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Rolls Wraith vs Merc S500 on track

  1. Luxury is an experience. Relax: this isn’t a perfume ad (and, come to think of it, isn’t everything an experience?), but the point I’m trying to make here is that these aren’t cars you just drive. The Rolls-Royce Wraith and Mercedes-Benz S-Class are not cut from the same cloth - they perform different roles for different people - but they are also bound together by the common theme that is neither best described nor interacted with by the mundane act of simply driving it. Driving may be the method, but it’s not the result. The result is far, far richer and more beguiling.

    So, these are not mere A-to-B conveyances, a means of facilitating your daily existence. No, that’s wrong - one of them is actually the ultimate facilitator and, ideally, best not driven at all. The other? The pinnacle of craftsmanship and elegance, the living embodiment of Edwardianism a century further on. You know which one’s which.

    Photography: Rowan Horncastle

  2. The Wraith really is rather splendid - that’s the best way to describe it. To bastardise a well-known phrase, travelling in it broadens the mind. And none of your short hops, either - this is a car to drive a very long way. A couple of months back, I drove one to Vienna, 951 miles in a single Sunday stint, arriving in Austria’s artistic capital in time for dinner. It was perfect: the right journey and emphatically the right car.

    I drove the entire way with my fingertips, elbows resting just so, bare feet nestling in the inch-deep carpet. Yes, really. It may sound irrelevant, but that last facet made the whole trip. Why rest the grubby and unfeeling heels of your brogues in a cocooning layer of lambswool, when you can have the tactility and soft, caressing warmth on your bare soles? It was divine, made me feel like I was on a bearskin rug in front of a log fire halfway up an Alp and was, above all, a wonderful new experience. One that had little to do with driving.

  3. Entirely by coincidence, while I was wafting across Germany in a south-easterly direction, so was editor-in-chief Charlie Turner. He wasn’t going as far - only to the Frankfurt motor show, but because he needed room to work, he travelled the whole way from home in the back of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. We both thought we had the best possible tools for the job. We both had a point.

    The biggest luxury for most people isn’t a question of how plump the upholstery is, but who is doing the driving on boring roads. Get someone else to do it and turn the back into an office, as Charlie did, and you’re in a world of your own. A world that offers every gadget known to the interior of a car, most of them controllable from the rear nearside seat via switches and remotes. Want to know the current economy (fuel or FTSE), the satnav instructions, watch a DVD, hook up your laptop, make a phone call? All possible. And from the comfort of quite the most sumptuous seating this side of a BA first class cabin.

  4. There are blinds for the windows, mood lighting for your, um, mood and a front passenger seat that, despite its girth, manages to contort itself almost completely into the forward footwell. You control that, too. Then you raise and extend your legrest, recline the back rest, opt for a massage and tell the good man up front to crank the starter.

    I doubt anyone at Merc HQ in Stuttgart actually knows how many electric motors there are in the average S-Class; it would be like asking how many grains of sand there are in the Sahara. Everything is configurable, adjustable or tweakable. This is Merc’s idea of luxury - the luxury of choice.

  5. It’s very different from Rolls’s take. The Wraith is a butler, a two-tone Jeeves, more intelligent than you and able to make choices for itself. Sure, you can choose how bright you want the starlight roof to be, but you’re not permitted to select your own gear. A satellite does that. And it’s never wrong. How do I know? Because only after several hundred miles did I suddenly realise I hadn’t once given the gearbox a thought. Yes, you’re aware of kickdown if you want to go from whatever speed you’re doing to a larger one, but drive down a twisty road, and because it reads the road ahead and overlays speed and driving style with GPS mapping, not once will you reach for a paddle that isn’t there anyway. You’ll be too busy trying to find a grabhandle.

  6. Somewhere in the Wraith’s electronic brain, deep behind layers of walnut, must lie the outline of Dunsfold. How else could it have worked out what gear I wanted it to be in at Hammerhead and thus permitted a big, soft, stately sideways skid from entry to apex and beyond? That’s 624bhp, right there. No one in their right mind (something I’ve never been accused of) will ever drive their Wraith like that, but isn’t the world a better place knowing that you could, if the desire took you? Of course, the S-Class was smokier still, but look who was doing the driving… Tom Ford tried sitting in the back for a lap or two and found that the S-Class is missing something from its options list that BA isn’t: a sick bag.

  7. So, yes, these cars do everything possible to rub balm on the sting that is driving. They oil and enrich your life, and, yes, you can enjoy driving them. The Wraith doesn’t understand the concept of ‘sport’, but it has a good grasp of ‘momentum’. All it needs is gentle guidance and a caring attitude, and it’ll reward in spades. The S-Class is forgettably brilliant. By which I mean that, like the Wraith’s gearchange, there’s nothing about the driving experience that imposes itself on you, nothing that niggles. The steering is just another on-board system, like the satnav or the coffee maker*, while the ride, whether you tick the box marked Magic Body Control or not, is genuinely sublime in its control and comfort. My chief impression of the S-Class was one of unparalleled silence, the sort of silence that only billions of euro of development can bring. The engine? Just another motor. Choose yours based on speed or efficiency or whatever, but not on character.

  8. Indeed as far as engines go, both are the church mice, the librarians of the car world, their impact designed to be felt but not heard. Get them all wound up, and you might detect a faint, distant rumbling, but the noise won’t occupy your attention for long, as you’ll have more pressing things to attend to - in the case of the Wraith and the hotter petrol S-Class, the rate the scenery is spooling through the windscreen. Mercedes will, of course, sell you an AMG version of the S-Class - a 63 or 65 - but I’m not sure they’re the ‘done thing’. Don’t get me wrong: no one knows more than Merc how to blend sport and comfort, but tampering with the S-Class’s prime directive - the comfort and relaxation of its passengers - is something you do at your peril.

    Better to leave the driver to admire his surroundings and give him less excuse to get carried away - especially if you, the owner, is going to be spending time in the back seat. Him up front has plenty to keep himself occupied with anyway, not least a pair of 12-inch configurable monitors. The quality and solidity of everything is breathtaking.

  9. Nevertheless, you can’t escape the fact the S-Class is a product. It comes down a production line in a large factory where robots weld and sparks fly. So it should come as no surprise that the S-Class is a less personal machine. This is not something you inflict your taste on. You can with the Rolls, and the Wraith is visually strong enough not to wilt under whatever dubious colour scheme you might force on it. It has ambience and dignity even when painted like a Teletubby, steering a neat line between ostentation and extravagance. However, you get the feeling that if you went to Rolls-Royce’s Chichester facility with wild ideas about ostrich skin and a mobile music studio in the boot, a man in a Savile Row suit might gently say, “Very interesting, sir. Might I suggest…?”

    I’d assumed the trad luxury car had had its day and would follow the downward sales progression that’s afflicted the Ford Mondeo class. But the new S-Class kicks that thought as firmly into the long grass as it administers the same blow between the legs of the Audi A8 and BMW 7-Series. The market may be moving east, but Merc’s focus hasn’t let up one bit. There is no other luxury car half as deserving of the tag. It is the pinnacle of technical achievement and technological advancement.

  10. Where does that leave the Wraith? Somewhere completely different, of course. It’s massive and magnificent and when you heave open the vault-like door (backwards, of course) and hear the rubber seals releasing their grip, catch a waft of perfect leather and see that vast single piece of timber that makes the term ‘door card’ seem hopelessly pathetic, you realise what this car is: a staggering, bewitching, gorgeous object to spend time with. In short, an experience.

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