Wraith is a Rolls-Royce but not quite as we know it
THERE'S no doubt that Rolls-Royce is sticking to its knitting with the ground-breaking two-door Wraith. It's sportier, but is by no stretch of the imagination a sportscar - and its uncompromising executives will quickly remind you of that.
The Wraith is all about drama, the leathery luxury that's denoted behind the iconic Spirit of Ecstasy, who leans ever-so-slightly further forward than her usual pose, creating a faster impression.
It's got power in spades, the 0-100kmh acceleration figures don't quite gel with the 2650kg of well-appointed hyper-quality machine; there's the polarising fastback design, fatter, more aggressive rear wheel arches - it's a Rolls, Crispin, but not quite as we know it.
This sporting pretext is interpreted by the company as a bit of "noir". Its launch ad shows the car being driven through roads in a menacing, leaf-bare forest, slightly foggy and threatening as a well-to-do and stunningly gorgeous lady - to the manor born, it intimates - comes running to the front gates to see the car and its obviously frighteningly well-bred driver pull up.
Time stops for a second or two in a clever freeze and our blueblooded pilot, without hesitation, disappears back to whence he came, and the lovely lady is left at the gate.
"And the world stood still", the line reads.
She should have known he wasn't stopping - after all, the Phantom's for socialising, while the Wraith is for Lord Whatsischops to drive himself.
Everything that a Rolls-Royce buyer expects from a car is here - except two rear doors. The mere thought of a coupe Roller might send some traditionalists scurrying to the library for a swift cognac to dull the shock, but it has been carried off rather well. Is it trying to be Bentley? Not really.
The Bentley buyer is not a Rolls man (or woman), and while looking at the Wraith and a Continental from a purely non-purchasing perspective there are similarities. They're both still keeping the crosshairs focused on their traditional customers. The Bentley's sporting overtones are far more honed and precise - a sharper edge, a younger buyer and a race history to keep up. You'll never see a Rolls in GT3 - it's just not the done thing.
The customer expectation of Rolls-Royce is of an actual experience, not simply a very nice drive. Even for the riff-raff of the motoring press at the car's international launch in Vienna last week, the company treated everyone with kid gloves - we were not to feel under pressure. That's not what the life of a Rolls owner is about.
From the luxury surrounds of the exclusive Palais Coburg Residenz, which was home base for two dozen rotations of international press,
The Palais' history is impressive, its guests those seeking respite from the pressures of money and power - from Middle Eastern gents who think nothing of spending more than $16,000 on the right bottle of wine to match their meal to new money folk like Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, sighted at breakfast last week.
There are 65,000 bottles of wine in the cellars, including one 1800s rarity that'll set you back more than $293,000. This is how the other half of the 1% lives. And that, said the hosts, was exactly why we were here. As part of Rolls-Royce, the experience, the car may be the star, but it certainly brings an entourage.
The Wraith, it turns out, really is a star. Not one of these new-era stars with fake boobs and fleeting celebrity - one of the old guard, dues paid, genius recognised and deserving of eternal reverence. The name, like the marque, is steeped in history, and was first used in 1938.
Wraith is essentially a Ghost with two doors and that dramatic, puffed-up fastback. Underneath is essentially the bones of a BMW 7-Series, and while that may pass as luxury at that end of the family business, the Rolls' interpretation is far more impressive. Effortless class and refinement - wheels for the properly wealthy, not high-tech machines for European CEOs, but rewards for those so exceptionally rich they are relaxed about dropping a half-million on something to remind them, and the world around them, that they've made it big.
Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Muller-Otvos is excited by the new car. Even his measured, considered manner is coloured by an enthusiasm that has enveloped the rest of the company. He believes the car will "boldly shape the years ahead for Rolls-Royce, building on the success of Ghost, bringing more new customers to the marque".
"Wraith is the ultimate gentleman's gran turismo; it is the car we believe our great founding forefather and adventurer, the Honourable Charles Rolls, would have chosen to drive were he alive today."
This may well be true - Rolls had a habit of chasing speed and wasn't averse to engineering a power-up to push the mechanical boundaries of whichever form of transport he was obsessing over at the time. He would certainly approve of the big V12 lump under the bonnet, which can trace its lineage back to the BMW stable, but bears little resemblance.
The twin turbo 6.6-litre V12 is an absolute powerhouse - 465kW (634hp) on tap, with seamless delivery of its 800Nm maximum torque from right down at 1500rpm.
The delivery isn't brutal - engineers at the launch said that while they were developing the powerplant for what was to be the most powerful Rolls-Royce in history, it was still more important to maintain the expected Magic Carpet Ride.
Idling around town, it's perfectly tractable, with light throttle inputs simply wafting the 2360kg behemoth from light to light.
It is a huge car in the urban jungle and negotiating from the Palais Coburg to the winding alpine roads was an occasionally hair-raising experience. Any overseas car launch where the steering wheel is on the wrong side can be a bit harrowing for the first few kilometres, then it all starts to make sense. If you're in a hand-built Roller that tips the wallet at around half a million, the paint and panel paranoia is intense.
We're not talking about a small vehicle - it's Ghost-based, built around a steel monocoque, with a double front bulkhead to help isolate occupants from engine noise. Alongside its four-door brethren, the Wraith has a 24mm wider rear axle, the wheelbase is 183mm shorter and the whole car sits a "sporty" 50mm lower.
But it's still over 5.2m long, 1.9m wide and has a 12.7m turning circle. Despite its 2360kg heft, the whole package will hit 100kmh in just 4.6 seconds. This is staggering considering this is a respectable speed for high-performance sedans from the German manufacturers with a significant weight advantage. It tops out at 250kmh, but that's because an electronic governor intervenes.
Putting this sort of power into practice in a vehicle of this magnitude was always going to be interesting. With the standard double wishbone front and multilink rear, it was up to the engineers to make it handle. While it ate up long, sweeping corners with ease and unbelievable pace, the Wraith isn't a tight-and-twisty terror, favouring a slowish entry speed to tougher corners. But, as soon as the straight line out is visible, and you unleash the muted baritone of the V12 when it starts to rev, it simply takes off.
There's no real fuss - the car simply takes off like a breath of wind, adding ever-increasing numbers to the highly polished silver gauges, slipping through its eight-speed transmission with silky ease and maintaining absolute composure until the velocity registers with the driver's brain and the looming corner requires getting more than two tonnes set up for the carefully considered entry. There's a little bit of body roll, but nothing jarring - it's just a very big car.
Keeping this size of machine moving along, without the sort of effort that might cause Sir to perspire a bit, is the newest trick in the Rolls-Royce roster: satellite-aided transmission. Essentially with serious processing power, GPS satellite data is used to predict which gear the impeccably well-behaved machine should be in, using severity of upcoming curves, changes in altitude and other variables to ensure the right gear is there when it's needed.
After initially scoffing at how effective this system could be, after a 370km route that took us from Vienna up through the mountains and forests to Mariazell and then back to the city, the mix of hairpins, big sweepy corners were all well-predicted. It was only on passing opportunities - a bizarre abundance of horse-and-cart travellers or gargantuan logging trucks - that the Wraith responded to a bigger serve of acceleration. The whisper gave way to a roar and a staggering surge of power left all comers in its wake.
Obviously, this sort of power comes with a penalty, and that's the fuel consumption - quoted by Rolls at 21.2 litres/100km for urban driving, and 14L/100km on open roads. Our two-toned, two-tonned machine averaged just under 16L after a day's driving.
The interior is all style, as one would fairly expect from one of the world's most renowned carmakers - a slightly fatter steering wheel gives more feedback, there's luxurious leather seats, leather-dressed dash and wooden touches, all bookmatched so every grain meets and maintains a 60-degree lean throughout the cabin.
The hoodlining has over 1300 LEDs fitted so it's all night-sky sparkly when required, and every switch and button clicks into place with a solid, serious feel. Only the indicator stalks were a letdown, and even then because they felt a bit skinny - not light or flimsy, just a bit skinny.
While we're picking at straws, the wing mirrors, too, were a bit small for piloting a 5.3m machine around a busy city centre, and the rear-view mirror was a tad thin, and when the sun decided to shine it reflected the creamy leather parcel shelf faithfully in the rear window.
Rolls-Royce buyers will see the first of the Wraiths here before Christmas, with Rolls-Royce noting that pricing will start from $645,000.
Buyers will tend to add a good number of bespoke options. This is the real joy of being able to afford hand-built luxury like this and, with the Rolls Bespoke program among the most highly respected on Earth, you can get just about anything.
On being picked up from the airport in Vienna in what has to be the world's most well-appointed taxi - a Rolls-Royce Phantom - its driver told me about a customer who came to see his freshly finished Phantom. He noticed a Spirit of Ecstasy on another car - but in gold. He was incensed that he had only the "plain" Spirit and asked for one like it. After being told it was gold-plated, he went one step further and ordered his Spirit in gold. Another $78,000 with that box ticked.