Rolls-Royce Wraith hides tech edge in old-world luxury

The Wraith comes out as the most powerful Rolls-Royce model and the first fastback, integrating technology meant to serve the driver.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
9 min read

Two tenets of the modern Rolls-Royce Motor Cars company are exclusivity and tradition. The new Wraith model holds to one, but breaks somewhat from the other.

Although the Wraith may be viewed as an entry-level Rolls-Royce, with an almost affordable base price of under $300,000 (UK £230,000, AU$645,000), manufacturing volume will remain constrained by the size of the factory in Goodwood. There, Rolls-Royce receives driveline and suspension components from parent company BMW, then builds Phantoms, Ghosts, and Drophead Coupes. Rather than opening a factory in Mexico or Romania to accommodate Wraith production, Rolls-Royce kept it in the hands of its craftspeople in Goodwood.

You see, Rolls-Royce intentionally keeps its production constrained. It doesn't intend to flood the market with cars, ensuring that each Rolls-Royce owner can feel special, rather than finding themselves among similar models on the road. For the rest of us, Rolls-Royce wants to make the sight of one of its cars a special event, something to talk about later over beers at the bar.

Spirit of Ecstasy stretches wings with Rolls-Royce Wraith (pictures)

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During a recent conversation I had with Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes, he mentioned that Rolls-Royce, as part of the BMW Group, is not included in the larger corporation's discussions concerning volume. BMW would rather that Rolls-Royce focused on building very special cars for a choice set of customers.

As for tradition, the Wraith sports a big, chrome grille topped by the Spirit of Ecstasy, in keeping with its Phantom and Ghost stablemates. However, the Wraith marks the first fastback coupe in the company's history. Reminiscent of the custom-designed Phantom Aerodynamic Coupe, the Wraith's roofline flows back into a rear carapace, looking very novel in two-tone paint. On the traditional side, the Wraith uses rear-hinged doors, like its siblings, and rather than a hatchback, it features a proper boot.

2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith
The two-door Rolls-Royce Wraith features a unique fastback design, making the rear window almost horizontal. Josh Miller/CNET

In a tradition established since BMW took over in 1998, the Wraith features a V-12 engine. More potent than the V-12s under the hoods of the Phantom and Ghost, the Wraith's 6.6-liter V-12, with direct injection and twin turbocharging, produces 624 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque. More importantly, peak torque comes on at just 1,500 rpm and holds to 5,500 rpm, leading to smooth and graceful acceleration. That torque figure means the Wraith could blast forward, slapping its occupants back against the seats, but it is really designed for momentum unperturbed by hill or dale. Nothing should impede the progress of a Rolls-Royce, and so it goes with the Wraith.

Mueller-Oetvoes says that Rolls-Royce owners love the V-12, and wouldn't stand for any other engine. I'm not so sure it's the number of cylinders that matter so much as how the cars drive.

The cabin of the Wraith shows all the lush, detailed workmanship of the Phantom and Ghost, holding up the brand's reputation. The very floors feature a thick, furred carpet, cushioning your feet. High quality wood trim, leather coverings, and metal brightwork ornament the cabin. The leather, over seats and panels, comes from bull hides, specified by Rolls-Royce because they are thicker and more durable than cow hide. The wood veneers come from a single tree to ensure the grain matches perfectly.

The example I drove came with creme-colored leather seats and panels, along with an interesting spotted pattern leather on some surfaces. The wood trim was gorgeous with diagonal grain pieces creating a parquet effect. However, Rolls-Royce's current credo is that no two cars should look alike. Therefore, the company works with each buyer to individualize exterior paint, leather, and wood trim colors. I can't generalize the cabin look of this car to the rest, but the materials were certainly fine.

2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith
Rolls-Royce woodworkers came up with this wood trim especially for the Wraith, although owners can specify any interior. Josh Miller/CNET

Despite the old-world craftsmanship, Rolls-Royce fully embraces technology. Knowing that its customers don't want to be bothered hacking around to make tech features work properly, much of it is hidden under the surface. An air suspension with adaptive dampers automatically maintains ride quality -- there are no sport or comfort settings for the driver to set. A drive selector stalk is all you need to control the eight speed automatic transmission. Uniquely, the Wraith uses the navigation system to understand the road ahead, changing gears to accommodate rises and descents. Rolls-Royce designed this technology to serve the driver without requiring intervention.

I was on familiar ground with the cabin tech features. Although the main screen and theme colors were different, the Wraith uses BMW software. Processes for choosing music or setting a destination are the same as in BMW models. Instead of some cast-off, previous generation software, however, the Wraith gets the latest cutting edge stuff. That means the main dial controller on the console, which would go by the name iDrive in a BMW, includes a touchpad on its surface for tracing letters and an image of the Spirit of Ecstasy. More useful to the Rolls-Royce owner who doesn't want to bother with petty details, the Wraith includes a built-in data connection, enabling Google destination search through voice command. The Rolls-Royce Connected app adds smartphone integration with the car, showing calendar appointments, or what the British would call a diary.

2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith
This dial is much nicer than the iDrive controllers in BMW models, but affords similar functionality. Josh Miller/CNET

A personal encounter

Sitting in the CNET garage, the Wraith was not as imposing as I would expect. It is the most unique-looking car you are likely to see, but the grille frame is swept back, while the louvers are recessed. The hood was quite long, but the fastback made it more approachable. With a Phantom, you never know which movie star or sheik is sitting in the back seat, or what deadly security ninjas might be around, but the Wraith is a driver's car. An owner isn't going to want to squeeze into the back seat so the chauffeur can drive.

The Spirit of Ecstasy rose from its hidey-hole in the grille on my approach, as the car sensed the key fob in my pocket. Then I made the mistake everyone is going to make when they first get into a Wraith -- I reached for the rear of the door. Instead, the handle is the big, bright chrome thing up front. Pulling the driver door open requires effort, as it seems to account for about a quarter of the car's 5,203 pounds. The seats are big and comfortable, and the gauges integrate what looks like ivory faces, although I think it unlikely any elephants lost their tusks for the instrument panel. When I push the button to start the car, the engine quietly rumbles to life and the power reserve gauge, not a tachometer mind you, dips slightly. The steering wheel is thin compared to modern sports cars, but thicker than in the last Phantom I drove.

2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith
The Wraith's grille is less imposing than that of the Phantom, but still features the Spirit of Ecstasy to lead the way. Josh Miller/CNET

My initial fears about maneuvering a big, expensive car around concrete pillars and Toyotas fall away as I find the Wraith's easy handling character makes it feel shorter than its 17 feet 3 inches. The engine may be extraordinarily powerful, but the car glides smoothly forward, responding with absolute grace to my throttle input. If I get worried about the nearness of hard obstacles that threaten to scrape the hard work of the Rolls-Royce paint crew, I can turn on the car's surround view camera, which shows front, sides, and rear in a top-down style. Likewise, a split-view front camera saves me the worry of pulling out of blind alleys onto busy roads.

I should mention that the camera views, navigation, and other cabin tech features play out on a large, 10.3-inch LCD set into the dashboard. In the past, I've seen instances where an LCD among the trappings of old-world luxury looks like a plastic-bezeled flat screen TV on bureau in the Louis XIV style, but in the Wraith, the screen does not look out of place at all. And if I want to hide its luminous glow, a wood panel swings down over it at the touch of a button. However, I'm enjoying the detailed building renderings showing up on the navigation system maps as I drive the streets of downtown San Francisco.

Amongst the mad traffic, the Wraith offers a cocoon of calm. The heavy construction of the body and thick window glass mutes the sounds of the city. The car does not lurch as I press the accelerator, and, more impressively, there is not a hint of engine noise. The explosions under the hood burst with the frequency of fireballs in a Michael Bay movie, but they are not heard in the cabin. I point the Wraith up a steep hill and it ascends without any apparent effort. The quiet reminds me of an electric car.

2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith
A surround-view camera is welcome tech in the Wraith, helping to avoid scrapes in parking garages. Josh Miller/CNET

Somewhere in the driveline, the navigation system warns the transmission to downshift for changes in the topography, but it all occurs seamlessly. I try to feel what Rolls-Royce calls its satellite-aided transmission work, but its operation remains in the background, as if it were a very professional personal assistant. This tech may be new, but it hardly feels like first generation stuff.

Driving the Wraith up a winding road with a rough surface challenging the best of suspensions, I feel the asphalt's imperfections a little, but less than I have in any other car. Exercising the engine up on these turns, I notice the Wraith handles well, showing an ability to pivot in tight turns. It is a heavy coupe and the body leans a bit, but not in any way I would consider out-of-control or uncomfortable. Underlying the Wraith, BMW's suspension engineering embodies decades of making large cars handle well, and 21-inch Continental ContiSportContact tires keep a lot of rubber on the ground. Rolls-Royce even employs a corner-braking system, a technology that has gained popularity recently, to apply the brakes lightly to the inside wheels during turn, helping the car rotate at the apex.

Wherever I drove the Wraith, from the slow-moving streets of the city to the fast-paced Interstate, the steering wheel exhibited an easy heft and immediate response from the front wheels. As with all other drive systems in this car, I found the steering feel did not intrude on my comfort and enjoyment.

Further making the Wraith tech-forward, this example came with adaptive cruise control, letting me set the speed and have it automatically match the speed of slower cars ahead. A head-up display on the windshield showed my current and set speeds, along with navigation directions. I felt that the Wraith would have benefited from a blind-spot monitor system, saving me the effort of looking over my shoulder.

2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith
The Rolls-Royce Wraith proved comfortable no matter the road. Josh Miller/CNET

When the quiet comfort of the Wraith became too much for my modern media-addled brain to handle, I turned to the audio system, playing music through Bluetooth and USB. Once again, the familiar BMW software made selecting music from my devices easy. Rather than rely on an outside source for audio system tuning, Rolls-Royce employs its own 'golden ears' to calibrate the sound output from the car's 18 speakers and 18-channel, 1,300-watt amp. The result is spectacular -- whether played quietly or with the volume cranked up, I could hear all the subtle instruments come through on a layered recording. Surprisingly, even music played over Bluetooth sounded better than that produced by the majority of automotive audio systems.

A world apart

Rolls-Royce occupies an interesting space in the automotive world. CEO Mueller-Oetvoes does not even consider the company to compete with other carmakers. Rather, someone considering buying a Wraith might also be looking to spend that recent commission or hedge fund windfall on a yacht or Swiss ski chalet.

However, unlike the Phantom, the Wraith is certainly meant to be driven by its owner. The fastback styling pushes Rolls-Royce into new territory, while its powerful engine makes it look like a Bentley Continental-competitor. While the Bentley, is good, I can say that the ride quality is better in the Wraith, as are the cabin appointments.

In this regard, the Wraith remains true to Rolls-Royce heritage. Although not a sports car, it can handle the immense amount of power from its V-12. That power is harnessed in such a way as to never let the car feel like it is struggling. The drive controls are, frankly, not engaging. There are no paddle shifters or sport modes to fine-tune the Wraith's response -- Rolls-Royce owners should not be bothered by such mundane details.

The BMW cabin tech software qualifies among the best, most feature-rich and responsive in the industry, but it allows for a more finicky experience than other aspects of the Wraith. I can imagine that the perfect cabin tech experience for the Wraith would be a natural language voice-controlled system, responding obsequiously and accurately to every request from the driver. But that Holy Grail still eludes the entire technology industry.