High-end car launches usually take place in exotic climes on roads that are fast and sweeping, with magnificent vistas stretching as far as the eye can see. But not this one.
To reveal its Ghost Series II, Rolls-Royce chose to start us off on the mean streets of southeast London, with Renzo Piano’s glittering Shard as a base. The logic? That Europe’s tallest building represents the brave new face of post-slump capitalism and brings to mind the very sort of movers, shakers, go-getters and doers whose success merits the purchase of a £220,000 motor. Which is probably why you’re reading about it here.
So, in one respect, the vistas did stretch as far as the eye can see – at least, they did from the Rolls-Royce Cloud Lounge on floor 24. But within 40 seconds of settling into the sumptuous surroundings of the new Ghost’s leather-laden interior, and heading west along the short, dead-end approach leading to the Shard’s entrance, the view rapidly deteriorated: grim-faced pedestrians, sad-faced vagrants, angry-faced motorists and enough traffic to make even the keenest driver want to abandon ship and buy a bicycle. But did we care, my co-passenger and I? Of course not, because we were in another world, cocooned in a gilded white cage, being expertly manoeuvred through the jam by Michael, our appointed driver.
It was quite a stroke of PR genius because, after all, how often do you see a Rolls-Royce spearing along the fast lane of a motorway? Pretty rarely, in my experience. They’re mostly trapped in the cities, which have proved to be the source of the wealth that has enabled their owners to buy them – and consequently, you want to feel as much at home as possible once inside. Especially when you’re not really going anywhere.
Which is why our car’s exquisitely finished piano-black veneer, seashell leather and lambswool floor mats were so important, not to mention the folding picnic tables, massage seats, panoramic sunroof and 18-speaker sound system, which, we were assured, had been tailored specifically to the Ghost’s interior. Put simply, it all made the unappealing reality of the world outside seem an awfully long way off.
But, truth be told, our Ghost was relatively pedestrian in terms of options. In the five years that the old Series I version has been around, no fewer than 85 per cent of cars sold have been delivered with bespoke features. This has resulted in an even greater raft of personalisation opportunities being made available for the new one, from intricate marquetry veneers to extra-special leathers and exterior paint-finishes in virtually any colour imaginable.
And that personal touch is important because, if Rolls-Royce has a problem in this day and age, it’s that its cars have become too affordable to the growing number of super-rich and therefore don’t seem quite so rare and exotic as they did in the past.
According to the marque’s effortlessly charming communications boss, Richard Carter, an unprecedented 4,000 cars will leave the Goodwood production line this year – but most of the people who buy one will want theirs to be, to a greater or lesser extent, “unique”. The fact is, with truly statement-making classic Ferraris now realising north of £20m, driving a Rolls that cost a few hundred thousand doesn’t really say much about how successful you are.
That aside, the new Ghost certainly makes one feel good about life. Once we had crawled through the traffic from the Shard to Canary Wharf (distance: 5.5km; travel time: 40 minutes), Michael relinquished the wheel so that I could assume the role of the “owner‑driver” for whom the car is generally intended – as opposed to the range-topping Phantoms whose buyers are, perhaps, more likely to leave the tiresome business of manning the controls of “the best car in the world” to a suitably competent chauffeur.
In true Rolls-Royce style, the pre-drive briefing included virtually no mention of the nuts and bolts that lie beneath the skin of the Ghost Series II, except for the fact that the car has adopted the “satellite-aided transmission” used in the two-door Wraith model. But for those who care, it retains the BMW-derived, 563bhp, 12-cylinder, 6.6-litre engine of its predecessor – so it remains unfeasibly rapid for a car that weighs a truck-like 2.6 tonnes and, when pushed, it handles surprisingly well.
The main changes are aesthetic and decidedly subtle (again, in the Rolls-Royce way). As well as new headlamps, there is some slight reshaping to the wings, doors and bonnet and a more prominent – but not larger – Spirit of Ecstasy riding above the instantly recognisable radiator grille. Inside, meanwhile, a slick, new “infotainment” set-up is controlled by a console-mounted knob with a touchscreen top, and there’s also a voice-command system, on-board wifi and the increasingly usual, aircraft-style head-up display projected onto the windscreen.
Logically speaking, a car measuring more than 5m in length should be a bore to drive in traffic – but not the Ghost. Once underway, its whispering progress seems to induce a strange disbelief that the carapace is actually large enough to accommodate such a luxurious environment.
In fact, it’s so nice to travel by Ghost that, even after a traffic-clogged drive back to town from the nether regions of the test route in once-rural Sevenoaks, I extended my time behind the wheel with a brief shopping trip to St James’s.
And as much as the development of the London Bridge Quarter is to be applauded, I couldn’t help but feel that a Rolls-Royce still seems far more comfortable in SW1 than SE1. And I don’t just mean in terms of the accommodation.