First drive: 2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith in Austria
Yep, we’ve reached our peak. There’s nothing left to aim for any more. Being among the first bunch of people to test-drive the Rolls-Royce Wraith at an international media launch event in Europe is about as high as you could go up the ladder when it comes to overseas trips. The icing on the cake was the event itself — the sportiest Rolls-Royce ever, driven in the Austrian countryside with no chaperones!
Landing in Vienna, we were picked up at the airport by a fleet of Ghosts and put up at the Palais Coburg Residenz, an uber-upscale hotel with only 30 lofts that was fully booked by Rolls-Royce. That evening, we were treated to a gourmet dinner alongside a historical presentation about the aspirational brand as well as a free in-room spa treatment. Heck, my hotel room even had a jacuzzi. It was to give attendees a taste of how Rolls owners roll when they take a break in the classical city.
The Wraith coupe is inspired by several classic models from Rolls-Royce’s century-long history. The platform is a shortened version of the one underpinning the Ghost, but almost no body panels are shared with the sedan. Aside from that intriguing tail section, the coupe is shorter in length, wheelbase and even height, while the rear axle is wider. The front-end even has a unique bumper, a recessed grille, and a retractable “Spirit of Ecstasy” bonnet lady that leans 5 degrees further forward.
We drove off in one of the Rolls-Royce Wraith test vehicles, a 370 km trek through hilly country roads already plotted in our BMW-sourced navigation system. There were no executives watching over our shoulders and there was no convoy to follow. We were just handed the keys and let go.
Of course, getting to those potentially-awesome roads meant getting out of the city first. Vienna’s roads seem to have been built around the ancient buildings, rather than the other way round. The narrow streets were littered with parked cars, tram lines and random alleys. We got lost within a minute of driving off because the nav’s voice instructions are somewhat off, but the GPS simply re-routed us to where we had to go and we followed the displayed instructions instead. To make matters more tense, our humongous car was almost filling up the entire narrow lanes, while pedestrians and cyclists kept jumping in front of our car, even when the signal was green. We quickly realised that drivers there were courteous enough to give us some space, while pedestrians and cyclists actually had the right of way in most cases!
It was a welcome relief to finally hit the highway, where we did anywhere from a legal 80 kph to an illegal 180 kph, while not spotting even one cop car. It must be a very safe city.
The Wraith is, expectedly, a very quiet car. In the city, crawling at 50 kph in city traffic, it is dead-silent inside the cabin. With 624 horses on tap from the twin-turbo 6.6-litre V12, the power delivery is tuned to be so smooth and effortless that it feels like driving an electric car at those low speeds. At highway speeds, the drive is still effortless, although there’s a bit of wind noise audible as if it’s rushing by outside the car rather than sneaking inside. The ride is very smooth for the most part, living up to the “wafting” feel the company prides itself on, although some surfaces do add a little jitter to the magic carpet, just like in the Ghost, largely due to the ultra-low profile tyres on those 20-inchers.
Incidentally, a large part of our drive involved heavy rains and soaked roads, so we took it easy most of the time, even though the rear-wheel-drive car seemed unfazed by the slick surfaces. As we cruised along countryside roads, soaking in the amazing picturesque greenery, we soaked in the ambience of the Wraith’s interior. The dashboard is straight out of a Ghost, but everything else is different. Almost every panel is wrapped in stitched leather, while each of the rear-hinged doors boasts the largest single piece of wood-panelling ever used in a car. There’s more wood along the central console, all with carefully-chosen grain patterns, while sections like the a/c vents are real metal. The padded headliner can be had with 1340 little fibre-optic “stars” that light up at night, although you forgo that if you opt for the panoramic glass roof, as in our test car.
Beyond the multimedia screen, there’s some more tech bummed off of parent-company BMW, such as parts of the stereo interface, the multimedia/nav voice controls, the heads-up display, the parking cameras and the adaptive cruise control. But a few other features are specific to the Rolls, including a motorised cover for the screen, the motorised doors that close at the press of a button, and the dual-zone climate control for each of the four passengers with separate temperature settings for your torso and your legs! And indeed, it can fit four adults, provided they aren’t basketball players.
After lunch at a traditional tavern, the weather cleared up rather nicely and the roads had dried up nicely. We could finally give the Wraith some juice. Of course, a few things became glaringly obvious.
First off, the Wraith might look like a rival for the Bentley Continental GT, but it isn’t. While the Bentley is pretty serious about the driving aspect, the Rolls hints that it isn’t, as evidenced by its stick-thin stalk behind the wheel for the “P-R-N-D” gear selector. There are no paddle-shifters or sport modes. In fact, there is a button to raise or lower the suspension, not to change the car’s driving dynamics, but to simply clear steep ramps and speed-bumps.
And yet, Rolls-Royce came up with what is possibly the most ingenious 8-speed automatic transmission ever. Using GPS satellites, the car looks ahead at what kind of corners or highway off-ramps are coming up, and pre-selects the right gear. The system is completely invisible and, when we paid attention, realised that it was actually working perfectly, as we never bogged down due to too high a gear and never revved the engine too long by too low a gear. It might need regular map updates to work well on Dubai’s ever-changing roads, but it’s perfectly at home on never-changing mountain roads.
The Wraith picks up speed quickly, but not with the sonic boom that you’d expect from 800 Nm of torque at only 1500 rpm, perhaps intentionally subdued in keeping with the traditional Rolls-Royce feel. There isn’t even a tachometer, replaced by a pseudo-gauge that shows you the “power reserve.” Driving at moderately-high speeds, the car’s wide tyres offer good grip and limited body roll on the corners, but you can never push it too hard on cramped mountain hairpins. Aside from the tall-ratio steering, we took it especially easy on the left-handers due to the blindspot created by the thick front A-pillar, while right-handers were hindered by the driver’s right elbow hitting the tall centre-console.
Surprisingly, the soft steering provides some feedback and the strong brakes are easy to apply linearly. So the Wraith can be confidently pushed up to a certain extent, but the bulk of the car can always be felt, so we never pushed it too hard. Doing so would simply set off the stability control, which we never encountered but nevertheless was grateful to know it’s there. After all, this car costs more than what most people will make in their entire lives.
At the end of the day, the Wraith isn’t trying to be a sports car, but it certainly is a more enjoyable alternative to the Phantom Coupe for those looking to waft around in the grandest of grand-tourers.
Some photos by Mashfique Hussain Chowdhury. Additional photos by James Lipman & Co.