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The colossus of roads

Rolls-Royce has pulled out all the stops to produce “the ultimate gentlemen’s gran turismo”. Simon de Burton buckles up beneath the starlit roof, checks in with the on-board valet and puts the Wraith through a 250-mile alpine trial

December 01 2013
Simon de Burton

Oh, Cruella de Vil, you arrived too soon – in automotive terms, at least, for no car could have been better suited to the luxury-loving, puppy-pilfering antagonist of Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians than the latest wafting behemoth from Rolls-Royce: the Wraith. Adopting a name first used 75 years ago by the maker of the “best car in the world”, the Wraith is possibly the most significant two-door from the marque since the Camargue of 1975. The latter, a suitably vast and endearingly ugly coupé, was produced in a run of little more than 500 examples and once enjoyed the distinction of being the most expensive production automobile ever.

The Wraith’s arrival brings the tally of two-door models currently on offer from Rolls-Royce to three – the others being the Phantom and Drophead Coupés – which is an unusually high number for a maker not best known for building motors with a sporting bent. In reality, co-founder and pioneer aviator the Hon CS Rolls was one of the most sporting gents of his era, even driving a Light 20 to victory at the Isle of Man TT in 1906, shortly after Rolls-Royce was officially formed.

Seven years later, aristocratic racer Don Carlos de Salamanca won the first Spanish Grand Prix in a “Royce”, crossing the finishing line of the 190-mile road circuit as fresh and unruffled as when he started out. It was a propitious time for the company: in the very same year, a Silver Ghost won Austria’s gruelling Alpine Trial, which covered more than 1,800 miles and took in 18 major passes.

So Rolls-Royce does have something of a sporting heritage, albeit one that has more or less lain dormant for a century. But it’s what we’re meant to think about when presented with the Wraith, which was only matched as an attention-grabber by the McLaren P1 and Ferrari F70 hypercars when it was unveiled at March’s Geneva International Motor Show.

In keeping with the centenary of that Alpine Trial victory, Rolls-Royce chose Austria as the venue for the Wraith’s drive launch, devising a route that mixed the tram-heavy beauty of Vienna with some brisk motorway stretches and a wealth of twisty mountain roads in order to prove the claim of its CEO, Torsten Müller-Ötvös, that this is “the ultimate gentlemen’s gran turismo”. Rolls-Royce also says the Wraith is the most “powerful and dynamic” car it has ever built. And to prove this, engine output figures have been made official – a highly unusual move for a firm that, in the past, would smugly describe the power of its cars simply as “adequate, sir”.

The Wraith could certainly be called that. Its V12 twin-turbo engine churns out 624 brake horsepower and, more importantly, produces a lorry-like 800 newton metres of torque from as low as 1,500rpm. Torque has arguably always provided Rolls-Royce cars with their famously effortless demeanour and, even with a corpulent 2.36 tons to propel, the Wraith’s engine is unlikely ever to break a sweat.

Rolls-Royce claims that no other car exists to match the Wraith, and looking at it in all its elegant vastness leaves one inclined to agree. The temptation is to regard it as an oversized competitor to Bentley’s Continental GT, but it’s a great deal more than that. Designed from the ground up to convey a Jekyll and Hyde nature that combines sporting performance with effortless luxury, it looks like a machine made specifically to devour continents, stopping only for good lunches and even better dinners. This permeates the Wraith to the point that the bonnet-mounted Spirit of Ecstasy mascot has been canted forward by 5˚ to create an extra sense of thrust.

Its two “coach” doors open from the front, giving way to an interior far more accommodating than that of most coupés and swathed, of course, in more high-grade leather and wooden trim than you’re likely to find in the smoking room of a private members’ club. The car I drove was finished in a combination of Salamanca Blue and Jubilee Silver, with a navy-and-cream scheme inside. Its body suits a two-tone configuration, but essentially you can have what you like.

Wrapped around the interior from door to door was what design director Giles Taylor says is the largest veneer pressing ever used in an automobile. The optional open-pore woodwork – named Canadel, after the horseshoe-shaped cove near Henry Royce’s winter home in the south of France – is designed to evoke the style and glamour of a classic yacht. Other on-demand extras range from a presentation key box to a whimsical but beguiling Starlight roof lining, which emulates the night sky through 1,340 twinkling fibre optics. Together, these pushed “my” Wraith’s £235,000 base price to a more impressive figure of about £290,000.

The car also benefitted from an optional audio system (18 speakers and an output of 1,300W), as well as a 360˚ camera system and active cruise control, which, among other things, prevents one from driving too close to the car in front when activated. Even the standard features impress, such as the fabulously entertaining voice-activated phone and navigation system, which makes it possible to send emails and text messages simply by dictating them, just one facet of the “on-board valet”. All told, it makes for a sumptuous package. Slipping behind the steering wheel and closing the electrically operated door with the push of a button is to find oneself in an almost hermetically sealed bubble of fine craftsmanship that will hold four in the utmost comfort.

Starting the engine seems a distinctly underwhelming experience, mainly because you can’t hear it from inside, thanks to the super-insulated, double-skinned bulkhead. Only the twitch of the racy, blood-orange tips of the speedometer and gimmicky “power reserve” indicator serve to reveal that there’s anything happening beneath the bonnet – and progress at speeds of up to 80mph is made in a state of almost electrically powered calm. The designers have allowed it to display its sporting side, with a slightly gruffer exhaust note than would normally be expected from a Rolls-Royce, and at greater speeds there is more than a hint of things going on under the skin and the world passing by. I was surprised to find the tranquillity of the interior broken by the faint swish of wind around the door mirrors during fast-paced cruising.

What impresses least, however, is the much-hyped Satellite Aided Transmission, which processes GPS data to predict the road ahead. If you’re approaching a bend, for example, the car will set itself up in advance so that it is already in exactly the right gear for the coming terrain (though it can’t account for hills yet). It is impossible to know what it is doing or when it is doing it – but that, I suppose, demonstrates its effectiveness. Or is it simply Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome?

In any event, the Wraith proved its worth to me simply by dint of enabling me to arrive at my destination feeling fresher than I probably would have done in any other car after covering 100 miles. Which is not bad, considering I’d driven two and a half times as far.

See also

Rolls-Royce