The very best of British luxury
We pit the Rolls Wraith against Bentley Conti Speed and Range Rover in a battle of UK-built luxury
Posted: 14 Nov 2013
A decent crowd has gathered around the Wraith as I approach it for the first time. The crowd is well lubricated and has decided, maybe fairly, that the scruffy man-child brandishing the key to a two-tone, houseboat-sized coupe is a fair target for abuse. A phrase rhyming closely with ‘dosh banker' rings loud.
It is important in these situations to remain calm and confident. I stride to the driver's door and extend my hand to discover someone has moved the doorhandle. A couple of seconds too late, I remember the Wraith has rear-hinged suicide doors. Casually, I wander to the other end of the Wraith's enormodoor and heave it open... only to find the steering wheel is on the opposite side of the car. Bloody left-hookers. Pretending I knew that all along and was, y'know, just checking the passenger footwell, I saunter round to the left-hand side of the Wraith. "Where's your butler?" enquires one wag. I'm wondering much the same.
I manage to open the correct door in the correct direction - get me! - but then discover a problem. I don't know how to get in. At least, how to get in elegantly. I know this sounds daft, but as you open the door to a normal car, your feet are more or less pointing towards the bonnet, right? So locating your arse on the driver's seat is simply a case of inserting said feet into the footwell and ensuring the rest of your body follows in roughly the right direction. I have, over the years, become reasonably proficient at this. But as you open the door in the Wraith, your feet are facing towards the car's boot, your right hand on the left door. Clearly a 180-degree spin is necessary, but which way? Bum towards steering wheel or chest towards steering wheel? Honestly, if you're not reading this on, say, a crowded bus, try miming the movement. Not so easy, is it?
I hover in the Wraith's open door, trying to figure out which direction of pirouette makes me look less like I'm attempting an intimate ballroom dance with a 2.5-tonne, 5.3-metre partner. The heckling grows. Deep breath and... OK, I'm not sure how this happens, but I somehow overshoot the spin, execute a full clockwise rotation and topple into the Wraith knees-first. The crowd gives a short - and I fear ironic - round of applause.
TopGear's most glamorous, sophisticated test of the year has not started in very glamorous, sophisticated fashion. I scramble from the footwell and sheepishly nose the Wraith out of the pub car park, tailed closely by the Bentley Continental GT Speed and Range Rover SDV8. We pick up the road towards Torhole Bottom, and things quickly improve. It is early autumn, the air is mild, Somerset is empty, and our green and pleasant land is in its element.
I think: if you ignore its pub louts and its stupid doors that open the wrong way, isn't Britain ace? We may be a small, damp island on the edge of the Atlantic. Our days of global political influence may be fading fast. We may have rubbish weather and an obsession with talking about it. But we do opulence better than anyone else in the world. Think about it: if your remit was ultimate poshness and your budget unlimited, is there a car you'd take over any one of these three? Lexus LS? Too clinical. Cadillac? Lincoln? Too... American. Mercedes-Benz S-Class? Undoubtedly the tech leader, but more office suite than leather library.
Truth is, if you want luxury, you're best buying British. And luxury doesn't come more luxurious - not to mention tricky to enter - than the Wraith. This car is all in the detail. Loosely based on the BMW 7-Series it may be, but the Wraith is simply unlike any other car out there, save its Rolls brethren. The door cards are a single, immaculate slab of wood, four foot across by two foot high. The clock is a miniature Art Deco masterpiece; the dash vents, works of sculpture in their own right (not to mention capable of blasting out air with enough violence to sever hand from wrist). The indicator is the slenderest of spindles, daftly delicate within the gargantuan proportions of the car. The Wraith's shagpile floor mats are deep enough to permanently devour feet; its paint is hypnotic, somehow more... painty than that of normal cars. The Starlight headlining, which sees 1,300 LED lights hand-woven into the roof, might sound like an add-on too garish for even the most taste-deficient Premiership reprobate, but in reality is entirely soothing and lovely.
And the leather. In not just one flavour, but two: around the centre console is wrapped a soft, mysteriously mottled skin. I spend several hours trying to work out from what animal this has been harvested and conclude it must be midget giraffes. It's official: Rolls is breeding micro-giraffes for the purpose of upholstering its cabins. Inhumane perhaps, but it contributes to a calming cocoon, the sort of place to lower your heart rate by 20 beats a minute. But what if you want to drive rather than simply lounge? The Wraith, after all, is the first Rolls in a generation in which you're more likely to find the owner behind the steering wheel than languishing in the back. Some 18cm shorter in the wheelbase than the Ghost saloon, with a wider track, weightier steering, beefed-up suspension and a twin-turbo 6.0-litre V12 now putting out 624bhp - 61 more than in the Ghost - Rolls describes the Wraith as the most powerful and dynamic car in its history.
And yes, out in the hills behind Cheddar Gorge, the Wraith does feel more dynamic than the Ghost, or indeed any other Rolls. However, by any conventional metric, the Rolls is still vast and lightly terrifying. Oh, it's fast, but the Wraith seems to regard hands-on driving as rather... uncouth. There's no faddish Sport button here, no paddles to override the gearchanges from the excellent seven-speed ZF auto, which analyses GPS and satnav data to determine the most appropriate gear for the next corner. You don't notice the genius gearbox doing its thing, which means either a) it is superbly engineered or b) not working. Either way, the message is clear: don't concern yourself with such menial tasks as changing gear, sir. The Rolls will do that for you.
The engine keeps you at arm's length, too. This might be the only car in the world to make 600bhp feel comfortable rather than obscene. Yes, it's mighty fast, but never uncivilly so: an elegant sufficiency of power, more than sir should ever need to deploy. Which isn't to say you can't make progress, certainly more so than in any other Rolls. Once you get that enormous, schooner-like nose pointed at the exit of the corner, you can call up all the power and surf your way out on a wave of imperial British torque. But try to drive it like an Elise, chuck the big girl around, and you'll find the Wraith gives a polite cough and mutters, "I think not, old chap." Smoothly does it - that's the way.
Because the Wraith still floats with superlative... Rollsishness, silent and serene at even silly speeds, with a shagpile ride to match its carpets. True, it's a mite firmer than the Ghost on which it's based: occasionally you get the slightest hint, through the seat and steering wheel, that you might have bumped over something fairly significant: a rhino, perhaps. Or the Bentley Conti GT Speed, which, beside the herculean Wraith, looks almost slimline.
One might imagine the GT Speed - the fastest production Bentley in history - as a cut-price Wraith (only against a £215,000 Rolls can a £150,000 Bentley look like the budget option). After all, both are four-seat, two-door, go-faster coupes. Both spring from the British arms of German behemoths. But they're quite contrary, these two, as similar as lawn bowls and, um, no-holds-barred bare-knuckle lawn bowls. While the Wraith's engine hovers discreetly in the wings, the Bentley is all about its powerplant. For Speed duty, output from the venerable W12 stands at 616bhp, which is proper supercar territory.
It feels it, too: the Wraith, though officially a few horsepowers more potent than the Bentley, never seems truly vicious in its acceleration. The way the Continental launches away from a junction, however, is borderline barbaric, a savagery of force almost comically at odds with the palatial leatheriness of your surroundings.
It's like being punched in the gut by a particularly expensive Edwardian chaise longue. Bentley claims the Speed will do 0-60mph in four seconds and 205mph flat out. I have no reason to doubt this. Where the Wraith politely suggests that sir might wish to back off just a little, the Bentley offers no such moderation. If you've got the bottle, this thing just keeps serving up power and grip.
It sounds devastating, too. Click the central gearlever into Sport mode, and something dark, terrible and brilliant occurs deep in the Bentley's bowels, a bassy wow-wow-wow that penetrates deep into your skull. The optional carbon-ceramic brakes are equally brain-warping, though if we're being fussy we'd appreciate just a touch more confidence-boosting feel in the first couple of inches of pedal travel. And, while we're being fussy, the Conti's big gearshift paddles are a trifle primitive and plasticky in comparison with the rest of the near-flawless cabin. Because, while the Speed's interior is less Great Gatsby caddish than the Wraith's, it is executed with every bit as much conviction and class. This is a cockpit to give nervous cows recurrent nightmares for years to come: a bovine massacre, albeit a beautifully executed one. Perhaps the greatest compliment we can pay the GT Speed is that it doesn't, on any level, resemble a beauty-salon VW. The Bentley feels entirely idiosyncratic and very, very British.
Despite the Speed's lowered and stiffened suspension, the Conti hasn't forgotten its prime billing: as a see-you-in-Prague-for-tea-and-cake-old-boy grand tourer. Yes, it's firm, but never uncomfortably so. A car designed for the M1, not Monza. That said, if we're talking effortless waft, it's tough to top the latest Range Rover. This SUV - this huge, go-anywhere SUV - will spirit you from Arbroath to Zennor, or Alaska to Zimbabwe, as effortlessly as anything on the road.
That said, if any car removes the ‘sport' from ‘sport utility vehicle', it's this one. Any attempt to get Stiggish on country lanes results in a) impressive tilt angles and b) many looks of terror from drivers coming the other way. But it's a superlative wafter, dispatching motorway miles as dismissively as the Wraith. If money were no object, of course the supercharged 5.0-litre V8 petrol would be tempting. But, deliciously deranged as that engine is, we'd take this V8 diesel for its limitless torque and the convenience of covering 700 miles or so between refuels.
If the Wraith's essence is in its detailing and the Bentley's its engine, the Rangie's is all about its seating. Front or rear, this is a truly tranquillising place to sit, a throne from which to gaze down upon the world. Especially with the £2,550 Executive Seating in the back - which trades the Rangie's standard three-seat bench for a pair of grand, individual chairs, each equipped with massage function: I can't think of many happier places to pass a cross-continent cruise: there's limitless room for legs, heads and arms - and, with the optional full-length panoramic sunroof and a clear night, an au naturel interpretation of the Wraith's starry headlining. So convincing is the Range Rover at playing high-riding limo, you could easily forget it's a top-tier off-roader, too, one that'll attack jungle and swamp like a woodlouse-addled Bear Grylls. And that's why, with this diesel especially, the Range Rover stakes a strong claim to the title of greatest do-everything car. Sure, it might be the cheapest, most practical car here, but it doesn't feel a poor, dumpy relation beside the Conti and Wraith. In fact, as night falls, it's the Range Rover's keys that provoke the biggest fight for the traipse back to London.
Even so, we didn't bring these cars together to declare a winner - how, anyway, could you pick between a £100,000 SUV-limo, a £150,000 super-GT and a £215,000 luxo-fastback? We brought them together to celebrate British lux, and what a celebration they offer. I'm not sure I've ever been part of a test of three such utterly convincing cars, with barely the hint of a wrong note between them. They are very different, the Wraith, Conti Speed and Range Rover, but they share one trait: the uncanny ability to compress vast distances into an airy, easy breath, to smother the hustle of everyday driving with layer upon layer of leather and burnished wood and cushioning. All will deliver you, the driver, to your destination hundreds of miles distant feeling fresh as a steam-cleaned daisy. And, most of all, these three prove that when it comes to old-school opulence, Britannia still rules the waves. Our doors may be backwards, but our posh cars sure ain't.
Words: Sam Philip
Pictures: John Wycherley
This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine