Phoenix, Arizona -- You know you're about to do something special when you've got the keys to a 2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith in your hands, someone points you west and then tells you to keep going until you hit the ocean. And the last words you hear come from a Rolls-Royce engineer, who says, "I really envy you."
Mercifully, the days are gone when a Rolls-Royce was simply a showpiece, a dressed up conveyance for those who believe that luxury should be a kind of parade of opulence for the adoring masses. To be sure, the 2014 Wraith has all the attributes of a Rolls-Royce in the understated drama of its appearance and the quality of its interior appointments. But the Wraith is also about what it does, not just what it looks like.
And what it does is set off on a 400-mile drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles with the refined yet resolute style of the Orient Express bound for Paris. In fact, you feel like you're on the way to Paris no matter where you're going.
Downton Abbey is just a TV show, not a lifestyleWhen the 2014 Wraith appeared at the 2013 Geneva auto show this past year, it was a surprise to everyone. Plenty of people knew that a new car was on the way from Rolls-Royce, but no one believed it would be like this four-passenger, pillar-less coupe with a 624-hp twin-turbo V-12. Instead they expected a kind of traditional two-door sedan, as if they were still living in 1913, not 2013.
BMW has been fighting this stereotype since it took over the brand in 1998 (and a brand is about all it was then). First it built a new plant in Goodwood, England, where the cars are assembled by hand in the traditional way (though the bodies, engines and other components are actually manufactured in Germany). Then it introduced the 2003 Rolls-Royce Phantom, a traditional Rolls-Royce package meant to reassure the traditional body of past Rolls-Royce owners, yet with the credibility of modern engineering.
The Rolls-Royce Ghost appeared in a 2010, a short-wheelbase sedan designed to be less stately and more personal, a car for people who understand that a Rolls-Royce can be something to drive, not just something to own. Younger owners (well, maybe not that young) quickly embraced it, notably women, who make up 12 percent of the owner body, a huge number for a car in this market category.
With the Wraith, Rolls-Royce is finally getting where it needs to be. Like the Phantom Drophead convertible, the Wraith is a stylish car, yet it's not just a bauble, a playful indulgence. It's a car that's meant to be driven, and it makes no apologies.
On Freedom Highway and heading westAs with any afternoon in Phoenix, there's commute-hour traffic to endure, and the Wraith is the right sort of ride, a splendidly isolated island of tranquility. We're told that the audio boffin in charge of the 1300W, 18-speaker sound system spent five months with installation, and as a result, when the music includes words, you can actually understand what is being said. At the same time, the Wraith doesn't have blind-spot monitoring technology, which seems like a conspicuous oversight in the car's package of electronics.
When the sun begins to go down, the deep-purple silhouettes of the distant mountains ahead make the Arizona desert look dramatic, which is no small feat, as most of the miles ahead cross a largely lifeless wasteland all the way to Palm Springs. There's no romance of travel out here, and the road runs dead straight for hundreds of miles. The 5380-pound Wraith has a soft suspension calibration, so the car rides the pavement very well despite the big 255/45R-20 front, 285/40R-20 rear Goodyear Efficient GT-R run-flat tires. It picks up its feet easily across the bumps, and the air suspension filters out harshness.
The interior mixes natural materials in the British fashion, and the seats are comfortable. When you look at the dashboard at night, you might find yourself questioning whether the display is comprehensive enough and whether the controls are either legible enough to see or intuitive enough to use. Yet it's worthwhile to remember that the Rolls-Royce way is set-it-and-forget-it luxury. After all, the head-up display tells you everything you need to know about the car, while the radar cruise control does the rest, both acceleration and braking. Meanwhile the iDrive controller and voice-activated features take care of the cabin environment.
Stars both outside and inWhen it gets really dark out in the Mojave Desert, we pull off the highway just to look up at the night sky. The Wraith's rear-hinge coach doors swing out to make egress easy, and umbrellas are packaged in the front fenders in case it's raining. When we climb back in and trigger the electric motors that close the door, we look up and notice this car's optional Starlight headliner, a network of 1340 fiber-optic lights behind the overhead upholstery that resembles a night sky of its own. (You can even commission a constellation of your own choosing, or perhaps the night sky of the day on which you were born.)
Once we get under way again, we notice again the Wraith's twin-turbo 6.6-liter V-12 engine is actually noticeably only in its extreme power, 624 hp @ 5600 rpm and 590 lb-ft of torque @ 1500-5500 rpm. It doesn't make a sound, and the eight-speed transmission's activities are pretty invisible on the open highway, too. The engine always seems to be loafing unless you really get on it (60 mph in 4.4 seconds is possible), and the car doesn't really get to rolling with a sense of purpose until you're above 85 mph. Rolls-Royce wants its cars to waft along the highway effortlessly, but maybe this isn't such a good thing for a GT, you think?
Back to earth in Los AngelesOnce you dive down the long grade into Palm Springs, the traffic density suddenly triples and you know you're in the Los Angeles metropolis. Equally suddenly, we're aware of this car's immense size, some 207.9 inches overall, 76.7 inches wide and 59.3 inches high on a wheelbase of 122.5 inches. The high window sills and the lack of visibility to the side because of the outside mirrors and thick front pillars accentuate the impression.
For curiosity sake we pull off for a gas stop, even though the 26.4-gallon tank is capable of taking us the complete 400 miles to our destination. Though the 2014 Wraith's EPA rating of 13 mpg/21 mpg City/Highway and 15 mpg Combined doesn't seem to promise much, we're getting 19 mpg. It can get a little fraught in the confines of a gas station plaza with this car thanks to its turning circle of 41.7 feet. For a moment we're surprised that the backup view on the dashboard screen is a graphic determined by the parking sensors instead of a camera, but then we decide that we like this better, since the sensors pinpoint potential obstacles in a way that a camera does not. No cross-traffic alert, though.
There's a little crowd of onlookers at the gas station, of course. We're kind of glad that the wheels have center caps that always display the RR logo properly when the Wraith is at rest. We have to say that the civilians look a little surprised to see that a Rolls-Royce has to stop for refueling. Maybe it's kind of like seeing Queen Elizabeth II stopping at the Circle K to take a pee.
The cross-country alternativeFaced with a trip of 500 miles, we'd pick this $372,351 2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith over the $107.3M Airbus A321 jet that we flew to Phoenix. After all, do the people that you see at airports seem to be having a good time to you? There's no romance of travel that we've ever seen. And when you count the to-and-fro of airport logistics plus flight time, the Wraith beats the jet in terms of time as well as convenience, plus there is no baggage charge for the substantial amount of luggage that you can fit in this car's trunk of 16.6 cubic feet.
At the same time, the Wraith still is more subdued than we'd like from a cross-country conveyance, and we personally would prefer more control from the chassis and more presence from the engine, even if this is already a GT car by RR standards. And this car also really needs the latest active safety electronics to give you an extra measure of confidence when you're surrounded by the usual idiots in traffic.
Nevertheless, we can say that the 2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith is quite a car. It takes all the high-tech features of a BMW and interprets them in a way that expresses convenient usability, not opulent display. Modern luxury is really a matter of taking the friction out of daily life and making things easier, and this is the essence of what the modern Rolls-Royce is about.
2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith
|Engine:||1.0L I3 turbo, 123 hp/125 lb|
|Fuel economy:||32/45/37 mpg (City/Highway/Combined)|
|Curb weight:||2437 lbs (hatchback)|