There’s something mysterious and menacing about the Rolls-Royce Wraith, before you even begin to consider its haunting name. This is their “evil” car, the company’s spokesman tells me. How often is a product promoted with that association?
A hint of the noir is what you want, though. That’s the theatre that comes with a Rolls-Royce. It is a dramatic automobile, not a shrinking violet. As the garage doors open, you expect a swirl of fog to descend and the Hound of the Baskervilles to howl. In this context, the Wraith – a long, elegantly meaty coupe – is what Dracula drives at the weekends. Caddish, rakish, and a fabulously modern take on a classic, it’s unlike anything I’ve driven before.
This ethereal GT is said to embody the spirit of Charles Rolls himself; gentleman, playboy, racer, pilot, and blue-sky thinker. He craved innovation. He was the first man in England to own an aeroplane. He was also the first Briton to be killed at the yoke, aged just 32.
The £235,000 Wraith has the ability to appeal to similarly young achievers and risk takers. I’m looking to Silicon Valley here. Mr Zuckerberg, a Toyota Prius doesn’t tell people you’ve made it. A Rolls-Royce assures it, and if you prefer to chauffer yourself from tech fair to IPO this is the Rolls for you.
Inquire as to the horsepower of a Rolls-Royce, and the question will usually be met with understatement, such as “adequate”. In this instance, the chaps at Goodwood have created their most powerful machine yet: 624bhp with 590 lb ft of torque. Most adequate.
It needs it, given its size (5.27m long, 2m wide) and weight (2360kg unladen). This is not a sports car, nor is it an alternative to a limo. It’s a car that’s impossible to pigeonhole, and that’s part of its considerable charm.
Despite the mathematical girth, it actually looks quite trim thanks to some very clever design, like the stainless steel door handle that stretches back from below the A-pillar. From there, the car appears to taper like the stern of a J-class yacht. The split-level bodywork, especially when ordered in two-tone paint, compresses the shape. The suicide doors, which were the first things the designers agreed upon, lend a great sense of occasion every time you get in and keeps you on the lookout for highwaymen.
The ‘fastback’ shape, with its wide hips and swollen arches, gives the car muscle. Even the Spirit of Ecstasy figurine, atop the recessed grille, is canted forward a few degrees for an extra sense of purpose. It’s not aggressively athletic, but you know it packs a punch. Like Roger Bannister in brogues, you still wouldn’t have taken him on in a sprint.
As well as nautical references, there were two vintage motors among the pictures on the studio mood board that were particularly influential: Pinin Farina’s 1948 Cisitalia 202, a long-nosed short-back round-bodied coupe that’s in MoMA’s permanent collection in New York, and RR’s own Silver Dawn from the following year; a tall, stately four-door with flared wheel arches and a trunk bulge at the back. The name is derived from the 1938 Wraith which, with two-door bodywork by coachbuilders De Villars, is perhaps the closest to this 2013 grand tourer in spirit.
The boot is 470 litres, stretching deep inside the car. God, this would look good with a Goyard trunk in it. The valets at The Peninsula will be impressed. Forget golf clubs, you could fit the entire PGA tour in here.
The interior is reminiscent of the Rolls-Royce Ghost, the car on which this is based, and it’s none the lesser for it. The leather, as soft as Devonshire cream, is the finest you’ll find in any car or Hermès window for that matter. The carpets are so thick you could lose smaller passengers in them – children of the rich, lost for days at a time! There’s polished wood on the dash, and veneer-less ‘Canadel’ wood panelling the doors and centre pillar. The diagonal grain in the doors and chevron pattern pointing down the centre of the cabin, bookmatched throughout, gives it dynamism, direction, and makes for a more youthful, earthy, less stuffy environment than the RR norm. It’s almost Scandinavian.
Adding a sense of chintzy fun to the options list is the ‘Starlight Headliner’: a celestial-mimicking 1340 fibre-optic lights in the roof that will prove horribly bling for some tastes but looks rather spectacular while sat in the ample rear seats.
None of the buttons on the dashboard are marked. Text is inelegant. This fascia is opulent, of course, but unfussy. Instead, you brush buttons with your finger and the LCD screen, which can be hidden when not needed, reminds you what they do before you press them. To guide you through the info-tainment there’s a BMW iDrive touchpad. In fact, a lot of the science is lifted from the 7-series but Rolls-Royce’s execution allows you to forget that. After all, with so much room for bespoke customization – RR encourages it – your Wraith will be as unique as your fingerprint.
Elsewhere, it couldn’t be simpler. There’s an old-school column shift: Reverse, Neutral, Drive. There’s no paddle-shift, no suspension options, no Sport button. This car is a private butler on wheels who goes unseen but is always there, and sir/madam should relax and let the car do the driving.
The Satellite Aided Transmission allows it to feel exactly like that and, technologically, this is one of the Wraith’s most impressive attributes. Using electronic wizardry first developed by the BMW F1 team five years ago, the car knows what corner is up ahead, judges your speed and selects which of the eight gears is best suited.
Here’s how you drive it: Slow into corners, fast out. Try to drive it like a Ferrari FF – four seats, same price, totally different character – and it’ll heave around like an old drunk. Brake early and in a straight line. Steer it with your fingertips. Make it as effortless as possible and the car rewards. Through fast, long corners the car is joyously solid.
I stepped into the car thinking it was a Bentley Continental GT Speed rival. After all, when comparing the figures – weight, horsepower, torque, speed (though the Wraith is limited to 250km/h, it’s just 0.2 secs off the Bentley’s mesmerizing 0-100 time) – it’s right in the same postcode. But, in fact, the Wraith is other-worldly. It wafts, it’s imperial, it is not at the races.
The Conti sounds like the apocalypse when you open its 12 cylinders (albeit the Four Horsemen are dressed in Savile Row), whereas the Wraith is almost silent, save the slightest burble designed just to remind you that its 6.6 litre V12 is there on command. And if that’s too much of a disturbance for you, there’s what RR claims to be the best car stereo in the world. Normally the audio engineer is the last person to get his hands on the car. This time, he had the car while it was still in the ‘body-in-white’ stage. He had a full 18 months to refine the acoustics. Personally, I think it just sounds like a normal car stereo but if you’ve sold 50 million albums – and some owners may have – you’ll appreciate the difference.
With or without Elgar’s strings searing perfectly through the 18 speakers (and surely that is the patented score to this most British of marques), speed in this car is imperceptible. Road noise is just enough to remind you there are other people there – perhaps a useful reality check. It could feel faster, but then it wouldn’t be a Rolls. The sensation is not one of travel, it’s of the world coming to you. This is the way Rolls-Royce’s clientele expect it.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY: ROLLS-ROYCE WRAITH
ENGINE: 6.6-litre V12
TORQUE: 800 Nm (590lb/ft)
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic (satellite-aided)
ACCELERATION 0-100KM/H: 4.4 seconds
TOP SPEED: 250km/h (limited)