Finally a Rolls-Royce that is a driver's car

DAVE MOORE
Last updated 09:49 24/09/2013
Rolls-Royce Wraith.
Fairfax NZ
SPIRIT OF ECSTASY: Even she is bent further forward to cope with the Wraith's performance.

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Rolls-Royce takes wraps off the Wraith

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In the history of the motor car, Rolls-Royce has always been set apart from pretenders in the tightly clustered segments in which it competes in the very top strata of luxury automobiles.

AT A GLANCE
Drivetrain: In-line, frontmounted, RWD, twinturbocharged quad-cam 32 valve 6.6-litre V8, 8-speed automatic.
Outputs: Maximum 460kW (624bhp) at 5600rpm, 800Nm of torque at 1500 to 5000rpm. Max 250kmh, 0-100kmh 4.4sec, 14L/100km, 327g/km CO2.
Chassis: Front and air-sprung double wishbone; rear air-sprung multi-links; 20-inch alloy wheels (others optional).
Safety: Front and rear vented disc brakes; full suite of driver aids, multiple airbags and navigation-linked automatic.
Dimensions: L 5269mm, W 1947mm, H 1507mm, W/base 3112mm, Weight 2435kg, Fuel 83-litres.
Pricing: New Zealand pricing expected to start from $475,000, with most packaged at over $520,000.
Hot: Irrepressible performance; ethereal ride; world’s best transmission; superb interior execution; space.
Not: Acquired taste styling; engine vocal when pressing-on; control levers too slim; dash reflections.
Verdict: Surprisingly chuckable and fun to drive car is also the ultimate continent-crossing vehicle, private trains included.
It remains thus with the company's new Wraith, though if we look at such vulgar details as price, it's closer to its competitors than any car Rolls-Royce has made since it and Bentley were separated by their respective BMW and Volkswagen suitors.

In fact, it's Bentley that comes closest to the Wraith in terms of positioning, and it is priced at least $100,000 below the Rolls-Royce coupe, which sounds like a lot, but not when you realise that a Phantom saloon adds another $300,000 to that.

A further search suggests that an Aston Martin might be an alternative to the Wraith, but to those in Rolls-Royce circles, so is a country cottage, a cabin cruiser or a private plane.

The fact is, the Wraith has no peers at all. No coupe accommodates as well as it does, and no car at all, regardless of door-count, has quite the heritage, though some marques have been around for a year or two longer.

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Nothing looks quite like a Wraith, either.

The imposingly long two-door continent-crosser has real visual stature and presence, even with the traditional, decanter-like grille now set into the front of the car between recessed rectagular lamps, rather than dominating it like the Parthenon-like structures that older models used to have attached to their proud prows. The Wraith's designers sketch the car simply with three tapered sweeps of line. The first courses from the famous mascot up front to the rear, via an upturn for the windscreen, before descending to the car's rear transom in a gentle slope, a shape not possible without committing to its solid but elegant fastback rear execution.

A notch-back looked much less elegant, says Rolls-Royce.

The second line is its waistline crease which is a gently rising and falling curve from stem to stern, while the third sweep links the door shape with the car's window sillhouette. That window perimeter uses a tapered satin- finished metal outline that thickens at the rear with an almost calligraphic effect.

In the metal it all links together very well, with long chiselled edges along the bonnet and waistline and a clever extra crease in the door that follows the forward closure lines. With rear-mounted hinges, the doors also offer another design element, in the form of the long, recessed handles that act like chromed "hyphens" to link the whole together visually. But you're always aware that this is a large car. The Wraith measures 5269mm long, 1947mm wide and weighs 2435kg all up, and to haul it along it uses the same BMW-sourced V12 power unit as used in the four- door Ghost. The unit is of longer stroke than the version found under the bonnet of the 7-series sedan, on whose platform the Wraith and the Ghost are loosely based. It all adds up to a deeply impressive car on the road, whether it is being merely watched, or driven.

In fact, here is one Rolls-Royce that will be driven, rather then ridden in by its owners, to the extent that the most loyal of salaried personal drivers may find themselves with more time to themselves than they'd like.

One reason the Wraith's owner need never miss the chauffeur is its uncanny eight-speed ZF Satellite Aided Transmission, which employs satellite data to scan the road ahead, and uses that information and the stored terrain information to select the most appropriate ratio for the curve or gradient ahead well before it's needed. Like a good butler, it will have discreetly slipped into the right gear, making his employer seem an even better driver than they really are, and the car seem even more implacable and relaxed than it irrefutably is. Every driving process involving changes of pace and direction is smoother and less fussed in this car than any other on the road, its imperious, continent-swallowing prowess making it probably the easiest car in the world to drive quickly.

In fact, his lordship or her ladyship might well surmise that if driving was this easy, why do they have to pay a servant to do it for them?

Such is the car's performance, that Rolls-Royce has even thought to tilt forward by five degrees, its famous silver lady, or Spirit of Ecstasy, so she'll be more comfortable in the car's slipstream. And it'll be some slipstream, as the huge 6.6-litre twin-turbo V-12 engine can use its 460 kilowatts (that's 624 horsepower in old money) to whisk the great 2.4-tonne coupe to the 250kmh limiter at the drop of a hat. In the context of everyday cars, the Wraith can see off the legal New Zealand open-road limit in 4.4 seconds.

But numbers don't describe the uncannily decorous way in which the car reaches such speeds and maintains them. Once up to a chosen velocity, the tyres merely sigh over most surfaces, with the power unit murmuring almost imperceptibly under the chiselled reaches of the car's engine cover. Under hard acceleration, the V12 does make itself heard. It even throbs compellingly as a cruising canter is turned into a blistering blur of speed, only to return to its near silent gait when throttled back on the autobahn, sucking in great strands of carriageway as you sight the road ahead through the wings of that elegant silver lady. At the other end of the car's broad spread of talent, power take- up when moving off is so soft and gentle that owners will find another area where they can match their chauffeurs for skill and etiquette. Low-speed progress was never so pleasant. In fact, the car feels almost electric when oozing imperiously through traffic.

Even Austrian autobahns have their road works and surface changes, and the Wraith absorbs such irregularities without transferring anything so vulgar as shock through to its occupants. Which is as it should be when you're laying out close to $500,000 for your base Rolls-Royce Wraith - not that there is such a thing, for in New Zealand it's expected that most owners will lay out a little more than that for their own personalised version of the car.

The Wraith has electronically controlled air suspension to help achieve its amazing ride quality and while there is some pitching under hard acceleration and braking, body control when cornering is resolute, though "sporty" is too silly a word for the car's feel and behaviour. However, despite losing a good 18cm from the wheelbase of the Ghost sedan on which it is based, the Wraith is still a massive car, though unlike any of the other Rolls-Royces available - there are now seven models in the Goodwood company's lineup - the new coupe shrinks around its driver, so dynamic is its chassis. It's not a tail-sliding, back-road scratcher per se, nothing so puerile, though it will make a fine fist of darting neatly through the tight, serpentine mountain roads of Austria without raising a sweat. It's just that it prefers to do so without having to do more than loosen its figurative tie. Or cravat, of course.

The Wraith's cabin - or should that be stateroom - consists of four individual chairs clad, in "my" Cassiopea blue and silver car, in cream leather and lined with matte, matched split-grain veneer and swathes of gorgeous piano black across the driving area, which is especially fascinating as the Austrian wald is reflected in moving graphics across it while you drive.

The dashboard, console and door tops twinkle with chromed finish, from the organ-stop like vent controls, the concave window buttons and the wheel and dial detailing. It's so tactile that instead of using the available voice activation for various functions, including satellite navigation, it's more pleasant to touch and feel, though it's possible to feel a little old fashioned as you do, in a pre-Kindle sort of way.

You can add a little twinkle to the car's headling too, if you tick the right boxes, as Rolls-Royce can have scores of star-like pinpricks of light using fibre-optics inserted into the headlining of the cabin. My car had a large sunroof instead, which would be a good way of introducing a heavenly evening sky's real stars to that mesmerisingly glossy piano black trim. Thanks to the Wraith's two long, rear-hinged doors, and the fact that the front seats can be powered a long way forward, access to all four seats is surprisingly easy.

They are all equally comfortable, and very good at simultaneously cossetting the car's occupants and holding them firm against the Wraith's surprising cornering forces. Rear passengers need not feel relegated in any way, with more legroom than any other coupe I can think of and sufficient headroom for my 1.88m frame (6ft 2in).

No-one travelling in the Wraith is seen as a second-class citizen.

With power switches just inside the front pillars, the huge doors power shut, closing with a solid click, which means there's no need to lean out to haul them in. Nothing so strenuous.

While the steering wheel is pleasingly thick of rim, the steering column levers are very slim, albeit solid to the touch. The column shift lever requires a prod for neutral and park, and a push up for reverse and down for drive.

The luggage area appears to be as comfortable as the cabin and will accommodate sufficent golf equipment for its occupants, and still leave space for dinner suits and another change of day clothes.

From its tall, vista-like driving position, to the sheer confidence of its unique styling, this is a stunning motor car, which is at should be. However, such comments could be made in differing degrees to any recent Rolls-Royce, the difference being that the Wraith is the first from the marque to be a driver's car first and a chauffeur's car second.

Which brings us to poor Thomas. Unless Milord or her Ladyship has a Phantom or Ghost also secreted in the former stables of that country pile, he's going to have very little to do and may have to look at finding another position.

He'd better start applying now, as Rolls-Royce plans to make and sell a lot of these cars, and with a sticker close to those of more ordinary cars, they most certainly will. Thomas might find he is not the only manservant to suffer as a result.

- The Press

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