Is Rolls-Royce suffering from an identity crisis, asks Neil Lyndon
Alan Clark: thou should’st be living at this hour. That randy old rapscallion and immortal diarist of the Thatcher government would have been the perfect companion at last week’s launch in Vienna of the new Rolls-Royce Wraith. Clark adored cars and kept a characteristically idiosyncratic collection – including a 1920 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and a 1955 D-type Jaguar – that might inflame murderous covetousness in a Buddhist monk. He would undoubtedly have come up with some penetrating and educated observations about this leviathan with supercar-like performance which is the most powerful road-going Rolls ever made. Nobody who cares about cars could fail to be intrigued by the Wraith’s outward appearance. Its coupé outline with a long fastback tail knowingly alludes to classic forebears. Pininfarina’s 1950 design on a Silver Dawn chassis for the Continental Coupé prefigured the Bentley of that name which is among the greatest cars ever made. You can certainly see that inspiration in the long, declining roofline of the Wraith’s profile. Looking at it square on from the back, a hint of Tatra’s streamlined 603 can also be detected. Alan Clark might have enjoyed the teasing flirtatiousness of those suggestions but, with his weasel eye for pomposity, he would probably have been scathing about the Wraith’s two rearward-opening doors that Rolls-Royce is pleased to call “Coach”. Each weighing as much as a fridge, they open outwards from the body by more than a yard. It’s impossible to reach them by hand from the front seats so they have to be powered closed with a button situated by the windscreen pillar. Similar excesses festoon the interior – not just the RR monograms in the head restraints and the RR inlays all around but, especially, the rotary controller for auxiliary controls which impersonates Rolls-Royce’s famous Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet ornament. Shouldn’t Rolls-Royce, of all car companies, be certain enough of its identity that it doesn’t need to keep thrusting logos under everybody’s nose? With its bespoke audio system which may be the best ever in a car, this Wraith is decidedly of the modern age; but it can’t cast off all pretensions to be a horseless carriage. The lamb’s wool floor mats are, as Clark would surely testify, as fluffy as can be; but the open-grain “Canadel Panelling” – wood inserts – that Rolls-Royce spokesmen showed off with pride seemed as anachronistic as a calcium carbide lamp. Perhaps Rolls-Royce should consider spending less on frou-frou flummeries and a bit more on a fully functioning satnav system. Anybody who is going to spend £237,111 (the base price for a Wraith) on a car might feel entitled to a satnav system that doesn’t say “turn left now” when it means “turn left in 50 yards” or “turn right” when it means “go straight ahead”. So irksome was the Wraith’s satnav that it detracted from the pleasures of driving this extraordinary car. On the motorway, the V12 Wraith wafts as gloriously as the Phantom on which it is based; but, as soon as it turned onto twisty mountain roads, it put on a show of high-performance motoring which no Rolls-Royce has ever matched. Seventeen feet (5m) long and more than 6ft wide, with 5203lbs of deadweight to heft, the Wraith doesn’t steer, turnin or brake as sharply as a sports car but it will outpace anything else on the road. The eight-speed transmission is controlled through a GPS system which looks ahead at the road and changes gear automatically to match the terrain and the driver’s inputs. Flabbergasting as this system may be in its accuracy and subtlety, I wasn’t altogether convinced its artificial intelligence was sharper than my own would have been in selecting the right gear if I’d had the choice. But, then, it has always been the habit of a Rolls-Royce to flatter its owner. As Alan Clark might confirm, if he were here.
Spirited: the Wraith is the most powerful road-going Rolls-Royce ever