Ghost to Transylvania: Rolls-Royce Ghost

Tom Salt

Opposites abound in the homeland of Dracula, a name some translate as devil and others use as a synonym for vampire. Consider Deva, for example, a run-down industrial town 130 miles east of the Hungarian border that looks like a living gray museum of shuttered steel mills, abandoned coal mines, mothballed sugar-beet refineries, and disintegrating multistory housing complexes compiled from prefab modules rejected by higher-rank comrades in Bucharest or Craiova. In stark contrast is Sibiu, a thriving city just seventy miles down the road that received European Union money to restore its charming downtown, construct a brand-new business park, and rebuild its infrastructure. Between these two extremes, rural Romania has plenty of space to spread out. This is an enchanting country largely untouched by progress, strongly connected to tradition yet always open to new ideas, traditionally devoted to agriculture and religion, pleasantly unstructured, and incredibly friendly.

Bran Castle is an ancient monument spiced up by modern trickeries such as the Bram Stoker Room in the main tower, the dungeon where Vlad epe was imprisoned in 1462, and the secret staircase from the first to the third floor, which Dracula allegedly used to escape from the Turks. Fact and fiction are close neighbors in this part of the world, where old women still sell wreaths of garlic in the streets as the only proven protection against a vampire bite. At night, when the sparsely lit castle casts an eerie picture-book silhouette against the blueberry-cream sky, it takes only a mix of credulity and vivid imagination to mistake a tired stray dog for a werewolf, to see the ghost of Mina (fiancee of Jonathan Harker, the tragic hero in Stoker's novel) behind a young woman in a long dress, and to believe for a moment that Kacher in his costume might be a doppelgaenger of big bad Dracula.

Over the first 400 miles or so, the Rolls was disappointingly boring to drive. Not only did it make virtually no noises, it also refused to communicate in a way many lesser cars would. Splendid isolation was evidently the brief, and all 5.4 meters of Goodwood's finery obeyed it. The steering was light and a bit lifeless, the gearbox would flee to higher ratios at the earliest opportunity, the brakes felt first spongy then wooden, and there was a strange poltergeist haunting the suspension, which plopped-popped over expansion joints as if someone had overfilled the air springs and the tires. The rear suicide doors were strong on show value but only average in terms of practicality, and the packaging did not excel considering the car's large size.

But, you guessed it, the Ghost grew on us as the miles built up, turning us into starry-eyed suckers for unbridled luxury in ninety-six short hours. Even in difficult conditions, the flying lady scored with a fine blend of competence, composure, and comfort. The brakes didn't really start to shine until the car was pushed hard. The steering lit up only when more g-forces were involved. The transmission wanted to be in Low mode before it would fire up torque flow and throttle response. The suspension craved tighter radii, more challenging surfaces, and a truly committed rhythm to show off its multifaceted dynamic talents. There is no stability control button in the Ghost, but you can either deactivate it in an iDrive submenu or store the function on a panel of presets above the climate controls. Off means totally off, which is no mean feat when 2.7 tons start swinging from Bran Castle toward Campulung with no more than a handful of daisies separating the hissing dual tailpipes from a concrete guardrail installed in the 1960s. The soundtrack generated by the tail-sliding whale is quite different from what your ears have come to expect. Although the squeal of the twenty-inch runflat tires still sets the tone, you also register the impatient gnarling of the pumps that mastermind the springs and dampers, you will be carried away by the angry dialogue between the high-pitched turbochargers and the large lungs of the intake plenum, and you may be a tad irritated by the metallic clonk of the suddenly very busy suspension, which was born and bred on much smoother ground. Thanks to BMW's handling and active safety expertise, though, this sumo-size luxo-barge is putty in the hands of an enthusiastic driver.

There were many times when we feared for the Rolls and its pristine seven-spoke aluminum wheels, blatantly unprotected flanks, chip-prone panoramic windshield, and vulnerable rear overhang. But at the end of the ordeal, everything was still in working order both functionally and cosmetically. True, the Ghost's vast 44.0-foot turning circle makes it almost as unwieldy as the Phantom, the 76.7-inch width (with mirrors folded) is hold-your-breath marginal through most construction zones, and the self-confident 129.7-inch wheelbase that easily exceeds that of a Mercedes-Benz S-class renders standard-size parking spots absolutely useless. Despite these physical extremes, the British car with German DNA is astonishingly chuckable and maneuverable. And with the priceless collection of exterior cameras, even curb rash and park-by-ear scars are no longer an issue.

Thankfully, none of the gloomy pictures that fantasy had projected into the back of my mind was matched by reality. Instead, we discovered the hidden attractions of an underestimated country and the concealed talents of a little-known car. Although there is a lot more to Romania than its massive, mountainous backbone, it is here, high up in the Carpathians, where solitude and nature bond with a strong emotional impact. Of course the Ghost felt out of place in this former Communist no-man's-land. Designed to shine on gravel driveways, groomed country lanes, and glittering urban capitals, the Rolls nonetheless displayed unexpected versatility and strength in this alien territory. Not only did it master some of Europe's worst roads without a creak or a groan, it also turned out to be a rather complete driver's car. Which puts an end to two carefully cultivated prejudices: that the Dracula family still rules in Transylvania, and that every Rolls-Royce gives preferential treatment to back-seat passengers. My next trip in a Ghost will be to the Nuerburgring -- and that's a promise.

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