The silent spectre

A first drive of the 2013 Rolls-Royce Wraith

The Rolls Royce Wraith. Courtesy Rolls Royce
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There's something of the night about the Rolls-Royce Wraith. Or, as the company's director of global communications, Richard Carter, says: "It's a touch noir; there's a sense of danger." I know exactly what he means.
The name will cause those with a pronounced lisp to avoid uttering it at all, but Wraith is a word that hails from a Scottish dialect and it means "ghost". And it's the Rolls-Royce Ghost that this car is based on, so it actually makes sense, and the car is much more than a Ghost coupe so it deserves to have its own distinct nomenclature.
The hype surrounding the Wraith's gestation has been impressive, with Rolls-Royce promising it will be the most powerful and dynamic car in the company's long and distinguished history. That, according to the naysayers, wouldn't take much effort, but the essential waftability that only a Rolls-Royce gives is sacrosanct and must be preserved, whatever the performance statistics. To make a car this large and heavy move like a supercar? That takes some doing.
Practically every week of the year, a new Porsche, Audi, BMW or Volkswagen is launched to the world's media. Journos are flown to central locations from all over the planet, herded around like cattle and given just about enough time behind the wheel of a new model to be able to form a meaningful opinion. Rolls-Royce is different, and the launch of the Wraith has been many months in the planning. The company has chosen the Austrian capital of Vienna to showcase its third model line and, to my mind, it's a perfect location.
The city streets are infuriatingly difficult to navigate, with cars sharing track space with trams, and there's seemingly no rhyme or reason to the way roads intersect. But the city is immaculately clean and, just a few minutes after leaving its confines, you're in some spectacular countryside, with sparse traffic and beautifully surfaced routes that weave through dense forestry and foreboding mountains – quite fitting for a motorcar with such a malevolent name.
I had seen a prototype Wraith at the Abu Dhabi Motors dealership a few months ago and was more impressed than I imagined I would be, by its stance, proportions and design, both inside and out. I recall thinking that it's bound to be a hit in our region for obvious reasons and, seeing it in the cold Viennese morning light on a misty cobbled street, it looks even more magnificent.
Immediately recognisable as a Rolls-Royce, it's still different enough to drop jaws. With bold, broad rear haunches and a distinctive fastback design, combined with subtle but important touches such as the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot, which has been moved farther forward, it looks powerful and menacing, particularly in darker hues. And, like any of its ilk, it seems to work best when the bulk of the body colour is broken up with visual relief courtesy of a silvery bonnet or roofline. The exhaust pipes look big enough to crawl inside, too, simply adding to the eye-grabbing drama.
This is a car that's impossible to ignore. At 5.3 metres long, it's significantly large and physically imposing, although its wheelbase is 180mm shorter than the Ghost, which itself is impish compared to a long wheelbase Phantom. Its two "coach" doors swing open on rear hinges to reveal a cabin that's beyond compare in both design and quality of construction. You can access the rear seats without folding the fronts forward, and there's plenty of room in the rear quarters, too, giving the Wraith genuine practicality.
Its steering wheel is marginally thicker than the Ghost's, another hint that this is the most driveable model in the range, and there's a smattering of BMW switchgear that does nothing to diminish the visual and tactile loveliness. Everything you can see, feel and caress with your fingertips is exquisite.
Take your seat and you feel exalted. The position is high and commanding, although you can't quite see the extremities of the front end of the car, which could result in some nervous moments on the crazy Vienna streets, but the whole car exudes a sense that all is well, at least on the inside. Its prime role in life is to protect its fortunate occupants from the world of hurt that exists outside. Shut the door (by pressing a switch, naturally) and it electronically closes, shutting away the gloom and misery. If this was my car, I'd probably sit in it for a few minutes every day, even if I didn't need to go anywhere.
Press the brake pedal, push the starter button and the Wraith whispers into life. There's no rev counter, just a "Power Reserve" meter and, at a standstill while ticking over, there is no audible clue that the engine is doing anything at all. I have to tug at the steering wheel to see if it's running, reasoning that, if it isn't, I won't be able to turn it.
My passenger has embarked and it's time to head for the hills and forests, through rain that is coming down in huge lumps. Ordinarily, inclement weather is a car launch's worst enemy. Not so today, as it just adds oodles of atmosphere.
After negotiating the awful streets, there's a short motorway stretch ahead and, despite the proliferation of speed and other cameras, I decide to experience some of this increased dynamism. I floor the throttle and the rear of the car immediately squats. Bonnet slightly raised, the transmission shifts down three cogs (probably) and the V12 engine swaps silence for a throaty roar quite unlike any Rolls-Royce before. The speed with which it accelerates is breathtaking, possibly because of the sheer enormity, but it definitely feels faster than the Ghost.
Its engine develops some 800Nm of twist, making absolutely effortless performance, and 633hp gives it plenty of get-up-and-go. Two turbochargers are fitted to the 6.6L V12 and 100kph from a standstill takes only 4.6 seconds. But this is no sports car and Rolls-Royce has never hinted that it was. It's simply powerful and more dynamic, so I'm not expecting to experience go-kart handling once we reach the mountain switchbacks.
Rather, I tackle the wonderful, twisting highways with a lightness of touch. Yes, you can hustle it along at an impressive rate of knots if that's what you insist. But the serenity it provides in such abundance means it's much more suited to crossing entire continents than it is powersliding around hairpin bends.
Rolls-Royce has been making much of the Wraith's cutting-edge technology, especially its eight-speed automatic transmission. Apparently the system, named "Satellite Aided Transmission", utilises GPS data in conjunction with information from Google Maps, to "predict the road ahead" and "automatically selecting the right gear, delivering power smoothly without any unnecessary gear changes". I've also been informed that, within a couple of years, the system will know all about hill inclines, too.
While the drive is, indeed, effortless, I can't really get a sense for what it's doing. The Ghost has always been an exercise in absolute refinement and I never found it wanting in the transmission department, so this will take more time than I have today to prove itself.
The Wraith is also a Wi-Fi hotspot, keeping you connected when you're on the move, and the new rotary controller allows you to access music or directions with a simple swipe of a finger. All it takes to zoom in or out is a small pull or pinch movement. This connectivity and interactivity is essential for the modern business user and the Wraith is bound to tick the appropriate boxes for the CEO who likes to stand out from the crowd. Being a Rolls-Royce, though, the Wraith's application of tech inside the cabin is subtle and as discreet as you'd wish.
As the day unfolds, the roads become more twisting and challenging. Mist rises from the thick forestry like it's dry ice being pumped onto the set of a horror film, and eventually the rain eases off. It's still bitingly cold out there, so the tarmac isn't exactly baked dry, and the Wraith's progress along the 400km route remains sedate and steady.
This relaxed approach to covering ground allows me to soak up the wonderful details that one would otherwise miss if one was in a hurry. Like the open-grain timber panelling inside the doors, the starlight headlining and the blood orange-coloured needles that swing around the power reserve meter and the speedometer. The attention to detail and the craftsmanship on display here are second-to-none.
Once we're back on the open highway heading back to Vienna, I'm able to once again open the Wraith's taps and experience its brute force. But now that the rain has vanished, a fly in the car's ointment makes itself manifest, and that is some unacceptable wind noise at anything over 120kph. In anything else you probably wouldn't notice, but here it's not acceptable.
When we get back to base, the head of product PR asks me what I thought. After banging on about how glorious the entire thing is, I remember the wind noise and bring it up. He says he's aware of the issue with some of the cars and that what we've been driving are, to all intents and purposes, preproduction models with door and glass seals that aren't quite up to the mark. Before customer deliveries commence, he assures me, this will have been properly sorted. I have no reason at all to disbelieve what he says, because the rest of the Wraith is unimpeachable, almost beyond criticism in every respect.
The Wraith is not the ultimate driver's car. It's a gentleman's express without peer and is available for the same sort of money that would get you a well-specified Ferrari FF, and I absolutely adore it. Far from being a malevolent force, it has massive reserves of usable power and is here to protect, not destroy. It's silent and devastatingly quick, just like an actual Wraith might be. But this is one we can all believe in – a truly special automobile.