of Malibu, where ocean estates sit perched along the shore with sea on one side and roaring highway on the other, gives way to the sunny optimism of Santa Monica, a vision of this “new Los Angeles” begins to take shape. Although long a destination for tourists flocking to enjoy the whimsical simplicity of the Santa Monica Pier and the shopping along the famed Third Street Promenade, a burgeoning creative class of technology companies has also set up camp here and in neighbouring Venice. Dubbed “Silicon Beach”, these bohemian beach cities are now home to a multitude of companies. They include the Los Angeles headquarters of Google, which is housed in the Frank Gehry-designed “binocular” building that was once home to the 1990s advertising agency Chiat/Day, and Snapchat, housed near the Venice boardwalk just blocks away.
Serving as the unofficial commissary for the legion of coders, hackers and hangers-on, is Venice’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard, a short stretch of a street that snakes diagonally away from the beach that has become a nexus of boutiques and restaurants in this rapidly gentrifying community. Arriving for a quick espresso at Intelligentsia Coffee, it is readily apparent that even the most cynical hipster cannot resist the charms of the Rapide S, which causes a mild wave of excitement when pulled to the curb. Although Los Angeles’ centre of gravity is quickly shifting from entertainment to a creative and technology driven economy, it is still a city of stars and there is perhaps no better way to be mistaken for “someone to stare at” than driving an Aston Martin. No matter which part of the city one parks in, whether it’s the gritty lanes of Venice or the bustling boulevards of Hollywood, the Aston Martin Rapide S is attention grabbing — whether one likes it or not.
Los Angeles, more than any other city in the world, is a car-centric city, so it makes perfect sense to glide on to Wilshire Boulevard, a wide, multi-lane street that stretches nearly the entirety of the city from sea to downtown, heading away from the beach cities toward the superb Petersen Automotive Museum. Located in the heart of the Miracle Mile, this district marks the city’s midway point and is also home to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the La Brea Tar Pits. Just revamped, with a striking fire-engine red façade of snaking steel ribbons that undulate around the structure like the grooves on a fingerprint, the Petersen Automotive Museum is a paean to the beauty and importance of the automobile — and is a must-visit when in the city.
Organised in a sort of visual history of the car, superb examples of the most important automobiles are arranged chronologically. Each model seemingly more pristine than the next, it is especially exhilarating to come upon what is perhaps the most iconic Aston Martin ever produced: the “Goldfinger” 1964 DB5. Part of the extraordinary Precious Metal exhibit at the museum’s Bruce Meyer Family Gallery, this pristine DB5 was produced for the James Bond films and is a pivotal model in the history of Aston Martin. Like two iconic bookends, located just around the corner on the same floor is perhaps the second most (and most recent) iconic automotive movie star: the DB10 that features in Spectre, also in gleaming silver.
Seeing these exceptional Aston Martins in the context of the Petersen’s collection of history’s great automobiles makes driving the Rapide S feel all the more significant; an Aston Martin is a work of art. In this context, it is particularly fun to jump back into the hand-stitched leather cockpit of the Rapide, slide the glass ECU into the ignition located at the centre of the striking waterfall-shaped fascia and enjoy the iconic grumble-to-roar of the engine. It feels good to drive a piece of art. Now it’s off to LA’s downtown, where the city’s most striking changes are taking place.
By now, it is a cliché to say that “nobody walks in LA”. Obviously, that isn’t true, but it is surprising to the first-time visitor to see the marked lack of pedestrians in parts of the city. Once the famed Los Angeles “red car” trolley system was dismantled and the first hulking freeways were laid, LA’s almost total reliance on cars was seemingly set in stone.
Though our car-centric culture is very much a part of the Los Angeles identity, the advent of a viable public transportation system that now includes multiple metro and light rail lines has begun to slowly turn the tide. The results have been subtle, but significant: the very make-up of the city has shifted from fragmented neighbourhoods to a cohesively connected metropolis. A public transportation system, which for almost every other global capital is simply part of its infrastructure, in Los Angeles has served to knit together the many and varied small communities that together make up the fabric of the city. The idea that Santa Monica could be linked directly to Century City or downtown is more than just a matter of convenience, it is an entirely new way of thinking about what it means to be a citizen. It is a bit early to tell just how the burgeoning metro system will change the character of Los Angeles, but it is already apparent that a new feeling of shared space has affected the culture — and the cultural landscape.
Driving across the city, watching as Beverly Hills and Hollywood fade away in the rear-view mirror, a surprising break in the ever-present traffic is seized, and with foot firmly applied to the accelerator, that roaring 12-cylinder power centre kicks in, running through its eight gears, shifting from one to the next in an astonishing 130 milliseconds; the advanced engine propelling this extraordinary machine with an efficiency and sense of control that is at first remarkable, then entirely intuitive and finally unnoticed. Suddenly, you realise that, with little effort, the Rapide has rocketed across this sometime-congested city to its teeming heart — the rapidly gentrifying downtown. It also helps that the entirely new and intuitively controlled AMi II infotainment system provides real-time GPS guidance and traffic — a must in LA.
At one time, not too long ago, Los Angeles’ downtown business district was a modest grouping of skyscrapers surrounded by under-utilised and unrealised industrial neighbourhoods. Like any major city, artists were drawn to the area for its cheaper rents and large working spaces, but a lack of culture, safety and infrastructure kept most from settling there. Once the Walt Disney Concert Hall, in all its biomorphic splendour, had found its perch in Grand Avenue overlooking City Hall and Little Tokyo, the building served as both anchor and icon to a dawn of a new downtown.
Passing over one of the many bridges that span the ever-congested web of freeways that find their connection points in a kind of ring around the area, navigating through the traffic-heavy streets, the Rapide S shows its agility. It displays equal skill on downtown LA’s slow streets as it does on the wide open highways of a coastline that now seems so very far away. Using the all-glass control buttons to switch driving modes, the Rapide’s Bosch Engine Management system keeps driving efficient and in check by constantly communicating many thousands of times per second with both the engine and the Touchtronic III transmission, affording a level of engine control and fuel efficiency unseen before in a sports sedan. The system, though offering the highest level of driver control, subtly translates driver behaviour and adjusts the drive accordingly. The more time that you have with the Rapide S, the more tailored to you it becomes. It is, in essence, bespoke driving.
It is with ease that the car propels toward Grand Avenue to the new home of The Broad museum. The Broad building, located next door to Disney Hall, encompasses a full block and serves as a well-suited aesthetic counterbalance to the freeform lines of Frank Gehry’s famous structure. Built by architects Diller Scofidio and Renfro, the square building is “hung” with a concrete latticework that simultaneously obscures and reveals the collection housed within. Built by Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad, the museum houses the Broads’ exceptional collection of contemporary art —without question one of the finest in the world.
Parking the Rapide at the curb astride the Broad (only for a second, as parking is notoriously challenging in this part of the city), it is a fitting backdrop for the curves of the Rapide. A trip inside the building reveals an astonishing collection that spans the contemporary pantheon from Koons and Basquiat to Murakami and back again.
Dinner at new restaurant Otium, in a gorgeous glass, steel and reclaimed-wood building next to The Broad, is the perfect place to reflect over plates of seared duck and morsels of snapper sashimi. As if soul-stirring art and a lovely meal aren’t enough, it is off to a show at the REDCAT, an arts centre in the Disney Hall complex, where an ever-changing roster of performing arts takes shape in its intimate theatre space.
Back on the road, heading away from the city, the sky now the ink-black of a California night, it is apparent that driving the Rapide S, especially through the streets of this exciting metropolis, is to experience the ultimate expression of engineering and creativity in a car that is at once powerful and poised, affording a kind of connection between driver and automobile that is utterly singular and entirely pleasurable.
Jake Townsend is an author, entrepreneur and communications consultant based in Los Angeles