ROCK ‘N’ ROLLS
There’s something mysterious, even menacing, about the Rolls-Royce Wraith. This is the manufacturer’s “evil” car, a spokesman tells me. How often is a product promoted with that association? A hint of the noir might be a more accurate description. It’s a dramatic automobile, not a shrinking violet; that’s the theatre that comes with a Rolls-Royce. As the garage doors open, you expect a swirl of fog to descend and the Hound of the Baskervilles to howl. In this context, the Wraith – a long, elegantly meaty coupé – is what Dracula drives at the weekends. It’s a caddish, rakish, fabulously modern take on a classic – and it’s unlike anything I’ve driven before.
My rendezvous with this ethereal GT took place in Vienna, that most aristocratic of cities, the capital of opera and masked balls. I checked into the neoclassical Palais Coburg, once the seat of the Saxe-Coburg family and now a luxury hotel of unparalleled discretion, rarely visited by guests below billionaire status. For me, they made an exception. While the staff would never dream of revealing the names of their patrons, some exhaustive digging revealed Yoko Ono is a regular.
It was built in 1840 upon the Braunbastel, Vienna’s old defensive wall, which is to be found when visiting the wine cellar. And this is the cellar to beat all cellars. It’s valued at over £20m, putting it among the top three caves in Europe.
No stranger to the high life, Charles Rolls would certainly have approved. Gentleman, playboy, racer, pilot and blue-sky thinker, he craved innovation. He was the first man in England to own an aeroplane. He was also the first Briton to be killed at the yoke, aged just 32. The £235,000 Wraith, it’s said, embodies his spirit more than any other Rolls from the last half-century. The chaps at Goodwood have certainly created their most powerful machine yet: 624bhp with 590lb/ft of torque. It needs it, given its size (5.27 metres long, 2 metres wide) and weight (2,360kg unladen). This is not a sports car, nor is it an alternative to a limo. It’s almost impossible to pigeonhole, and that’s part of its charm.
Before driving the car across the mountainous Tyrol the next morning, it was time to dine at the invitation of one of the finest young chefs in the country. Silvio Nickol’s intimate restaurant, located in the cellar of the Palais Coburg, has won two Michelin stars. The fivecourse degustation menu included salmon carpaccio served on nitro-frozen sauerkraut; a forest scene of mushroom-shaped duck liver next to what looked exactly like moss and birch bark but was actually spinach, chocolate and mushrooms; and mashed banana with banana ice cream, sprinkled with passion fruit pips and ground lapsang souchong. It was so good I had Nickol sign my menu.
Following such a rich and inventive dinner and a night’s stay in one of the Palais Coburg’s 165 square metre suites, one is perfectly conditioned to climb aboard the Wraith.
Despite the mathematical girth, it actually looks quite trim thanks to some very clever design, like the stainless steel door handle that stretches back from below the A-pillar. From there, the car appears to taper like the stern of a J-class yacht. The split-level bodywork, especially when ordered in two-tone paint, compresses the shape. The suicide doors (they open the “wrong” way), which were the first things the designers agreed upon, lend a great sense of occasion every time you get in and keep you on the lookout for highwaymen.
The “fastback” shape, with its wide hips and swollen arches, gives the car muscle. Even the Spirit of Ecstasy figurine, atop the recessed grille, is canted forward a few degrees for extra sense of purpose. It’s not aggressively athletic, but you can tell it packs a punch. Like Roger Bannister in brogues, you still wouldn’t have taken him on in a sprint.
As well as nautical references, there were two vintage motors among the pictures on the studio mood board that were particularly influential: Pinin Farina’s 1948 Cisitalia 202, a long-nosed short-back round-bodied coupé that’s in the MoMA’s permanent collection in New York, and RR’s own Silver Dawn from the following year; a tall, stately four-door with flared wheel arches and a trunk bulge at the back.
The interior is reminiscent of the Rolls-Royce Ghost, the car on which this is based. The leather, as soft as Devonshire cream, is the finest you’ll find in any car, and the carpets are so thick you could lose smaller passengers in them. Adding a sense of chintzy fun to the options list is the “Starlight Headliner”: 1,340 celestial fibre-optic lights in the roof that will prove horribly bling for some tastes but looks rather spectacular if you’re in the rear seats.
None of the buttons on the dashboard are marked – text is inelegant – leading to a fascia that’s opulent but unfussy. Instead, you brush buttons with your finger and the LCD screen, which can be hidden when not in use, reminds you what they do before you press them. To guide you through the infotainment system there’s a BMW iDrive touchpad. In fact, a lot of the science is lifted from the 7-series but Rolls-Royce’s execution allows you to forget that. After all, with so much room for bespoke customisation – RR encourages it – your Wraith can be as unique as your fingerprint.
Elsewhere, it couldn’t be simpler. There’s an oldschool column shift: reverse, neutral, drive. There’s no paddle-shift, no suspension options, no sport button. This car is a private butler on wheels who goes unseen but is always there.
The winding roads are carpeted in a thin layer of fog as I cruise through Tyrol, letting the car do the work. Using Satellite Aided Transmission first developed by the BMW F1 team, the car knows when a corner is up ahead, judges your speed and selects which gear is best suited. Here’s how you drive it: slow into corners, fast out. Try to drive it like a Ferrari FF – four seats, same price, totally different character – and it’ll heave around like an old drunk. Brake early and in a straight line, steer it with your fingertips, make it as effortless as possible and the car will reward you.
I stepped into the Wraith thinking it was a Bentley Continental GT Speed rival. After all, when comparing the figures – weight, horsepower, torque, speed (though the Wraith is limited to 155mph, it’s just 0.2 seconds off the Bentley’s mesmerising 0-62 time) – it’s right in the same postcode. But, in fact, the Wraith is other-worldly. It wafts, it’s imperial, it’s not at the races.
While the Conti sounds like the apocalypse when you open its 12 cylinders (although in this case the Four Horsemen are dressed in Savile Row tailoring), the Wraith is almost silent. It means speed is imperceptible; road noise is just enough to remind you there are other people there. The sensation is not one of travel, it’s of the world coming to you. This is the way Rolls-Royce’s clientele expect it.