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Here's why the Rolls-Royce Ghost is the best luxury car on sale
We don a tracksuit and take the new Ghost for a post-opulent roadtrip in the great British countryside
Rolls-Royce’s Ghost is powered by a 6.75-litre twin-turbo V12 that makes 627lb ft of torque from just 1,600rpm. That amount of twist from such a modest crank speed is one of the things that makes the Ghost so special. Cast your eye across the instrument display; there’s no rev counter, because a Rolls-Royce divorces itself from the conventional methodology of forward motion. Instead, you get a ‘power reserve’ gauge, and at a 70mph cruise you will have almost 100 per cent at your disposal. It’s an old Rolls trope, but it doesn’t stop it from being a good one.
Yet here we are on a Devon farmyard with a piece of machinery that makes the Ghost look more like a 2CV. This is Thor, a 1954 Scammell Pioneer tank recovery vehicle, a 6x4 behemoth whose 12.7-litre Leyland T12 turbodiesel has enough grunt to pull a felled forest’s worth of tree stumps out of the ground. Thor’s owner David is a former naval bomb disposal expert, a man for whom the explosive vicissitudes of land-based ordnance evidently weren’t scary enough. “It only does 24mph,” he tells me, as great plumes of exhaust billow through the early morning sunshine. “The trickiest thing about driving it is the amount of forward planning you need to do. There’s no synchro on the box, you see, although you can get to most places in fifth or sixth gear…”
You have to go some to find a vehicle more imposing than the new Rolls-Royce Ghost, Top Gear’s 2020 Luxury Car of the Year. Thor might share a certain core engineering rigour with the Rolls, but as its engine settles into the sort of indomitable industrial beat normally heard in a provincial power station, you’d have to concede that the Rolls is a rather more refined proposition.
The new Mercedes S-Class in its Maybach incarnation will be the Ghost’s most ardent rival. Based on what we know, these two old foes have followed fascinatingly divergent paths in terms of scoping out the warp and weft of luxury circa 2020. Mercedes has gone hell for leather down the techno path, preparing its clients for full autonomy and arming them with a user interface of fabulous complexity. Rolls has just gone hell for leather.
Well, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Rolls enjoys a relationship with its clients that would be the envy of many, and its ‘luxury intelligence unit’ has discovered that Ghost buyers don’t like dashboards festooned with a gazillion buttons or capacitive switchgear. They believe that less is more (as long as what remains is world class). And they’re not haughtily oblivious to a world ravaged by a pandemic or one in which a Swedish schoolgirl wields more influence than most politicians in the face of impending climate catastrophe.
So there’s that. And the fact that Rolls, steadfast purveyor of perfection since 1906, has to find new levels of luxury with every new car. It has to deliver sumptuous immersion, find some new gears beyond the eight that harness its mighty V12 to such silken effect. Rolls calls its current approach “post-opulent”. We’d venture anti-bling, although our press car’s white exterior paint over a white interior tests that thesis to near-destruction. Maybe in Malibu.
The Ghost deploys an evolved aesthetic that’s as restrained as any car with a grille inspired by an ancient Greek temple could ever be. Subtle illumination is provided by 20 LEDs hidden in the top, the vanes sandblasted to reduce the ‘hall of mirrors’ effect. Nautical allusions abound: the car’s proud snout delineated by a bow line, the sills helped by a ‘waft line’ which coerces reflections, and the rear tapers in noticeably leaving a surprising amount of tyre visible. The car’s hand-welded aluminium structure gives its body a seamless flow, interrupted only by its windows. Well, as reductionist as the Ghost is striving to be, we can hardly do without those. The doors are electrically assisted and have gyroscopes so they know if the car is parked on an incline.
The Ghost is one of those vanishingly rare cars that ensures you feel better after a four-hour drive than you do at the start of it
Rolls’ proprietary aluminium spaceframe underpins the Ghost, fully distancing the new car from the Munich mothership (no trace of 7 Series under here). In addition to the multi-link suspension and adaptive dampers, Rolls has also added a mechanical mass damper on the upper wishbone of the front suspension to enhance body control. It works in tandem with its existing Flagbearer system which uses cameras to read the road ahead, so surface imperfections are erased before they’re allowed to impinge on the experience. The Ghost is 30mm wider than the old car, a not insignificant amount that results in a better stance. It’s also 5.5m long and 2.1m wide so it occupies a lot of road space (and weighs 2,490kg). Less is more, unless it’s sheet metal.
These last few facts become abundantly clear on the run down to Exmoor and then Devon. Not at first, and not while the bulk of the journey is done on the motorway. The Ghost is one of those vanishingly rare cars that ensures you feel better after a four-hour drive than you do at the start of it. Or while marooned on the M25. You don’t drive this car so much as finesse it along the road. You’re breathing rarefied air here, quite literally because the climate control uses ultra-sensitive impurity sensors to switch the aircon to recirculation if it detects airborne contaminants. The Ghost is a £250k Covid antidote. The dash is finished in an open pore wood, the aircon operated by red and blue discs, which funnel air through weighty stainless steel vents. It works beautifully.
And although we don’t normally talk much about a car’s audio system, this one incorporates a resonance chamber into the body’s sills, effectively turning the Ghost’s structure into a giant sub-woofer, with exciter speakers in the roof for more oomph. Never mind its 1,300W output, the clarity and separation is dazzling, to the extent that it’s like sitting in Abbey Road’s famous Studio One while the individual musicians play around you.
The Ghost is all about noise – or its absence. The engineers have all but eliminated NVH, although total silence is no fun at all, as anyone who’s ever stood in an anechoic chamber will confirm. Quickly drives you mad, as would the slightest squeak. The V12 makes its presence felt when stretched, but most of the time it’s hard to believe there’s almost seven litres of ICE out front. Those big door mirrors cause some commotion, unlikely to be replaced by camera style ones: Rolls owners don’t like the idea of them apparently. Otherwise, the Ghost puts the outside world firmly on hold.
Why Devon? We’re on a post-opulent mission, so rather than swanning about Mayfair before weighing anchor at Claridges, we’re on Exmoor, ahead of a night in a converted shepherd’s hut in a place called Scorlinch Farm. Heavy overnight rain – the heaviest and scariest I’ve experienced in 32 years of driving – has thankfully given way to clear skies. This offsets Exmoor’s existential bleakness, although there’s still standing water on the road. Driven at full tilt, the Ghost’s funky dampers do a sterling job of keeping its body in check, aided and abetted by its all-wheel drive and active rear axle. The latter is more useful for low-speed manoeuvring than it is at sharpening turn-in at higher speeds (turn-in isn’t really a Rolls sort of concept). The Spirit of Ecstasy, reputedly modelled by sculptor Charles Sykes on a lady called Eleanor Thornton, is more of an adrenalin junkie than ever, slung out on the outer edge of that vast bonnet as the massive grille risks dicing innocent sheep.
The road to Scorlinch Farm is surely one of the narrowest in Britain, and it’s pitch black when we peel off the M5. Threading the Rolls through these sodden lanes is a challenge, though that active rear axle clearly helps. Owners David and Hannah watch, bemused, as I perform a three-point turn outside the shepherd’s hut. The challenge now is to avoid flecking the Ghost’s pristine interior with dirt. They’re equally bemused by my post-opulent apparel, a fetching Kappa track suit in Italian Serie A team Napoli’s colours (I know nothing about football, it was chosen with minimal research). According to online retail sources, sales of ‘athleisure-wear’ have gone up 50 per cent during lockdown, the WFH protocol and ‘new normal’ (a phrase that should be banned) erasing established clothing conventions. The result is a startling juxtaposition. We’re told that many of us are actively re-evaluating what matters after this year like no other. You certainly don’t need a five-star hotel to get a great night’s sleep, and the inky blackness of a remote countryside abode is very welcome. Rolls-Royce’s commitment is to an elevated driving experience and exceptional engineering, rather than old-fashioned conspicuous consumption. And although 2020 has shaken the foundations, Rolls-Royce remains resolute.
Photography: Rowan Horncastle
Thanks to: Canopy and Stars, and to Hannah and David at Scorlinch Farm