There’s a surprise in the way this one goes
Of all the car launches I wish I’d attended, I think Bentley’s introduction in 1982 of its then-new Mulsanne Turbo would have been the funniest. This, you will recall, was the first Bentley to be anything other than a Rolls-Royce with a different radiator and badging since the R-type Continental of 1954. The addition of the turbo raised power by more than half as much again, from under 200bhp to exactly 300bhp, but hilariously Bentley felt no need to make any commensurate changes to the chassis.
Behind the engine bay it was still just a Silver Spirit. Then someone armed with a first-class degree in hopeless optimism let the press loose in the car. Autocar discovered the 2.4 tonne Mulsanne was so fast it would out-accelerate a Ferrari 365GT4, Maserati Kyalami and an Aston Martin Lagonda, leaving it to Motor’s Roger Bell to say what everyone else was probably thinking, namely that its handling was ‘drearily, detestably deficient’. Coming from the greatest road tester of his and possibly any generation, that must have smarted.
As I write I am looking at a picture of an intrepid Autocar tester – probably the late, terrifyingly rapid Mike Scarlett – battling to recover a helplessly flailing Mulsanne Turbo from massive roll over-steer underneath a caption that reads: “Road Behaviour: predictable.” Then, and I am not making this up, the test goes on to recommend buyers choose cloth rather than leather upholstery to compensate for “the lack of sideways location of the seat when cornering”. In other words, to stop youflying out of the passenger’s window every time you tried to turn right.
But it worked, better than even Bentley could have dreamt: within two years Bentley sales had doubled, within five the ratio of Bentleys to Rolls made in Crewe had gone from fewer than one in 20 to better than one in three. Within 10 years, Bentley outsold Rolls-Royce two to one.
Why the history lesson? Because it seems Rolls-Royce itself – as reconstituted under BMW stewardship – is just starting to see if it, too, can play the sporting card to its advantage.
Not that Rolls is saying as much: while every significant modification to the Wraith – and I do mean every one – can fairly be described as contributing to make a more sporting Rolls-Royce, the company remains nervous of the oxymoronic qualities of such an ephithet. Thus they have created a rather wonderful mirror image of what usually happens in this industry where manufacturers find it far easier to call a car sporting than to actually make it so.
The Wraith is truly sporting and Rolls isn’t saying a word. But you’ll know it from the moment you see the seven-inch cut in its wheelbase, or learn that thanks to a further 61bhp for its 6.6-litre twin turbo V12 motor, it now has more power than a McLaren MP4-12C.
And Rolls has learned from the mistake of Bentley’s engineers who took three years to produce the Mulsanne Turbo ‘R’, a letter that really did stand for roadholding, and was as blunt an admission of its precedessor’s inadequacies as I have ever seen a car manufacturer make. By contrast, the Wraith has the full suite of modifications: a wider track, lower, stiffer springs, re-tuned roll bars and dampers, quicker, heavier steering and even a smaller, thicker steering wheel.
It’s a car in which Rolls-Royce has supreme confidence: I know this because the first thing they suggested I do with it was drive it around Goodwood. I should say now that despite the proximity of factory to circuit, I always thought a Rolls-Royce and the Goodwood Motor Circuit would not make natural bedfellows and, as it turns out, I was right. The Wraith weighs about the same now as the Mulsanne Turbo did then: it would be naïve in the extreme to expect that much stately home to circulate a track as difficult as Goodwood as if it were born to it. Just because you’re home doesn’t mean you’re at home.
And yet in sharp contrast to what I expect my predecessors discovered when they took early Mulsannes to the test track, the Wraith doesn’t feel inclined even to protest at such treatment, let alone throw up its arms in horror, shriek and attempt to turn through 180deg and flee the scene as quickly as possible. As expected it was thunderously quick out of the pits, accelerating seamlessly toward the considerable challenge of Madgwick corner. Selecting what I hoped would be an achievable entry speed, I turned the Wraith towards the desired heading and discovered not just acceptance of the instruction, but willingness to execute. Its computer-controlled suspension and massive weight all but flattened a mid-corner bump that’s been throwing racing cars into the scenery for 65 years and through it swept, without a hair out of place.
I didn’t do many laps that day, though more than most owners will complete in a lifetime with the car, but it was enough to suggest that here was indeed a different kind of Rolls. Based on the gorgeous Ghost and from the same stable as the glorious Phantom though it is, its character is discernibly different not just from its modern brethren, but any Rolls I have driven. Out on the road these feelings were confirmed. It’s not the extra power you feel, for even the Ghost is a mighty fastmachine, but the precision of the beast.
You find new confidence when aiming for gaps and instead of just wafting through corners, you find yourself wondering just how soon you can reapply the power and just how much to use. Regardless of what Rolls-Royce says, I know this is a sporting car because it makes me want to drive it in a sporting fashion, which is not something I have ever felt inclined to do in any other Royce.
It makes an odd contrast. On the one hand the environment is pure and traditional Rolls-Royce. The dash is very little different to that of a Ghost and while the car is shorter, it’s nevertheless longer than a S-class Mercedes so there’s still sprawling space in the back. It is an unquestionably wonderful place to pass the time.
But I still wouldn’t choose it over the better looking, yet more spacious four-door Ghost, let alone the Phantom whose claim to being the greatest luxury car in the world is as strong today as when it was launched a decade ago.
I don’t need a Rolls to be sporting. In fact I don’t want it to be. Just as a Bentley becomes less of a Bentley as sportiness is removed, so the reverse is true of a Rolls. I want a Rolls to comfort and cosset like no other car on the planet and while two of the three models in the range do just that, the fact you can feel just a little of the road beneath the Wraith makes it less good at precisely those things at which a Rolls-Royce should be best.
Do not mistake me: the Wraith is more than an impressive car, it is a fabulously engineered sporting carriage. For Bentley it would have been perfect; for a Rolls, however, it takes away more than it adds.
Engine 6.6 litres, 12 cylinders
Power 624bhp @ 5600rpm
Torque 590lb ft @ 1500rpm
Transmission eight-speed auto, satellite controlled, rear-wheel drive 0-62mph 4.4sec
Top speed 155mph
Economy 20.2mpg CO2 327g/km