Once you get past the lovely London-Edinburgh Silver Ghost tourers from a hundred years back, Rolls-Royce vehicles with performance pretensions are extremely rare. Probably the last such car before this Wraith coupe was 17EX, one of a few hopped-up, experimental Phantom I's commissioned by Sir Henry Royce himself to counter the Bentley threat. 17EX, built in 1928, was so unusual that the distinguished Indian journalist Gautam Sen released an entire book about it last year. After 17EX, Rolls-Royces were serene, sedate conveyances for a distinguished, discreet clientele. If a performance car was desired, R-R gently suggested you buy Bentley, just as R-R itself had done in 1931 when it absorbed the company it had once feared.
But all that was before the German giants got into the game and split the venerable British nameplates into two separate companies again, beginning a competition that, like the one among our own Detroit companies, focuses exclusively on home-market rivals. So, what Volkswagen does with Bentley, BMW believes it must do with Rolls-Royce. Think of the Wraith as a counter to the Continental GT. It may not be capable of 200 mph, despite its having 624 hp, but it certainly will make a suitable impression at any stately home or Relais & Châteaux hotel in the world.
The overall shape of the car doesn't push many of my buttons, but there are a number of subtle styling features worthy of admiration. To me, the graphical composition of the front end is the best R-R has had since BMW took over a decade ago. The headlamps are in proper proportion, as they were not on the Phantom; the modern-looking radiator grille captures the essence of R-R identity; and the full-width air intake at the bottom does its job without distorting an impression of continuity through more than a hundred years of conservative, traditional styling. Rolls may call them "coach doors," which is more seemly than the universally recognized term "suicide doors," but they're wonderful for ease of entry and exit, whatever they're called. I particularly like the use of a subtle surface sculpting of the door skin to match the elegant and functional shape of the door cut's leading edge. I also like the very nontraditional shaping of the body sides, which swell out to cover the wheel openings in a manner worthy of a Porsche . . . or a sporty BMW.
In a sense, the Wraith is just a coupe version of the Ghost, but in fact its aura is quite different. If BMW ever decides that there must be a model equivalent in sportiness to Bentley's Flying Spur, keeping this elegant front end and appending an equally sharp-edged fastback four-door "coupe" body behind it, in the Mercedes-Benz CLS vein, I suspect that my acquisitive impulses might well be activated. Not that I -- or many others who spend their time writing and drawing -- could ever afford one.
FRONT 3/4 VIEW
1 This bulging of the body side at all four wheel openings is a subtle reminder that this is a sporty, personal car and is not likely to be chauffeur-driven.
2 The curious break in the fastback profile is organized so that there is extra headroom in the rear seats. The entire upper structure is the least successful part of the body, lacking flow.
3 The peak height of the roof occurs too far forward, giving it a rather odd profile in pure side view.
4 Presumably, this curious little quarter glass is present because having the door opening begin at the A-pillar would have made the entire door much too long to be practical.
5 The swelling sides reaching outward to the band-framed wheel opening is well-known on various sports cars but is unheard of for Rolls-Royce. Nicely done.
6 These are the best headlamps yet on a BMW-era Rolls. They add visual width and are well proportioned with respect to the rest of the front-end graphic statement.
7 The vertical bars recessed into the curved-top, slightly leaned-back radiator shell successfully retain marque identity. The sharp-edged Parthenon shape was over long before it was abandoned.
8 Almost the full width of the lower fascia is open, a fact disguised by the two separate blades.
9 This crisp front-fender line with the abrupt transition from side to frontal plane recalls the 1961 Lincoln, one of the last truly elegant American luxury cars.
10 Having the crease in the door skin parallel to the door opening itself is a nice feature.
REAR 3/4 VIEW
11 "Knife-edge" styling was very important for British coachbuilders from the late 1930s to the early '50s, so it is not surprising to see its reemergence here.
12 A lot of surface juggling has allowed this swoopy-looking coupe to have good rear headroom, with a separate panel rising above the backlight glass.
13 This abrupt change from vertical to horizontal is achieved by having separate pieces of metal laser-welded at the top of the rear fender in a little trench, which is then filled.
14 These small raised sections divert the eye from the fact that, to allow more headroom, the center panel of the roof doesn't drop as quickly as the rear profile suggests.
15 A slight drop-off from the horizontal top surface of the front fenders allows a slightly lowered triangular valance between the fender form and the hood.
16 By extending its length, the door handle becomes a decorative element. Along with the badge on the fender, it punctuates the side without becoming a decorative spear.
17 The sill diverts outward at the wheel opening, once again suggesting sportiness.
18 Perimeter bands around wheel openings have become ubiquitous on all kinds of cars, from supereconomy to superluxury models.
19 The outer edge of the taillight trim piece follows the body contour, but the lens itself is inset just a bit, giving the impression of a lot of careful shaping.
20 The chrome band across the top of the license-plate indent carries the all-important Rolls-Royce badge and provides a small amount of flash on the sober rear end.
21 The handsome exhaust outlets are also discreetly flashy and overtly sporting, all very much unlike past R-R practice.
22 Hand-weaving 1340 fiber-optic points of light into the headliner may be labor-intensive, but it does provide a wonderful in-cabin atmosphere. Brilliant, in several senses.
23 Making most of the inner door panels of wood instead of leather is equally brilliant. And quite comforting.
24 The steering wheel is reassuringly old-fashioned, evoking past R-R interiors.
25 The climate-control outlet panel looks like a cheap '50s aftermarket add-on. The lack of wood on the panel is good, but this is unacceptable.
26 The separate and distinct clock also positively evokes the past.