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Life at the top: 2011 Aston Martin Rapide

Nice things happen when you show up behind the wheel of an Aston Martin. Neighbors are envious. Complete strangers stare in appreciation. Parking attendants accord you special privileges.

If they are aficionados, and you arrive in an Aston Martin Rapide, they know that you are driving something really special.

The Rapide is the first four-door in Aston’s 97-year history and only 2,000 will be made annually. With an MSRP of $197,850, you won’t be seeing a Rapide around every corner.

The Rapide is 12 inches longer than Aston’s DB9 coupe, on which it is based. Four-door sporting sedans have become something of a fad. Porsche kicked it off with the launch of the Panamera. Coming soon: the Audi A7 and the Lamborghini Estoque.

I’m sorry to report that while the extra two doors do not detract from the Aston’s rakish lines, they do little to increase its functionality. The combination of the low roofline and limited leg room make access to the rear seats challenging. Once inside, you feel as if you have been ensconced in a leather-wrapped cocoon.

By skimping on the packaging , however, Aston engineers have preserved the coupe’s superb drivability. The steering is razor-sharp, the transmission shifts timely and quick, and the 12-cylinder, six-liter engine is beautifully responsive. 60 miles an hour arrives in just 5.1 seconds, and the exhaust produces a satisfying “blat” along the way.

The powerful motor makes speeding all too easy, and the sweep of the speedometer serves as an enabler. Since the dial is graded to 220 miles per hour and occupies just over half a circle, the span that represents the legal limit occupies only a tiny slice.

There is more at work here than extending the history of the Aston marquee. Super-luxury cars today look for their own signature features. Rolls has door-mounted umbrella holders while Jaguar fancies a rotary gear selector that rises out of the console when the engine starts.

For the Rapide, it is the pair of cylindrical black Bang and Olufsen speakers that rise out of the instrument panel when the car is started — perhaps an unconscious homage to the black obelisk in the movie “2001.”I am less enamored of the key fob that must be inserted in the ignition slot and then depressed to start the engine. It seems unnecessarily anachronistic in this era of keyless ignitions when the key can remain in your pocket.

Aston has enjoyed something of a renaissance since Ford sold it in 2007 to a joint venture company backed by English and Kuwaiti investors and headed by CEO Ulrich Bez, who had worked for Porsche and BMW.

Once dismissed by former Ford executive Wolfgang Reitzle as “a little too exclusive,” Aston has been gradually expanding and updating its product line without losing its cachet.

While longtime Aston lovers may be scandalized that production of the Rapide has been outsourced to a supplier in Graz, Austria, the decision is a smart one that spares the company onerous capital investment.

So Aston is moving forward without losing sight of its roots. Sean Connery’s James Bond would feel right at home dodging Goldfinger’s henchmen in a Rapide — though he might secretly prefer to be driving his old two-door DB5.