Rolls-Royce is likely the first automaker to come to mind when you think of pure luxury, but it has had its hiccups. In fact, for a time in the ’90s the future of the brand was seriously in question, before the more sporting BMW Group purchased the rights to the storied Rolls-Royce name in 1998 and delivered their first four-wheeled bank vault, the huge and hugely successful Phantom, in 2003. In 2007, the most expensive Rolls, the stunning Phantom Drophead coupe, bowed for Richie Rich audiences. Three years later, the more “affordable” Ghost sedan was born. The cars, though slightly different in flavor, had all the potent presence of Sir Winston Churchill at Potsdam — outspoken, powerful and bullish in all the right ways.
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Keep in mind, Rolls-Royce issues new models with a frequency not unlike solar eclipses, so the introduction of their latest car, the Wraith ($284,900), was nothing short of momentous. The public’s anticipation of the car at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show was met with a stunning deviation from the pure stateliness of the previous two cars. The two-door four-seater captured the audience and the automotive world with a bold fastback design that put an unmistakably bright feather into a strong, staid tweed cap.
Suffice it to say that most Rolls-Royce owners prefer to ride in the cosseted confines of the rear seat while an undoubtedly well-paid driver helms the beast. The target market for the Wraith, however, is a younger group — still with engorged wallets — that likely prefers to take the wheel. It’s with this mindset that we approached our drive of the Wraith in wide-open Phoenix, prepared to get in the bespoke cockpit to devour some miles and, possibly, some cucumber sandwiches.
The Wraith’s ethereal namesake is technically consistent with the other current models and the older RRs — Phantom, Ghost, Silver Shadow, Silver Spirit — but, just like its four-wheeled embodiment, presents a bigger flash of attitude. The car was designed to be different from the start. Lower and wider than the other two cars, the Wraith also boasts the most powerful engine ever put in a Rolls-Royce, the monstrous 6.6-liter twin-turbo V12, the same engine that shows up in the Rolls-Royce Ghost sedan. In this version, the big V12 spits out 624 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque and rockets the car to 60 in 4.4 seconds. Keep in mind, the car being rocketed weighs 5,380 pounds (147 pounds less than a Cadillac Escalade). But it’s no sports car; Rolls-Royce will likely never take that route, unlike Bentley with their Continental Supersport. And as distinctive as the car is from its predecessors, it’s still done up in the original spirit of the high-end grand tourer. It’s large and powerful and not to be trifled with when the roads are open and straight.
The big V12 rockets the car to 60 in 4.4 seconds. Keep in mind, the car being rocketed weighs 5,380 pounds.
The front two thirds of the Wraith undoubtedly derive their genes from the Ghost and the Phantom. The sportier dimensions are there, of course, but the characteristic tall grille and quad rectangular headlamps stare you in the face. It’s the back half that surprises — no photos can carry the full impact of the bold design. It’s not sporty, rakish or lean, but rather daring in a way that no big two-door grand-tourer has ever attempted. It’s a huge fastback that’s not unlike the powerful tail of a whale, and it’s consistent with the Wraith’s statement: both radically different and truly luxurious in the way that only Rolls-Royce can manage.
The interior of the car is significant. It’s less of a cockpit and more of a modernized Brit boardroom. To get there, you’re charged with deploying the massive suicide doors, which happen to be lined with the largest single piece of wood trim of any car produced, ever. It’s a thing of beauty, automotive art, if you will. The large swath of gorgeous lumber isn’t flat, either. The 50 degree angle of the rich oaky woodgrain is consistent from front to back, and the curvature of the panel is set deep into the door, inviting you to run your hand along the full three or so feet of it. The steering wheel, thankfully, hasn’t changed much, except for a thicker rim to grab hold of, while the big black RR center hub is classically simple and just right for a car of this stature, echoing the huge wheel hubs that always remain upright. The cabin is modernized, with just the appropriate amount of sport and sophistication.
Speaking of interiors, you’d be right to think that the folks at Rolls-Royce do just about everything they can for their customers. The unique and dazzling starlight headliner consists of 1,340 fiber optic cables inserted by hand to mimic the night sky. If you’re special enough — or at least think yourself so, and have deeper pockets than your average Rolls customer — you can have your headliner custom lit to mimic the night sky exactly the way it appeared the day of your birth. Not only will Rolls-Royce contact an astronomer to get the details right, they’ll cut each fiber optic cable at a specific angle so as to get the appropriate brightness of each star. The execution, whether standard or customized, is brilliant and very original — just the thing the high-level clientele like to see.
Driving the Wraith is a singular experience. It’s more of a surging beast of a vehicle than it is a luxury car. You don’t mash the throttle, though the option is always there; we can’t imagine any Wraith driver attempting track-like maneuvers, much less trying to impress lesser cars by gunning it off the line. But the car handles impressively for its size, refusing to heave and bob like Louie Anderson on roller skates. Instead, it moves with authority, albeit deceptively. Picking up speed doesn’t take long, and once there, you’re painfully unaware of how fast you’re going. 100 mph feels disturbingly like 60. The seating position is still tall, and, though the car is supposed to be more aggressive and sporty than its sedan brethren, you still feel like Batman’s Alfred when you drive it. We wouldn’t call the steering floaty, but you can’t exactly nail apexes with the Wraith. If that’s the goal, your shopping in the wrong showroom.
This is a monster of a car — quicker, sexier and more daring than its siblings, which all communicate more of an “old money” feel than the Wraith. The choice to deliver a fastback, four-seat coupe that still retains the Rolls-Royce feel is a bold one, but it’s paid off for the automaker, who has made a remarkable statement in a segment without many competitors. Those who do attempt to go toe to toe with the Wraith will find a remarkable combination of affluence, size, speed, and the power and regality of King George III, without the stuffy powdered wig.