Spirit of the Ghost: Taking a Rolls-Royce Wraith around France
There and back again in seriously British hi-tech luxury
Vulture at the Wheel There used to be a tradition on Personal Computer World magazine of writing reviews on the computer you were reviewing. This is being written from the passenger seat of a Rolls-Royce Wraith travelling between Dijon and Reims.
The two-door, four seat Wraith has just become the Rolls-Royce of interest because the company launched the Rolls-Royce Dawn. The newest car might claim not to be a convertible version of the Wraith, but then marketing men claim all kinds of things.
Engineering a roof of the speed, insulating quality and fit of a Rolls-Royce should be enough for them. Ultimately the newest Rolls-Royce is a convertible version of what you see here. So if you’ve just sold your dotcom startup to Google, should you be adding your name to the waiting list?
When you get a Rolls-Royce to review for four days you need to go somewhere. The obvious destination for a Rolls-Royce is Monaco. A thousand miles from London, this was a two thousand mile trip in under a week. So, off we headed.
There will be more about why, who and where in a separate article but for the moment the important fact is that four of us drove from London to Monaco in a day. We spent a day there and drove back over two days, taking in the classic Route Napoleon on the way back. We left at 8am, an for 11:20 Eurotunnel booking, and arrived at the house where we stayed near Monaco at 3am the following morning. An eighteen hour trip, when you allow for the time difference.
All of it was pretty much non-stop aside from refuelling the car and people, and the bit on the train. Rotating drivers at the stops meant that although we arrived late, none of us felt tired or stressed by the journey. In the spirit of the trans-continental grand tourer the Wraith has it licked.
No time to lose on the way to the tunnel. McDonalds supplies people-fuel
Clever software and wide lenses give a Vulture's-eye view
The car has presence. It’s beautiful and muscular. It is also very big, at more than five metres long and a shade under two metres wide. Indeed, we took it into the “high” vehicles section of the Eurotunnel because that doesn’t have toilets in the train and so is wider. We didn’t need the height – it’s only 1.5 metres tall – but we did need the width.
The Wraith has ultra wide angle cameras in the sides and front. These, as with a similar system on the Nissan Qashqai use image processing software to knit the views together and give a third-party eagle's-eye view. It made the train boarding very much less stressful than we expected.
The review car was two tone blue and grey, which is a little subtle but looked great in strong sunlight. Of course, no car manufacturer describes its colours in such simple terms and so it’s called “Dark Indigo” and “Gunmetal”. Both are metal flake paints with a great lustre.
The dark blue hand-painted coach lines were a little lost against the gunmetal but the finish is superb. There is an athletic haunch to the shape; it looks like a coiled spring even when it's still and it conveys a sense of power. There is a huge Rolls-Royce signature radiator topped with a Spirit of Ecstasy but the radiator is aerodynamically curved, adding to the sense that it’s moving and Eleanor Thornton* emerges from a painted rather than chrome top to the radiator. The super-bright LED lights have little RR logos in them.
The big trick feature of the Wraith is the doors. These hinge from the back and open very wide to allow space for the rear passengers to get in. This means you cannot reach the door handle from the driver’s seat. To solve this problem the doors are electric, buttons behind the A-pillar control the doors and boot.
The nice man from Rolls-Royce who delivered the car warned me that you must look carefully before opening the doors and that he’d collected a lot of loan cars which had been returned with dented doors.
The design of the door has a crease in it which breaks up the line, but we had a heart-in-the-mouth moment thinking that it wasn’t design but the result of a prang. The closing mechanism isn’t quite as Rolls-Royce as you might hope, while it’s very, very cool it is a little jerky.
The crease in the door is a styling feature
Space in the back is good. We were a little concerned that given the road trip we had planned: 2,500 miles in four days, we’d find a two door a bit cramped and started to think that we should have asked for a Phantom. That was not the case. The business class seats might not recline in the back but proved wonderful for armchair-snoozes. It’s part of what made the 3 am arrival so easy. There are buttons to electrically slide the front seats in the back of them so that the rear passenger can adjust the position.
This is so much better than the usual “have you got enough room back there”. The centre console at the back means there is no chance of squeezing a third person in. This is a strict four seater. There is no storage space or fold down tables in the back of the seat either but there is power including a USB socket.
The deep, plush carpets in particular provoked comments, one of the driving team saying that he thought he should change into slippers when he boarded.
Riding along in my automobile ...
Heads up on the road to Rouen
The front is, as one might expect, equally sumptuous. But it’s disjointed. As one would assume the rev counter – which isn’t a rev counter but a meter which shows “available power” and the speedometer, calibrated up to 150 mph, are analogue. But they are not particularly elegant or easy to read. Not that this matters because there is an excellent heads up display which shows speed and sat-nav instructions, the local speed limit and what the radar cruise control is set to.
The controls are all a bit scattered. Normally you’d argue that drivers soon learn where to look for the parking brake – high to the left of the wheel and not the conventional Rolls-Royce additional pedal – or how to put the car into Park – press the button on the end of the column gear change. The typical driver of a Wraith, however, will have a fleet of cars and the poor discoverability of the controls will matter if this is a garage queen for occasional use.
We were amused that the valet parking at The Casino in Monaco was very much more familiar with all the controls than we were. The Casino operates a policy of offering valet parking based on the prestige of the car you rock up in. You might have a £100,000 Porsche 911 but you won’t get a space for something that common. A Delorean worth a fraction of the price would get parked. With the Wraith we didn’t for one moment doubt that we’d get parked, and accordingly got a space front and centre.
For a car-maker whose unofficial slogan is “the loudest sound you can hear in a Rolls-Royce is the ticking of the clock”, we were disappointed that the clock wasn’t particularly attractive – and was unreadable at night.
This is as sporty as Rolls-Royces get, so it’s initially surprising that there are no flappy paddles, but once you drive the thing you understand.
The wall of torque and effortless power mean that, in the main, the car glides through gear changes imperceptibly. This meant that we couldn’t test the feature where the car uses the GPS to predict what gear it will need for the next stretch of road.
The materials and finish are impeccable, the seats both supportive and comfortable and everything is completely adjustable. The seats go from a “looking down on the little people” height to “quite low but not quite sports car”.
As you may expect, there is a little joystick for height and reach on the steering wheel and memory buttons for the seats. It is, of course, keyless go.
The roof lighting transcends bling to be very, very cool. The starlight roof has little LEDs that dim and look like night stars. Next to the switch for the stars is one for an SOS button. It presumably summons International Rescue.
While all the engineering and materials side of the car shows the opulence and fantastic attention to detail, the problem all low-volume can manufacturers have is that the electronics have to come from something less. In the case of the Rolls-Royce it’s from BMW, which owns the company. While iDrive has improved hugely over the years, it’s still a lot of a faff.
Rolls-Royce design director Giles Taylor recently told Autocar he thinks touch screens are pants and is going to stick with iDrive until voice and gesture-controlled functions work well enough. The mechanics feel great, but the overall experience really isn’t premium in the way, say, a Vertu phone takes Android and makes it special.
Bog-standard navigation woes
The sat-nav is standard fare. We couldn’t get it to recognise the French village we were staying in, which is odd because other BMWs clearly do.
There are two things which mark the Wraith out as special. The first is control over the Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet mascot. You can power her up and down from a menu option. The second is amazingly high tech: infrared night vision. As with the other electronics, this is a high-end BMW option but it’s amazingly compulsive.
Again, this is BMW technology but this time it’s amazing. As you drive down a street of parked cars you can see which ones have been parked recently from their ethereal glow. More sensibly it spots people fantastically well. There some bloody clever image recognition which spots people and highlights them in yellow. As trickle-down technology goes, the heads up and infrared can’t come soon enough.
One warning we saw a few times in our marathon journey was a teapot. Spend too long at the wheel in a single day and the Wraith will suggest taking a break. It manages to be wonderfully English in an amusing way. But since we were rotating drivers in our thousand kilometre journey from Calais to St. Jean Cap Ferrat, and we were in supreme Rolls-Royce comfort, we ignored it.
A special Rolls-Royce touch is that there are umbrellas secreted in the door jambs. They are beautiful, but unfortunately too beautiful to get wet and we assumed that if we unfurled them we’d never get them back into their slots. A Phantom owner has told us that he keeps a couple of golfing umbrellas in the boot of his car for precisely this reason.
The wheels have 285-section tyres on 20-inch rims, and are beautiful, with the little trick mechanic that the logo swivels to always be the right way up.
So what’s it like to drive? Great. Although it’s best described by what it isn’t. One of the team eulogised the damping, and it really is magnificent. The bits that make that work are double-wishbone front suspension and multi-link rear with self-levelling, roll-cancelling air suspension and adaptive dampers. Here is a two and a half ton car which is amazingly comfortable but not soggy.
It’s not like some sporty saloons in that it shrinks around you as you press on; you are always aware of the size – particularly the width – but nor is it like driving an SUV where you make allowances for the bulk.
Another thing it isn’t is smug. Sometimes in big luxury saloons you feel “out of my way, I’m Mr Toad”. There is nothing caddish about the Wraith. Playboy? Perhaps, but you feel very comfortable in your skin when you drive it. That it’s deeply impressive but not intimidating is something we’d not encountered before.
The engine geeks looked at the engine and immediately started drawing comparisons to the 27 litre Merlin aero-engine of Supermarine Spitfire fame. At a mere 6.6 litres the Wraith's twin-turbo V12 produces 590lb ft and 624bhp, or about half the power of the Spitfire engine at a quarter of the capacity. Most of the time it is silent. Not “very quiet”, but so quiet that we several times pressed the start button to power it on and found that it had already been running and we’d just switched it off.
This isn’t just the amazing insulation of the car – which has twin bulkheads. Once we all climbed out and wondered why the car wouldn’t lock, to find that it was because we’d left it running.
Vroom *vroom*, baby
Press the loud pedal and this changes. A lot. The gearbox kicks down – the only perceptible gear change – and the engine roars. When you are doing lots of leptons there is an impossible temptation to press the pedal again and again just to feel the wall of power and the surge forwards. It’s addictive, like pressing the button on a useless machine.
You don’t know why you keep doing it but you don’t want to stop. Only the thought that the gendarmerie have the right of confiscation has a moderating factor. Rolls-Royce claims the Wraith will do 0-60 in 4.4 seconds. Top speed is a governed 155mph.
Our route south was all auto routes, there was a moment of joy when we found a Rolls-Royce fuel card in the glovebox which soon evaporated when we Googled the details and found it didn’t work in France. And of course we’d not filled up in Folkstone. Fuel economy clocked in at a little over 21mpg, which given the extent to which we were making progress was very impressive. Official figures are Urban 13.3 mpg, Extra urban 28.8 mpg and combined consumption of 20.2 mpg. If you believe any manufacturers' figures these days, CO2 emissions are quoted at 327 g/km.
Our route back took us along the south coast to Antibe up to Grasse and then the plan was to take the Route Napoleon all the way to Grenoble. Roadworks, however, diverted us to much smaller twistier roads and here the Wraith was unexpectedly incredible. A fine motorway cruiser? Yes, but in roads which climb and turn and dive, it really handled.
The width could be intimidating but, provided you could see that there was nothing coming the other way, it was easy to press on. Fortunately we didn’t come across any slow-moving traffic as overtaking would have been impossible.
From Grenoble we headed to the incredibly confusing city of Dijon. For the three weeks before the trip we’d been let down repeatedly by Airbnb places which claimed to have secure parking and so ended up with a hotel. It transpired that the route into the car park was through two no-entry signs, onto a bus lane and then along the pavement to the car park.
The next day was fast roads to the old motor-racing circuit at Reims where we wanted to shoot the car. It’s clearly a petrolheads' Mecca, boasting an Elise, quite a few bikes and a very loud 308 all paying the pits a visit.
We were not brave enough to switch off the traction control This is not a “dab of oppo” car and it does cost a quarter of a million pounds. But around some larger roundabouts it was clear that some sliding might be possible if you were more confident.
For the drive from Reims to Calais the skies opened. Great torrential rain and lots of spray but with enough podcasts of The Infinite Monkey Cage on a phone Bluetoothed to the Rolls-Royce, that didn’t really matter.
Once you get home after doing 2,500 miles, what do you do? Well, you phone up some friends and say “I’ve got a Rolls-Royce. Do you want to go for a ride?” ®
*Eleanor Thornton, secretary and mistress of the second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, is thought to have been the inspiration for the Spirit of Ecstasy figurine that adorns all Rolls-Royce radiators.