The Wraith: Rolls-Royce's High-Rolling Hit

The Wraith is Rolls' bid to build a sportier car, like archrival Bentley's Continental GT, without compromising its ultra-luxury image.

Rolls-Royce had an image problem: too stuffy, too patrician, too wedded to 1-percenter memes ("Could you possibly spare a jar of …"). In short, too Arthur, Dudley Moore's Rolls-riding prat from the 1981 movie, hardly the ideal brand ambassador when your 111-year-old company is seeking a compelling reason for anyone under 60 to drop three hundred large for one of your "motorcars."

Last year, after rapturous receptions at auto shows, Rolls rolled out the Wraith, a $295,000, 624-horsepower coupe built on the Ghost's platform.The Wraith has a rakish fastback silhouette unlike any other Rolls — in fact, not entirely dissimilar to that of the Continental GT, the sporty coupe that delivered archrival Bentley from the doldrums a decade ago.

The sleek, high-performance Continental utterly reinvented Bentley. Sales rose tenfold after the GT's introduction and for the first time made the marque a plausible choice for younger Hollywood and music stars, among them Mark Wahlberg, Khloe Kardashian, Cindy Crawford, Sharon Osbourne, and Paris Hilton, whose tabloid-ready, pink-on-pink Continental must have seriously challenged the stiff upper lips of the Bentley brass at the company HQ in Crewe, England.

The Wraith has since conferred upon Rolls similar buzz and bottom-line boost. Tyler Perry and Eddie Murphy have been spotted driving Wraiths around L.A., and The Independent reported that the Wraith is the ride of choice for Silicon Valley's youngish lions once their IPOs come in — casual evidence that the car is hitting the younger-hipper-richer target demo. Rolls delivered a record 4,063 cars worldwide last year, with sales up 30 percent in North America, thanks in part to strong sales of the Wraith.

Rolls-Royce underwent a sea change after it became a subsidiary of BMW in 2003, but unlike Bentley's makeover under owner Volkswagen, its reinvention has hewed more toward emphasizing hand-stitched, ultra-luxurious exclusivity — Rollers are typically priced thousands more than comparable Bentleys —wrapped up in aggressive new styling that sometimes seemed a parody of classic Rolls signifiers. The new aesthetic appalled loyalists like 73-year-old Wayne "Mr. Las Vegas" Newton, who owns a brace of classic Rollers and told me in an interview that he hated Rolls 2.0 — but that was probably the point. Brashly styled Rolls-Royces started turning up in rap videos, David Beckham choose a $450,000 Drophead as his daily driver, and Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez were spotted behind the wheels of the $320,000 Ghost.

Still, Rolls-Royce sales have stubbornly lagged behind Bentley's. Last year Bentley sold 11,020 vehicles worldwide, 3,163 of them in North America. Rolls insists that, as the more exalted (and expensive) of the two brands, that's desirable. Shortly after the Wraith's debut, David Archibald, former president of Rolls-Royce North America, sniffed that "Rolls will always be a precious drop in the automotive ocean." But BMW, which sold more than 2 million cars worldwide last year, isn't at all conflicted about moving a few more Rollers from the Goodwood, U.K., factory. The Wraith was meant to help correct that imbalance of trade.

Rolls uses the Wraith to showcase its practically-anything-you-want bespoke customization program via limited-edition models, such as the Wraith Inspired by Film, the film being And the World Stood Still, the slick promo featurette for the Wraith that was accepted into the British Film Institute's National Archive in April. The Wraith's connection to film is at best Tenuous — the two-tone Silver and Jubilee Silver paint job is meant to evoke, that's right, the silver screen, as is the hand-cast (just like the Oscar statuette!) solid silver Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, which cunningly disappears into the famous Rolls grille when the car is locked.

Having had a Wraith thus configured under my command for a week I can report that the car is everything one would expect for a ride stickered at a cool $330,900. (The standard issue Wraith lists for $284,900 — the Inspired by Film package adds $46,000 worth of options.)

This is, to be sure, not your grandfather's Rolls — the 642-horsepower 6.6 liter V-12 under the bonnet launches the Wraith from zero to 60 in 4.6 seconds, blistering performance for a 17-foot-long, 5,300-pound luxo brute. The cabin is flush with acres of anthracite leather, yacht-inspired, book-matched veneers arrayed at 55-degree angles in a trendy open-pore finish that makes the heavily lacquered wood trim in, well, Rolls-Royces of yore seem tacky by comparison.

Don't feel like manually closing the massive reverse-opening coach, or "suicide," doors after settling into the massaging front seats? Push a button on the dash and they'll slowly swing shut like a bank vault's. You down with O.T.T.? Look no further than the show-stopping headliner — 1,340 hand-placed fiber-optic lights transform the roof of the Wraith into a star-carpeted nighttime sky. The (gasp) $12,995 option is included in the Film edition's bespoke vigorish — of course, the elves at Goodwood will happily array the "stars" in emulation of whatever constellation strikes your fancy.

The Wraith's drivetrain benefits from the tech savvy of its German corporate benefactors. The eight-speed automatic transmission is mated to a satellite-enabled GPS that anticipates changes in the road ahead and preemptively adjusts. It's remarkably smooth and seamless — upshifts are barely noticeable, plus the suspension automatically lowers the car as speed climbs. The steering is smooth, tactile and confidence-inspiring — a good thing, as the Wraith is capable of 155 mph (though electronically limited to 130 mph in the U.S. to comply with regulatory killjoys).

With the Wraith, Rolls-Royce seems at last to have a mojo-making ride in its stable, and not a moment too soon: Volume luxo carmakers like Mercedes-Benz are testing the lower reaches of the superpremium market with offerings like the close-to-$200,000 Maybach 600. Fast, smart, powerful, good-looking and pricey enough to be status-boosting scarce — that's how this Roller rolls.