To go with the mechanical changes, Rolls-Royce has opted for its boldest exterior treatment yet: who’d have imagined an officially sanctioned black Wraith with its grille centre and surround, plus the Flying Lady herself, all finished in gleaming black? And the interior: any Wraith is wonderful, but this one is a work of art, with headlinings that mirror the Milky Way and a new form of decorated, aluminised carbonfibre for key interior expanses.
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On the map, the Transfagarasan pass is a defence road connecting northern and southern Romania across formerly impassable terrain. It was opened in 1974 to allow Romania’s army a quick response if Soviet forces (which had recently invaded then-Czechoslovakia) decided to try it on.
However, in driving folklore, this place is a miraculous collection of challenging and mostly wellsurfaced corners of all kinds, hairpins to sweepers, that rises 6700ft from the Transylvanian plains around Sibiu on the northern side, through forests on the lower slopes to rocky expanses and finally a snowline.
It has long been labelled Ceausescu’s Folly after the late, unlamented Romanian dictator, mainly because its precipitous slopes and arctic working conditions reputedly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of workers. In exchange for all this sacrifice, the nation was left with a road so high and so difficult that it can only properly be opened three or four months of the year; though, predictably enough, the president built himself a hunting lodge close to the summit.
Forty years on, Romania has embraced democracy and Transfagarasan has become a tourist attraction, well known to press-on bikers, performance car enthusiasts, camper-vanists, skiers in winter and all lovers of spectacular scenery who have the grit to get there in the first place.
We flew into Munich at about 10am on a sunny morning, to be met by an obliging Rolls man who took us on a brief tour of the Wraith’s simple controls, invited us to sign on the dotted line and briskly departed, leaving us to our 1800-mile, four-day round trip. The plan was loose but tight, as it were: two days to central Romania, a day driving and photographing, then two days back. And no room for error.
We set off eastwards slowly at first, taking time to get to know the car. This isn’t my first Rolls or my first Wraith, but you can never get blasé about starting a journey in a car whose nose reaches halfway to the horizon, and which costs as much as four Porsches. At first, you’re hard pressed to figure out what’s going on under the bonnet because the Wraith is so quiet: despite its 624bhp, the 6.6-litre V12 is often inaudible.
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The feeling is reinforced by the fact that there’s no tachometer; instead, you get a dial that shows how much of the car’s engine potential you’re using – most of the time, it’s about 10%. There were times I found myself thinking Rolls-Royce had defined an entirely new kind of powerplant: the engine that isn’t there at all.
Plenty more feels different about this car. The length of the nose, for one thing. Compared with its close relative the Ghost saloon, they’ve shaved 20cm off the Wraith’s overall length (and wheelbase) but it’s still 15cm longer overall than a Bentley Bentayga. Curiously, though, it doesn’t feel excessively wide, so once familiarity has led to a feeling of full command (give it 30 minutes), the Wraith feels positively agile. We’re established on the autobahn, heading for Passau and the Austrian border on fundamentally flat roads at ever-increasing speeds.
I’m interested to rediscover, in (partly) unrestricted Germany, what it feels like to cruise properly fast, given that most of Europe now ruthlessly imposes a 130km/h (80mph) limit. For a few minutes, 100mph feels immoral. Then I notice we’re doing 115, seduced by the uncanny refinement, the long wheelbase that almost completely kills pitch and promotes great directional stability. We do most of an hour at 120mph and, when we have to slow back down to 50mph for roadworks, it seems dog-slow.
At the Austrian border, you have to pay €8 for a vignette that will allow you to drive in the country for eight days. Queueing at a roadside booth to buy a sticker seems primitive until you compare it with the time and soul-sapping procedure of constantly queuing at tollbooths on French autoroutes to pay money that mainly goes towards the maintenence of toll positions and pay operators.
Austria lives up to its scenic reputation as we wind through frequently beautiful topography past Linz, until suddenly we’re on the outskirts of Vienna. The schedule is pressing and there’s a bypass but we can’t resist dipping into its magnificent city centre. To salve our consciences, we photograph the Rolls in Vienna’s impressive Baroque surrounds, then forge onwards, mighty Danube on our left, to cross the border with Hungary (another vignette, please) to reach the outskirts of Budapest, in darkness. There, hotels.com finds us decent beds for the night.
We’ve done 430 miles in a bit over seven hours. If my mental arithmetic is right, we’ve averaged a shade above 18mpg – one of those figures that’s either great or awful, depending where you stand. It’s great for such a huge, heavy, multi-cylindered emblem of luxury; terrible against an everyman machine (a BMW diesel, say) that could have delivered the same performance.
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The next day’s plan is to beat the Budapest traffic out of town, but people get up early in the Hungarian capital. After 15 minutes in traffic jams, we put the morning into wafting across Hungary, aware we have further to go than we achieved yesterday. We amuse ourselves by counting the light trucks we pass, many piggy-backing a well-worn car evidently for sale in Romania.
We want to get to Sibiu, north of the Transfagarasan road, by the day’s end. Things are going well: straight roads and not too much traffic but the country is changing radically as we near the Romanian border, almost to the kind of featureless plains I remember from outback Australia. Then, as buildings always do in such places, a large and well-equipped border post seems to grow out of the ground, all pristine concrete and gleaming guardrails.
I expect aggro, given what we’re driving, and for a while it looks as if we’re going to get it. We have only photostat copies of the Rolls’s documents, over which the border blokes pore, frown, shake their heads and talk in low voices. Eventually, they decide we’re genuine, though, and we’re away, forging again through countryside like Death Valley without the scenery.
Mind you, this road is endlessly beautiful. For 100 miles’ travel, our journey is simple: straight roads, fine surfaces, gradual corners and all of it financed by the EU, where an easy 90mph is possible without trouble.
Then, at a little town called Margina, it all goes wrong: the countryside has changed progressively back to more complex going, with rivers and hills and little ravines. Suddenly, the EU’s efforts have disappeared and we’re back on Romanian roads as they were.
Trucks do 25mph. Locals in swaying bangers pull phenomenal passing manoeuvres (shaming my own sense of enterprise) and risk the worst kind of head-on collision. For 90 minutes and a miserable 40 miles we endure this, then suddenly we’re at Deva, the EU has returned, our speed doubles and soon we’re homing in on Sebes, then Sibiu and our jumping-off point for the Transfagarasan pass.
We’re earlier than planned, so we turn south onto the pass itself, climbing gently, then more steeply through hairpins lined by dense trees. Occasionally, we catch glimpse of towering tops, still white with snow, thousands of feet above. On occasional straights, we consume distance. At 5000ft, the trees are thinner, then sparse. Then they disappear altogether. Huge rock walls tower over us but we forge relentlessly upward.
The Rolls is doing well, taking countless opportunities to prove its supreme ability to grip well, corner neatly, roll just a little and emerge from brisk corners right on line. I’ve decided it’s a driver’s car – on a road that has been somewhat oversold as a driver’s thoroughfare. It’s an amazing experience but not quite the inspiration I’d been expecting.
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We arrive at a concrete lean-to tunnel, one of those reinforced structures meant to protect cars from rockfalls. A police sign says no entry, and for a while we weigh the prospect of ending our exploit here. But no policeman is looking so we just drive through the barrier, marvelling at the way the vista rapidly clears, fearful of increasingly scary, urgent signs, even now, of recent rockfalls and – believe it or not – avalanches. How will it feel to ring Rolls and tell them their car has been lunched in rockfall? Still, we’re too far in now and the scenery is extraordinary. You can see a dozen apexes in one glance.
We round a last left-hander and there’s Cabana Paltinu, Ceausescu’s former hunting lodge on the lake, reinvented as a kind of hard person’s ski lodge. It’s picturesque, ringed by rock walls but positioned far enough from them to avoid avalanches. The best-placed buildings up there survive the winter but the many stalls built for selling stuff to tourists in summer are routinely reduced to wreckage.
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A few yards away, there’s a tunnel through a hill that is supposed to lead us down the other side and away from this ferocious place, but it’s still blocked with snow and will be for a while yet. Ceausescu’s Folly, indeed.
We discover we can stay in the Cabana overnight. Enough people evidently ignore the ‘no go’ signs to keep proprietor Chris and his family in business. We go out into the sunset and stay out for the long evening – photographer Stan taking pictures, me savouring the fresh air and starlight. Tomorrow, we’ll be off.
The return trip? Nothing to report, really, beyond the Rolls’s continuing magnificence. Back at the Romanian border, the same guards are on duty but this time there are no frowns. They’ve been talking about us and finding out about the car. One wants to see the galaxy headlining. Another draws his fellows’ attention to the extraordinary aluminium-threaded carbonfibre composite on the dash. Even here, the internet puts people in the loop.
What do they want from us this time? Not money or pictures. Just the closest thing we can muster to a burnout as we head for Hungary. I realise that back in Munich I never learned how to ditch the traction control, if indeed it’s possible. So I hold the car briefly on the brake, bury my right foot, release with my left and we storm forward. A fast-receding cheer tells me I’ve done okay.
Read our full Rolls-Royce Wraith review here