Subtle in spirit: the 'entry-level' Rolls-Royce Ghost

Neil Vorano tests the Ghost, the so-called baby Rolls-Royce that seems altogether more demure than the Phantom.

The Ghost is based on a stretched steel platform derived from the BMW 7 Series. Don't expect there to be any further similarities between the two cars - the Ghost is unmistakably a Rolls-Royce. Location courtesy of Yas Hotels.
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When you own a car company like Rolls-Royce, you do things a little differently. As you should, for your clientele are of the ilk to do things differently, too. So when Rolls decide that it needed another car in its line-up, a car that would bring new buyers to the brand, it went about it in a very different, very British, very Rolls-Royce sort of way.

The initial concept and drawings for what would become the Ghost came about in a quaint, Michelin-starred restaurant with guest rooms called West Stoke House, located in the countryside near the factory in the rolling, green fields of Goodwood. A small team of Rolls-Royce designers working away in the cosy confines there came up with the 200EX show car, which debuted at the Geneva car show early last year.

That concept went on to become the Ghost in an almost completely unchanged form. The design team kept the same 2:1 ratio of the height of the wheels to the height of the body, and other traditional proportions and lines of the Rolls lineage, but developed them in a more modern and subtle fashion compared with the Phantom. The production car is based on a stretched steel platform derived from the 7 Series of Rolls' parent company, BMW. But don't think you'll find any outward similarities between the two; the Rolls is an entirely different car, with just 20 per cent of its components shared with the BMW line. It's longer (at 5,399 mm, it is 185mm longer than the stretched 760Li), with a taller, larger shape that gives it much more presence whether on the road or pulling up to a hotel. Though the Ghost is a smaller, more demure car than the Phantom, it is still unmistakably a Rolls-Royce. The two-tone paint job with the silver bonnet accentuates the trademark grille, and that famous hood ornament carries an aura that makes whatever wears it something more than just a car. The proof comes every time it's parked and people gather to gawk and have their picture taken with it.

Inside is a dream; in fact, I think it is a much better overall design than the Phantom. It's a modern rendition of an art deco flavour, with chrome accents, leather and, of course, wood (in this case, done in piano black) surrounding the passengers. The limited number of buttons and dials not only cleans up the design but helps make the interior seem more calm and serene. A video screen, which can be hidden behind a door on the dash, displays a sat-nav system, the radio details, telephone information and other data, accessed by a control knob on the centre console. I found it very easy to use, as opposed to other similar systems, and helped with a few buttons that brought you right to the feature you wanted. When you were finished with your inputs, you press a chrome button on the dash and the door covers the screen again, trading hi-tech for old-fashioned wood. The seats are finished in the softest of leather - there is not a creak to be heard when you sit in them. Leather (in this case, of a cream colour that lightened the interior) also covers the doors, console and dashboard. And the thick, plush carpet will make you want to take your shoes off, though that's not recommended for the person behind the wheel.

The space in the front is very 7 Series-like, but the back-seat area, with its rear-hinged doors that sweep wide open, has almost as much room as the larger Phantom. Head room is ample, though not as much as in a Phantom, and you can opt for a panoramic sunroof, which this car had. Driving the Ghost, like the Phantom, is just so simple, pared down in an elegant fashion. There are no paddle shifters, there is no button for a "sport" mode; in fact, there isn't even a tachometer, having been replaced by a power reserve dial that feels like a romantic throwback to the earliest automobiles. No, you simply choose "drive" with a thin stalk on the steering column, take hold of the slim, large-diameter steering wheel, press the accelerator and float off. Under the bonnet, the Ghost shares its V12 architecture with BMW's 760 (see the road test on mo3), but the Rolls version is bored to 6.6L and power is bumped up to 563hp. What is more impressive is the torque, with all of its 780Nm coming to boil from just 1,500rpm, which helps get the car to 100kph in 4.9 seconds. That sounds powerful on paper, but its nothing like experiencing the acceleration behind the wheel. With such a mass of a car surrounding you, the force pushing you back into the seat and the chime of the 120kph speed warning arrive sooner than expected and will impress even those drivers used to high-powered sports cars. That power comes with the help of twin turbochargers feeding those 12 cylinders. As with the technology, there is a noticeable turbo lag at very low speeds, and the sudden kick of power when the turbos spool up means careful work of the throttle is needed in tight car parks, lest you lurch unexpectedly into an obstacle.

Sending the power through the wheels is an eight-speed automatic gearbox, also shared with the 760. With so many gears, it always seemed to be in the right one: gear changes are noticeable only under heavy throttle, and that's just because you can hear the engine note change (only slightly - engine noise is kept to a minimum). Really, its smooth operation is part of what makes driving the Ghost feel so graceful. Without it, the immense power of the V12 would feel more raw and coarse. Of course, if you buy a Rolls-Royce, the only reason you'd be concerned with the price of fuel is if you own an oil company. But it needs to be said: you'll be hard-pressed to get better than 22l/100km in town, and a figure of 15l/100km on the motorway is achieved only with the lightest of feet and lowest of speed.

As you would expect, the ride is soft and insulating, and potholes are simply not a worry. Deeply sunk drainage grates on Airport Road that unsettle most cars travelling over them went almost unnoticed in the Ghost. Rolls says its Ghost is its "sporting" car, and while it is surprisingly agile for such a large vehicle (much more agile than its big brother, the Phantom), its performance in tight corners at speed belies a suspension that's tuned for comfort. The big car dips with sharp, quick turns of the wheel, though it does keep its traction well enough. Anyone with serious sporting intentions may want to try BMW's 760Li, with its different damper settings that help it stay stiff and solid in the twisties. But then, the Ghost seems just a bit too graceful for slalom courses, doesn't it? Would I want more? Perhaps a more sophisticated traction control system, which felt like it just dulled the engine down under loose conditions. Maybe even dampers that tightened up the suspension a bit more when needed. Or a key that can fit comfortably in your pocket, instead of the massive black-and-chrome block used now. But these seem somewhat nit-picky in a hand-built car that commands so much attention and gives so much pleasure to those just sitting behind the wheel. The Ghost is aimed at those who want to get into a Rolls-Royce but may find the Phantom a bit much, and who would normally settle for a 7 Series, S-Class or even a Bentley. Or, perhaps they already have a Phantom but need something to get to the office or stables; as you would. At Dh1,275,000 as tested, it's hard to consider that this is Rolls-Royce's "entry level" car. But Kadhim Al Helli, the brand manager at Abu Dhabi Motors, says that he's had massive interest in the smaller Roller, and he's already made some sales, having marketed the Ghost discreetly for the last two months. With the recent recession having people paring back and at least wanting to appear less lavish, in Al Helli's own words, "This is the perfect time for the Ghost". Rolls-Royce will hope so, too.