When it comes to an early Christmas present for a motoring writer, it would be hard to go past spending a Saturday morning with one of the most exclusive new cars on sale today.
Enter Rolls-Royce Motor Company representative Neil D'Arcy-Brain, in Dunedin with a readily accepted offer for the Otago Daily Times to sample his firm's newest model, the Wraith.
The Wraith was launched earlier this year to join the Phantom and Ghost in the current Rolls-Royce range, and the particular car I am to drive is one of the first two in New Zealand.
The word ''sporty'' is one that Rolls-Royce refuses to use as a descriptor for its cars, and not so long ago the company's official response to any request for the power output of its engines was limited to one simple word: sufficient.
However, times are changing for a marque which has, since coming under the wing of BMW in 1998, enjoyed unprecedented sales success.
The Wraith, we are told, is ''the most potent and technologically advanced Rolls-Royce in history'', with a design that ''exudes contemporary elegance, dynamism and power''. That description, surely, implies at least an element of ''sporty''.
The company is less reticent about power outputs these days, freely admitting that the Wraith's 6.6-litre twin-turbo direct injection V12 engine produces 465kW of power and 800Nm of torque. That, we are assured, makes it the most powerful car in the company's 109-year history.
Rolls-Royce even gives an official 0-100kmh acceleration figure (4.4 sec) for what happens to be the smallest car, as well as the most powerful, in its current range. Size is relative here mind, for while the Wraith may be the baby of the family, it is still almost 5.3m long and tips the scales at about 2.5 tonnes.
These are the key pieces of information I carry to my rendezvous with Mr D'Arcy-Brain, who is amenable to my suggestion that a return run from Dunedin to Middlemarch is the best way to experience the Wraith in the three hours available. Not surprisingly, he is coming along as passenger.
Before setting out, I spend a few moments contemplating the Wraith from the outside.
As the accompanying image shows, the Wraith is a rakish two-door fastback coupe. Inspiration for the design comes from classy fastback cars of the 1930s. While it is fashioned on a shortened version of the Ghost platform (which itself is a heavily modified BMW 7-series base) the look that results is both unique and beguiling.
The company's New Zealand agents have specified this particular car as their demonstrator. It sits on 21-inch, rather than the factory standard 20-inch, wheels, and features midnight sapphire as its primary exterior colour, with a silver contrast.
That primary colour is one of 44,000 different shades offered by Rolls-Royce. Combine that level of choice with virtually unlimited interior options for upholstery, trim, carpets and detailing, and it is not surprising that the process of selecting a Wraith is typically measured in days, or even weeks, rather than hours or minutes.
Welcome to the world of bespoke motoring, where the customer (or as Rolls-Royce would term it, the patron) commissions an individual car to his or her precise specifications.
So, if you prefer wood-grain veneer trim produced from trees off your own estate, that can be arranged; if you want your family crest emblazoned on the seats or body, that is just fine; if you want the interior colour matched to your favourite lipstick, that can be (and has been) done; and if you want to ''reserve'' your choice of exterior colour so no-one else can use it, that is possible too.
However, don't expect this level of personalisation to come cheap: the starting price for the Wraith is $475,000, and an average buyer's customisation choices will typically add a further $70,000. The particular example I am to drive carries a $580,000 price tag.
Opening the rear-hinged driver's door, I take in an interior carefully tailored to complement the exterior. The leather trim is a warm cream colour, called seashell, the pile carpets are navy blue and the wood-grain detailing is ebony. The quality of the trim materials and finish is exquisite and the overall effect opulent, if understated compared to the exterior.
The big door provides easy access and closes at the push of a button with a satisfying ''thunk'', cocooning the car's occupants from the outside world.
A push of the starter button brings the engine to life. The Wraith's wand-like column shift pays homage to the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud of the 1960s, and I pull it down to engage the eight-speed automatic transmission. A moment later I transfer my right foot from the brake, and caress the accelerator to ease into the traffic.
So long as one makes allowances for its size, the Wraith is a surprisingly easy car to drive around town. However, it has really been designed as a grand tourer, so the Southern Motorway beckons without delay.
Heading south at a highway pace, D'Arcy-Brain and I chat away, our voices pitched at the level we would use for a quiet living-room conversation. He tells me the car's lane departure warning system is on (which means a gentle trembling through the steering wheel if I stray off my line), and that adaptive cruise control is there if I wish to use it.
We turn off SH1 at East Taieri, and proceed down Riccarton Rd. With the Wraith's electronically controlled air suspension effortlessly sponging away the unevenness that makes this road an excellent suspension test, our conversation turns from ride quality to the nature of automotive performance.
''It's not how fast you go, it's how you go fast,'' offers the car's minder. I respond by suggesting that the true measure of greatness for any grand tourer is its ability to deliver the driver and passenger to their destination feeling fresher and more relaxed than when they set out.
The next stage of the drive, over the stunning stretch of highway from Outram to Middlemarch, will test both our theories.
For the outward leg of this trip I have decided not to use the Wraith's adaptive cruise control, and instead do my best to find a pace and driving rhythm that plays to the car's strengths.
The manner in which the Wraith goes fast is mechanically effortless; with maximum torque on tap from 1500rpm, there's no need to do more than gently increase the pressure on the accelerator to elicit a quick increase in pace. The engine note remains muted, except for a few seconds when I give the throttle a decent press to see what happens; the answer is that the speedometer swings clockwise at a deceptively brisk rate, to the accompaniment of a refined V12 growl.
Gearshifts are almost imperceptible, and anyone seeking a manual shift option will be disappointed: never mind a paddle-shift or Tiptronic shift option, the Wraith does not even feature a selectable sport mode. Rather, the gearbox will change as Rolls-Royce has programmed it to, or - in a feature not yet enabled for New Zealand - in response to its precise reading (via GPS) of what twists, turns climbs or descents are immediately ahead.
There are a couple of long medium-fast corners on this road that test a car's handling and adjustability well: helped by steering that is linear and very precise, the Wraith turns in to these corners superbly; it can be effortlessly balanced on the throttle too; better yet, it exhibits remarkably little body roll for a 2.5-tonne machine. So long as one works on the ''slow in, fast out'' approach to driving briskly, the result is a car that defies its sheer size and mass in terms of handling.
Returning to Dunedin after a pause in Middlemarch for morning tea and photos, I allow the car a greater measure of control by activating cruise control before handing over to D'Arcy-Brain in order to experience life as a passenger. His party trick is to drive from Outram to Dunedin allowing the car - via its active cruise control - to control almost all of the braking as well as the acceleration. Once again, it's impossible not to be deeply impressed by the smoothness of the Wraith.
By the time we ease to a halt back in Dunedin, I can fully appreciate why the term ''sporty'' remains banished from the Rolls-Royce lexicon. The Wraith is a serious performance car, but it differs from a sports car both in its refinement and, more importantly, because that performance is most impressive when allowed to emerge almost incidentally from smooth, considered driving.
Ten things you may not know about the Wraith and Rolls-Royce in the modern era.
- Although BMW is the owner of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, it does not own the Rolls-Royce name or emblem. It holds a 125-year licence to use both from Rolls-Royce PLC, the company that produces some of the world's most advanced jet aircraft engines.
- Rolls-Royce has posted record sales figures in each of the last three years, delivering over 3500 cars to customers in both 2011 and 2012. The United States and China vie for top honours as the company's most important international markets.
- The company prefers mouse-style controllers and touchpads for its multimedia interfaces to touchscreens, due in part to the prospect of unsightly fingerprints being left on a touchscreen.
- Key navigation, phone and audio functions in the Wraith can be activated by voice command. It is even possible to send emails entirely by voice command, or programme a destination into the car's navigation remotely from an iPhone or iPad while away from the car.
- The navigation system projects the speed limit, along with vehicle speed and other information on a heads-up display. Speed-limit information is provided via a combination of satellite navigation information and a camera system that reads speed limit signs.
- There is no rev-counter in the Wraith. Instead, there is a power reserve gauge indicating how much power is available at any point.
- One of the most popular options offered by Rolls-Royce is the Starlight Headliner. This mimics a starry night through 1340 individual optic fibre lights hand-woven into the car's roof lining.
- Rolls-Royce does not regard itself as competing with other car companies for business: the firm's research shows that a typical owner will already have at least six other cars which he or she drives on a regular basis, and if a Rolls-Royce is competing with another vehicle in a sales sense, it is likely to be either a luxury boat or a small aircraft.
- The famous ''Spirit of Ecstasy'' figurine that tops the grille slides out of sight when the car is locked. A lighting system to illuminate the figurine is a $6000 option.
- The standard audio system in the Wraith is an 18-speaker, 1300 watt, surround-sound system, with music downloadable on to an internal hard drive, or streamed from a mobile device via Bluetooth.
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