2014 Rolls-Royce Wraith: First Drive

The all-new 2014 Wraith two-door is no less than the most powerful, quickest Rolls-Royce ever made. It's also no less than $288,600, including the destination charge and a gas-guzzler tax. What does this get you? A traffic-stopping, jaw-dropping design that combines remarkable comfort with capability you might not expect from such a dignified brand.

The car includes the first application of an automatic transmission with behavior influenced by GPS, which is only the most exclusive of a bevy of technologies operating behind the scenes. In my day driving the Wraith in the foothills around Scottsdale, Ariz., I found the car to be true to the brand's time-honored image.

Based on the Ghost four-door, the Wraith combines the sedan's overall front-end styling with a fastback roofline. The wheelbase is shorter by about 7 inches, but the car is merely 4.7 inches shorter from bumper to bumper. The width is the same. There are two barely usable rear seats, a 2+2 configuration similar to that in the Bentley Continental GT Speed, which is arguably the Wraith's closest competitor (despite a starting price almost $69,000 lower). While Rolls uses rear-hinged "coach" doors for the sedans' rear doors, the Wraith's two front (and only) doors are of the same style.

If the only thing this design accomplishes is setting the car apart and necessitating the extravagant power door-closing feature, it's well worth it, because onlookers eat it up as if the car were levitating or something. Combine this aspect with the optional accent-colored bonnet, roof and boot lid (that's hood, roof and trunk lid), and you have about as distinctive a brand signature as any in the market.

The Spirit of Ecstasy ornament, which can retreat into the hood when you lock the car, is merely punctuation. (You can get your punctuation plated in gold for $9,100, illuminated for $7,100 or "uplit" for $3,635.)

Equipped with a 624-horsepower, twin-turbocharged V-12 engine, eight-speed automatic and rear-wheel drive, the Wraith bolts to 60 mph in about 4.4 seconds. It doesn't feel like it — partly because the response is gradual and partly because the car isolates you from what's happening outside the cocoon. The Wraith sprints with more audible exhaust than the Rolls sedans, befitting the coupe's sportier character. It is by no means conspicuous or disruptive inside the cabin.

Quite the contrary, the Wraith achieves a level of quiet you're unlikely to find from other makes — but not quite as hushed as in the sedans. The Wraith admirably isolates road, tire and exterior noise, but there's a bit more penetration because the car lacks a B-pillar, creating a vulnerable spot where the side windows meet.

There's also some wind noise from the enormous side mirrors, which do as good a job obscuring what's in front of them as they do showing what's behind you: As in the sedans, they sit up high and can block one's view of, say, oncoming traffic when turning onto a curved two-lane. Fastbacks aren't known for rear visibility, but the Wraith's C-pillar isn't too wide at eye-level. I've seen much worse ... and viewed much less.

At a base curb weight of 5,380 pounds, just 110 pounds less than the sedan, the Wraith is an exceptionally heavy car. It's even 265 pounds heavier than the GT Speed, which is no flyweight. You absolutely feel the Wraith's weight, but the sensation is more one of substantiality than of burden. Driving the car isn't a visceral experience, but I rather appreciate how comfortable and isolationist this car can be while still delivering quickness, fast braking and admirable dynamics. (I've made, and bemoaned, the same characterization of once-visceral sport sedans like the BMW 5 Series.)

The suspension uses computer-controlled air springs, adaptive shock absorbers and active stabilizer bars, the latter of which are — here, as on BMWs whence the technology comes — the most effective active body roll control system on the market. The Wraith rides softly yet remains flat and composed during aggressive cornering. All of this happens automatically; there are no comfort or sport modes — only a rocker switch that allows you to lower or raise the car's body to ease entry/exit and to traverse rocky pavement, respectively.

The drivetrain also does all the work for you. There's no sport mode and no manual shifting — just a Low mode for more engine braking during downhill runs. Though I tackled some 7 percent grades, I never needed this mode, possibly because of the Satellite Aided Transmission. Using technology developed by BMW Motorsport, the Wraith considers the upcoming road curvature and elevation and selects an appropriate gear — specifically a lower one for curves and downhill runs. Honestly, only once did I feel like the car reacted to GPS data; today's cars already consider driving style, pedal position and sometimes steering angle and more when selecting a gear. But I have to say, I never felt like the Wraith's transmission was in the wrong gear for circumstances. Credit GPS if you like.

The lack of adjustability in the Rolls is a philosophy. If you want to play more with a car's mechanical bits, the market offers plenty of other options.

The interior controls include some simple buttons and knobs along with a multifunction knob teamed with a 10.25-inch widescreen display, recognizable as the latest version of BMW's iDrive system. Less familiar and more befitting an ultraluxury car are broad swaths of wood and leather and, optionally, a Starlight headliner previously seen only in the flagship Phantom sedan. It employs 1,340 fiber-optic points of light in the ceiling liner for a nighttime sky effect. Pretty damn cool.

In an upcoming Cars.com review I'll delve deeper into the Wraith and its features, including a long list of extra-cost options that raised my test car to a price as astronomical as the Starlight headliner: $372,324. For that much I could buy a dozen of the loaded Hyundai Sonata Limited I drove to the event. So I'll pre-emptively give my stock answer to the frequent question about ultraluxury cars: What could possibly make a car worth this much? The only answer that matters is "someone willing to pay it." The Wraith will find its buyers, but Rolls isn't expecting — or even hoping for — too many. Richard Carter, Rolls' director of global communications, said part of the brand's appeal is exclusivity. The company sold 3,575 cars globally in 2012.

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