Somebody had to try the new Rolls in California last week, and Chris-R said it had to be him...
To waft serenely through tranquil airspace soothed and calmed by the outstretched wings of the Spirit of Ecstasy is a unique manifestation of the joy of motoring. Yet like so many of the finer things in life, it is a pleasure to be savoured by a favoured few.
At a predicted average price of around two hundred and ten thousand pounds - give or take a matte silver-painted bonnet and a monogrammed picnic table or two - the new Rolls-Royce Ghost won't do much to democratise the experience of travelling in the train of the iconic silver lady, but it will open the door to Rolls ownership for a new tranche of customers looking for a more 'everyday' option than the imperious Phantom. Because not only is the new Ghost noticeably more practical than its sibling from the driver's perspective, its presence on the road is distinctly less, (as the populi vulgaris might have it), 'in your face'.
Not too much less, I'm happy to report after spending a day with the car in sunny California last week, because nobody buys a Rolls to travel incognito after all. But enough less to bring the Ghost philosophically within sight of the upper echelons of mainstream motoring, and thus attract the attention of owners currently condemned to drearily while away the miles in uber-spec'd iterations of the 7-series and S-class.
While R-R is reluctant to pigeonhole its customer roster, the Ghost's 'everydayness' seems geared towards three broad (relatively speaking) owner groups. First up are the existing Phantom owners, who presently save their big Rolls for trips to the opera or the races and want something less showy for the run to garden centre, or perhaps even to own a Rolls the wife won't mind driving. Then you've got 'captain of industry' types hoping the price of a Ghost will irk shareholders less than a claim for a Phantom. And finally you've got your 'ordinary' rich folk - the ones who used to buy R-Rs until a decade or so ago, but feel the Phantom's presidential style is a little too obvious for their neck of the home counties. Add a sprinkling of footballers, lottery winners and wheeler-dealing scrap metal merchants, and you've probably covered most of the bases.
Whoever they are, the Ghost's new owners are not going to be disappointed. It's a magnificent concoction, and to my mind utterly convincing in both style and function.
Take style first. The new car features a front end reminiscent of the Phantom's Parthenon grille, but tweaked to resemble something from the jet age with curved edges. The car's designers talk about 'Yacht Line' styling, with large uninterrupted surfaces and finely sculpted horizontal lines, and the classic Rolls-Royce cues of elevated prow, long bonnet, short front overhang, sharply raked A-pillar and elegant tail interpreted in a (relatively) informal style.
Inside the ambience is impeccably Rolls, although again the style is more relaxed than the Phantom. The fascia is lower and less imposing, and while the fit, finish and choice of materials is typically superlative, the overall effect when sitting in the Ghost is of a car designed more for a superior long-haul travel experience, and less for being noticed at your destination.
See the two cars apart and they both loom large, but park the Ghost next to a Phantom and it's immediately obvious why the new model is so much less imposing to drive and look at - it's a good 10cms lower, and 40cms shorter.
Interestingly, the seat height is still roughly 10cms higher than an S-class or 7-series, and the commanding driving position definitely helps you feel at ease with the Ghost on the road. In fact, the driving experience is conspicuously undemanding, particularly on wide-open Californian roads, but I suspect it will be the same story back in the UK too.
You sit in front of a large thin-rimmed wheel (although it's a few mm thicker than the Phantom helm), faced by a classic three-dial instrument pack with central speedo and 'power reserve' meter on the left where you might expect a rev-counter. The dial on the right shows temperature and fuel, and placed artfully around the finely polished dashboard and centre console are the organ-stop vent controls, boutique-style clock and the chromed iDrive control unit. The ZF automatic gearbox is controlled by a wand-like lever behind the wheel, with only Drive, Neutral and Park positions to play with. (In fact the seamlessly shifting unit has 8 ratios, but that's a tiresome detail that will never trouble the driver who should never have to think about which gear the car is in while motoring.) Surrounded by the sensual and tactile delights of fine leather upholstery, lacquered wood and sheepskin floor mats, it's a genuinely delightful environment.
The new 6.6-litre, twin-turbo V12 engine fires with a starter button on the dash, and idles virtually imperceptibly. It becomes a little more audible when extended, but it's not an engine that's been designed for aural pleasure - rather for delivering significant motive force without distracting the driver from his task with unseemly noises. How significant are the forces? Well with 563bhp and 575lb ft on tap, the Ghost catapaults itself off the line to 60mph in just 4.7secs, and pretty much keeps pulling until the electronic limiter at 155mph. The staggering thing about the performance is not the quantity of it, however, but the smooth, seamless and unruffled manner in which it is delivered. Floor the throttle off the lights, and I'll guarantee you'll be doing 80mph while your brain still thinks you're doing 50mph. In the context of that sort of performance, the word 'refinement' has taken on a whole new meaning in the Ghost.
Remarkable too is the car's dynamism and poise through the corners, aided and abetted by an intelligent air suspension system derived from that fitted to the latest BMW 760. But whereas BMW has developed the 7-series system to try and eliminate roll, the engineers at Rolls have been a little more subtle. The Ghost's active dampers are designed to manage the effects of body roll, not simply to attempt to eliminate it - which means a progressive set-up that allows quite a lot of motion at 20mph (a speed at which the human body will heel over comfortably), but gradually irons out the rolling motion as speed increases.
It all works beautifully on the road, where the chassis belies the Ghost's weight of nearly three tons with a full complement of passengers. The steering is light but accurate, so you can place the car neatly into corners with just two fingers on the wheel, and make amazingly deft progress through even quite challenging corners - all the while cosseted by an amazing 'magic carpet' ride, and kept safe by a combination of anti-roll stabilisation, dynamic brake control and dynamic stability control, including dynamic traction control and cornering brake control which gently reins in speed if the car thinks your cornering style is verging on the flamboyant.
Indeed, for the first time in quite a while, this new Rolls feels like a technological tour de force - an advantage which undoubtedly stems from having BMW's R&D department on the team. So as well as the myriad of optional luxury fittings, finishes and features, Ghost buyers will be able to avail themselves of niceties such as head-up display, voice control, night vision assistance, lane departure warning and even all-round cameras for low speed manoeuvring.
"The Ghost embodies 21st-century Rolls-Royce: more than 100 years of engineering and design excellence expressed in modern and uncompromised style", said the blurb handed out to hacks at the launch event last week. I don't think you'd find any of them much inclined to disagree.