Rolls-Royce tones down Ghost in latest bid for relevance

The 116-year-old car brand adopts a ‘post-opulence’ stance in the 2nd generation of its iconic sedan

By HANNAH ELLIOTT / Pic BLOOMBERG

HENRY Ford never would have made it at Rolls-Royce Holdings plc. His quote about not listening to his customers — “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse” — contradicts the British coachbuilder’s entire philosophy.

Because when you talk to the folks who work there, from CEO Torsten Mueller-Otvos on down, they talk about customer feedback so often and so worshipfully that one begins to wonder if they’re kowtowing to clients a little too much, as if drunk on some sort of Grey Poupon-flavoured Kool-Aid.

But the powers that be at Rolls-Royce have a point. Any company that sells just over 5,000 of its products worldwide — and at a prohibitively high price — is vulnerable by nature.

“Like porcelain,” is how one Rolls-Royce spokesman describes it. Ultra-high-net-worth individuals are notoriously demanding consumers. After all, they pay exorbitant amounts for products and services rendered.

That belief has seeped into the 2021 Ghost, the long-anticipated second generation of the best-selling sedan the brand has ever made.

The original debuted in 2009 as the first modern Rolls-Royce. Thanks to its massive V12 engine, 563hp and 575lb-ft (71.48kg m) of torque, it had enough power and performance capability to compete with cars much sharper and nimbler to drive than Rolls-Royce’s then- stalwart, the Phantom saloon.

The 1st deliveries of the 2021 Ghost will begin early in 2021

For that first-generation, Rolls-Royce borrowed BMW AG’s expertise (and BMW 7-Series components) for steering, suspension, transmission and brakes that allowed it to double equally as a capable daily drivers’ car. Its true genius, though, was to marry that level of performance with a large rear cabin that held the sort of creature comforts typically found in a chauffeured conveyance.

That broad capability — decadence and drivability together, as never before — made the Ghost widely appealing among this admittedly niche-buying segment: The .01% of people able and eager to spend more than US$300,000 (RM1.25 million) on a car.

Until the Cullinan SUV, which commanded roughly half of Rolls-Royce’s 5,125 annual sales globally last year, the Ghost made up the bulk of Rolls-Royce’s annual sales. (Until recent years, units sold barely touched 4,000 worldwide.)

The 2021 Ghost took five years to develop. It has all-wheel-drive (AWD) and a newly toned-down demeanour. It’s a subtle change, but there are fewer styling lines folded across the sides, hood and rear of the body — engineers hand-welded a single sheet of aluminium across the hood, for example, rather than multiple sheets, to simpler effect. The headlights are bigger, but the backs of the grille slats are matted in black so as not to reflect too much light from all that polished chrome.

Those “less is more” styling adjustments come by request from hundreds of owners, according to Mueller-Otvos. In the current age, he says, no one of taste wants to be seen as flashy or decadent. It’s just outré.

Still, the US$332,500 sedan retains a grand sense of occasion whenever you drive it. I got behind the wheel of one recently in Austin, Texas, that came with exterior midnight sapphire paint and a cashmere grey and navy blue interior. The extravagance extends down to the lambswool floor mats, which were so thick my outstretched hand disappeared in their depths — and so densely dyed they’d look good trimming a shearling jacket on a Milanese runway.

Those comforts, as well as others such as “soft close” doors, Rolls-Royce bespoke sound, and rear-theatre audio configuration, chrome-plated exhaust pipes, rear folding picnic tables, front and rear ventilated and massage seats, and polished stainless steel elements put the price up to US$430,050. It may not be a flashy car, but it certainly grabs one’s attention.

After three days in the back seat and the drivers seat, I’m convinced that the customer-is-king attitude is absolutely right for Rolls-Royce. The Ghost is an astonishingly expensive vehicle, but for those who can afford one, it fulfils the promise offered by the price tag.

Behind the Wheel

The interior dashboard of the Ghost has a new light display on the passenger side using 152 LEDs that is faintly visible in daytime and illuminated at night

The 2021 Ghost has the newly tuned V12, 563hp engine and eight-speed automatic transmission that shifts imperceptibly to 60mph in 4.6 seconds, a tick faster than the previous model. Top speed is still 155mph (249kph) — not exactly blisteringly fast, compared to the two-door Bentley Continental GT, whose top speed exceeds 200mph. Then again, there aren’t many places on Earth to drive such a stately sedan above 120mph.

It’s worth nothing that the twin-turbo 6.8- litre engine produces the same power and 627lb-ft of torque as the Cullinan; the peak torque happens at low 1,600 rpm (a sports car such as a 911 hits peak torque around 6,000 rpm), which meant I could access thrusting power quicker as I wove among those big Texas trucks I encountered belching around Austin last week.

Unlike the previous generation Ghost, which used underpinnings from a BMW 7-Series, this Ghost has an all-Rolls-Royce platform that it shares with the best-in-class Phantom and Cullinan. I could feel the benefit of the upgraded chassis and the new adaptive suspension as I drove through the woods and hills near Lake Austin. A new stereo camera in the windshield enhanced the ride by scanning the road ahead and altering the dampers for upcoming road- surface changes.

This was the most relaxing experience I’ve had in a car this year, which had nothing to do with how quickly I could take a corner. There were no raw edges to the brakes or steering, no annoying clicks nor squeaks — you’d be surprised how many new cars have them — and no jarring, rolling or lolling.

Two other things contributed to the serenity of the ride, and they are the most significant new engineering elements of the second-generation Ghost: The standard AWD and all-wheel-steering, the first time either has been included in a Rolls-Royce sedan. Driving this unequivocally heavy 5,540lb hulk felt astonishing easy as I sailed down narrow, two-lane roads through such little Texas towns as Driftwood and Wemberley.

That said, don’t expect to exhilarate in the Ghost’s ability to carve canyon roads. Those used to the athleticism of a Porsche Panamera or BMW 7-Series will encounter steering and suspension that’s too light for slicing and dicing. This is by design. The car will glide anywhere, as smooth as a cloud and as powerful as a freight train, but it won’t light your veins with adrenaline. There aren’t even any drive modes.

Cosseted Inside

Optional rear-folding picnic tables allow for work or entertainment while on the move. A WiFi hotspot comes standard

If the outside is more bare, even Germanic in form, the inside will reinforce your love of British refinement. The Ghost has the same optional Champagne chiller as ever, the same open-pored wood and marble-smooth wood veneers hand-placed throughout the car so perfectly that the grain of each panel aligns perfectly with the seam of the next — a time- consuming feat done manually by second- and third-generation company artisans.

It offers the same softly glowing lighting placed strategically around the cabin on doors and along floorboards to illuminate door handles, foot wells, buttons and knobs in centre consoles and panels. It has those famously self-righting round caps in the centre of each wheel, which keep the RR emblem upright at all times while the wheels spin around it. The refrigerator-sized (500 litres) trunk is here, too.

The doors close in toward each other like a classic carriage — all the better for hopping out when a valet opens the door. They close like cotton, with a satisfying whisper of a thud that makes the doors of mass luxury brands sound like a clang.

It’s unlike any other cabin in the auto industry today, besting even the lovely interiors of Bentley and Maybach. The car is utterly silent, thanks to 220lb of acoustic damping, plus double glazing and felt insulation within a twin-section of floor and bulkhead.

It’s a lavish and indulgent, but simultaneously detoxifying, place to be. The climate control can automatically switch to recirculation mode if unacceptable levels of airborne contaminants are present. A “Microenvironment Purification System” can remove nearly all ultrafine particles from the cabin in less than two minutes.

“Our customers want a thinking space,” Mueller-Otvos says. He means that along with wanting clean air, they don’t want a ton of buttons, crazy stitching, boisterous coloured leathers and colour combos as I’ve seen lately in a lot of Aston Martins and Maseratis. They want the interior to be a zone conducive to both psychic and emotional serenity.

During one ride through Austin’s downtown, I rode in the back seat like a proper Rolls-Royce owner. I switched seamlessly through audio and WiFi settings, navigation details, climate and seat massage settings.

Android Auto is not available as it is in many other luxury cars, but before I fell asleep, I did see a shooting star blaze across the ever-present “starlight headliner” effect that’s created from minuscule LEDs implanted in the headliner. (A panoramic sunroof in place of the stars is available free-of-charge.)

Options include custom wools, leathers and exotic woods such as Hawaii’s protected Koa, for which customers must wait until a tree falls naturally to obtain. Front and rear massaging seats, picnic tables, bespoke audio, an analogue timepiece in the dashboard and just about anything else you can dream up is also available, if you’re willing to pay for it.

Less Is More

“Post-opulent” is how all of Rolls-Royce’s people seem to have been conditioned to describe the new Ghost. It certainly is dressed-down, compared to the US$500,000, significantly longer Phantom.

But with such a big and well-known grille (which you can even have backlit for full double-R effect at night) and the Spirit of Ecstasy winged-woman hood ornament (which you can get cast in rose gold), there’s no way anyone could mistake it for anything but a Rolls-Royce.

The SOE, as Rolls-Royce fans call the Spirit of Ecstasy, will drop below the hood at a touch of a button for less ostentatious driving. The previous Ghost did that, too, but it lacked the clever compartment this SOE drops into beneath the hood.

“The car shouldn’t shout at you. It whispers,” is how lead exterior designer Henry Cloke describes it.

The novel coronavirus has exposed some painful weaknesses in the products and structures of luxury automakers worldwide. (McLaren Automotive selling off headquarters real estate is never a good sign; nor is Aston Martin Lagonda Global Holdings plc shuffling top executives during a pandemic).

But at the ripe old age of 116, Rolls-Royce is looking stronger than most, despite a predicted 30% drop in annual sales by the end of 2020, which will be industry standard. It barely halted production, neither furloughed nor fired employees, and is maintaining its approximate schedules for new product.

The 2021 Rolls-Royce Ghost possesses the stately presence that has endeared the brand to everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Kate Moss for generations — made simpler this time for the discerning modern buyer. Keep calm and carry on, indeed. — Bloomber