Up close with the Rolls-Royce Wraith

22 October, 2013 | by topgear

It’s called the Rolls-Royce Wraith. An epithet so deliciously rounded on the tongue and chock-full of rhythm that it warrants at least three or four goes before you get the pronunciation just right. A name that slithers around in your mouth like an eel. And a car that requires a bit of patience to understand, as well as enunciate, because this isn’t your average modern Rolls.

Nope, the Wraith is something altogether more atypical from a company that, until a few years ago, would only quote power figures as “sufficient”. It’s being heralded as the “most potent and technologically advanced Rolls-Royce in history.” A fast, dynamic Rolls then. A rockin’ Roller.

And yet “dynamic Rolls-Royce” is a confluence of particular words that doesn’t sit easily within a semantic framework, in the same way you don’t usually describe a Georgian mansion as nimble or a hot air balloon as agile. A Rolls is many things: imperious, graceful, commanding… but dynamic always comes with a caveat when you consider the gravitational constraints of a two-and-a-half-tonne slice of putatively British luxury car.

PRESENCE LIKE NO OTHER

The Wraith, however, is different. From the moment it turns a wheel, it feels totally unlike the Ghost on which it is based. Yes, you peer out over an expanse of bonnet more or less exactly like its four-door brother’s, but the framing is changed by the lower roofline, the acoustics perverted by the unfamiliar configuration. There is a blind spot in the rear three-quarter that you could lose Berkshire in, a gun-slit rear window raked so hard that it reflects the rear parcelshelf entirely. But it feels – a bit of a weird thing to say when talking about a modern Rolls and you’ve only driven a pair of miles – immediately more concentrated, more dense in purpose.

The general reaction to the car confirms that the R-R Wraith is a bit special even when considered against its own, too. People stare. If you lower the windows, you get a Doppler sense of bystanders’ exclamations, most being variants of “Wow!”. Although one van driver simply wound down his window at a set of traffic lights and shouted – quite vehemently – “Holy s**t!” Given that I was in a left-hand-drive car and he was only a foot away, it was hard not to laugh. And it’s no wonder. The Wraith is faintly bewildering to look at on the road.

We might as well get this over with quickly: the Wraith is not a car that people fail to have an opinion on. They either love it, or want it to go away, at speed. The lazy way to describe it would be a Ghost coupe. But it is so much more than that. Where the Phantom Coupe is a two-door car with a slightly neater three-quarter than the standard Phantom, the Wraith has adopted a full-on fastback. It still has rear-hinged coach doors (the gigantic spars of the doorhandles are actually up under the wing mirrors, the mirrors themselves attached to the doors), and anything in front of the A-pillar is familiar Ghostly territory, but slide backwards and everything turns a bit…polarising.

For a start, there’s no B-pillar and the windows are frameless, meaning that the sweeping roofline scythes away and down uninterrupted towards a set of hefty hips that shroud a wider track for the suspension. The little creases in the roof make it look like the C-pillar actually has flying buttresses from some angles (it hasn’t), and the same line that starts at the top of the rear window runs all the way back to tuck up under the boot. There are a lot of extravagantly flat surfaces – big, solid, confident bits of design – softened into the rolling bumpers or the sustained depths of the sides. A car that looks heavy, but as if it carries its weight low.

It’s a wilfully odd thing, full of subtle detail that you only appreciate when you take a little time. If a supercar is the visual equivalent of a raw-throated shot of cheap tequila – instant and insistent – the Wraith is a more complex cocktail that takes a few more minutes to identify properly. It takes a while to notice that what looks like a blocky two-tone behemoth is actually dripping in detail. In fact, I only realised after about half an hour that the grille was recessed and the Spirit of Ecstasy figurine on the bonnet was actually leaning forward by a couple of degrees.

A SWIFT AS A ROLLS SHOULD BE

The subtlety of which is somewhat undermined by the fact that the Wraith is still just plain old big. Enormous. Visually and physically bulky. But physical size is also a constriction to Rolls’ intended mission: dynamism. The hardware, however, sounds promising. Press the start button and the twin-turbo V12 whoomphs into life with purpose, if not particular volume. This is the now-familiar R-R 6.6-litre bi-turbo V12 (exactly like the one in the BMW 760Li) that now delivers 465kW (up from the Ghost’s 420kW) and 800Nm to the rear wheels, making it by a smidgen the fastest-ever car to bear the famous double R: 0-100kph in 4.6 seconds, top speed limited to 250kph. That’s properly rapid for a car that still weighs in the region of 2.4 tonnes.

Select Drive from the eight-speed gearbox via the slim column-mounted wand to the right of the steering wheel, and the Wraith does a passable impression of… a Rolls-Royce. It’s lovely. Brilliant, even. But it doesn’t feel like the kind of car you’d attack a mountain pass with. Unless you wanted to demolish it. The air suspension has been reworked to offer more handling bite while still maintaining the famous glide that Rolls so prides itself on, and yes, from the wheel, the Wraith turns more keenly than its relations, the steering wheel physically fatter and more replete with information about what those 20-inch front wheels are doing. But it’s not exactly a razor best handled with fingertips.

Light throttle openings bring a similar sense of ambiguity. There’s obviously plenty of power on tap, but it’s never rabid or goading. It hoofs the car up to respectable speeds with little fuss, the chronic, sustained pressure of a jet on take-off rather than the acute burst of speed that you might expect. You sit in the Wraith, encircled by exquisite book-matched, open-grained wood as perfectly symmetrical as butterfly wings, squished deep into buttery, perfumed leather, and wonder whether the marketing department has gotten itself a bit overexcited. This is a rather wonderful Rolls: at the top of its game in terms of experience and drive-by presence, but still brisk rather than boisterous.

Once you get used to it though, things start to happen. Good things. Get a bit more insistent with the accelerator, and the Wraith becomes more committed as your confidence increases. The ZF gearbox is wonderful just mooching, but, when you go faster, it employs a technology called Satellite Aided Transmission (SAT) – like the system on the Audi A8 – that uses GPS to determine the appropriate gear for upcoming corners. So instead of changing up or down at an inopportune moment in a selection of bends, the Wraith stays in the correct gear for the approaching bit of geography, depending on speed and severity.

This clever system means that you can work the torque of the V12, never resorting to kickdown for a missed opportunity, the engine heaving powerfully like a strong wind through the eaves of an old house. There comes the sense of rhythm again, of patience. You don’t chuck this car into a bend, or throw it, or stamp on the accelerator or brakes. You drive it like a very powerful classic car: brake early and hard, settle the car into the corner gently and allow the soft-feeling suspension to load, then feed the power in as you push through. It doesn’t wallow, but it does move around, and you have to be mindful of the size and weight. But get it right, and it really is very satisfying.

In fact, this way, the Wraith becomes standout. Rather brilliantly bonkers. Very possibly epic. Not necessarily brain-changing fast, but capable of delivering a generous dose of endorphins, a sense that you and it have reached an understanding. Drive it like an oik – brake late, turn hard, lack finesse – and the Wraith will buck by washing the nose wide early, stuttering the traction control, making a meal of its mass and throwing a bit of a huff. If a car could tut and roll its eyes, this would.

Of course, even though the driving experience is a slightly odd one, the Wraith also comes equipped with all the comforting modernity you’d expect from a company that has the pick of the BMW electronics cupboard, familiar tech twisted through the prism of Rolls-Royce luxury. A head-up display. Wireless hotspottery. A multifunction trackpad encased in crystal – to control the large central multimedia display – that presents as the top of the only slightly suspiciously iDrive-ish rotary dial on the central tunnel. A stereo that’ll blow the doors wide. There is generous seating for four – despite the appearance of that roofline, the rear seats are like armchairs – and enough space for luggage plus bells and whistles galore, all elegantly presented in the usual restrained Rolls-Royce style. Like an Edwardian drawing room designed by Apple Inc. Good stuff, presented well.

Bluntly, the Wraith is utterly beguiling. It’s a caddish, rakish, more attitudinal take on what it means to be a Rolls-Royce. No, it’s not a sports car and should not be considered as such, despite what the figures might suggest. It should be thought of as a demonstration of confidence, both in terms of the company and of the owner. The Wraith does not suffer to compete and is patently unapologetic in all areas, making it so full of charisma and self-assurance that it becomes magnetic. A powerful presence rather than just another conglomeration of metal and leather. So, it turns out that the Wraith is not a perfect car, but it makes me question what “perfection” really means.

Words: Tom Ford
Pictures: Lee Brimble

     

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