By Jackson Hayes
PHOENIX, ARIZ. – Beyond my anecdotal driving impressions, I have hard proof that the Rolls Royce Wraith is a car you can drive very fast.
My evidence comes courtesy of the Arizona police officer who occupied a few moments of my time along a dusty, sun-baked patch of road near Tonto National Park about two hours outside of Phoenix.
After wheeling this 624-horsepower bullet through the twisty curves surrounded by cacti-laden hills on the press launch for the Wraith in early November, the fortuitous meeting of officer and not one, but two journalist-piloted Wraiths, was the only blight on an otherwise perfect driving experience.
More importantly, for an ultra-luxury brand normally known for the near-priceless customization of cars dogged by an admittedly old-fashioned reputation, the Wraith goes a long way to changing the perception of one of the world’s foremost automakers.
Just don’t call it a sports car.
“We don’t believe in sportiness as being part of our brand DNA. Rolls Royce is smooth, sophisticated, and luxurious. This is grand turismo to us,” explained Richard Carter, directory of global communications. “It’s a car for crossing continents and driving on magnificent, sweeping curved roads. It’s not for throwing into tight corners and excessive engine noise.”
It is also a car aimed at dusting off the old-world image of Rolls Royce and making it attractive to a younger demographic of well-heeled drivers. As Carter classifies it, Wraith is a game changer because customers are drawn to the car first rather than thought of being the swank of owning a Rolls. (Carter said the Ghost dropped the customer demographic by about 10 years. Wraith has gone even lower with customers ranging from 27 to about 45).
Record Years, Recession Be Damned
The company does not break down sales regionally or even by country. Last year saw 3,575 cars retailed globally. North America made up about 30 per cent of that volume followed closely by Asia. Roughly 16 per cent of the hand-built machines ended up with owners in the Middle East while another 15 per cent were sold in Europe.
The sales performance in 2012 marked the fourth record-breaking year in a row. While logic would dictate sales should have declined during the Great Recession, Rolls Royce said its clientele number among the world’s ultra rich who are not normally affected by fits of fiscal uncertainty.
“We saw sales of Phantom dip in 2009 by 17 per cent. With other manufacturers like Bentley dropping 50 per cent and Aston Martin plunging even further, we thought 17 per cent was not bad given the circumstances,” Carter said.
Like most other car companies, Rolls has benefited from the powerhouse Chinese market where massive wealth has even, to a degree, helped dictate the model lineup. After introducing Ghost in 2009 – the company’s most affordable car with a starting price of around $256,000 – an extended wheelbase version hit the market in 2011 mainly because of demand from southeast Asia, which is a primarily chauffer-driven market.
Now with China cooling its heels compared to recent stratospheric growth rates, Wraith is a well-timed product for North American buyers and the brand’s dealer network. Carter said upwards of 80 per cent of buyers on this side of the Atlantic do their own driving. With the two-door Wraith being the first Rolls model where the best spot to enjoy its features is the behind the steering wheel as opposed to the back seat, 2013 is projected make it five years in a row of record growth.
Recent confirmation from Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes that the global order book is full until May of 2014 means next year will probably be a winner as well.
Technology a Priority
No one can claim the company hasn’t succeeded at making the world’s most luxurious cars in recent years; where some critics complain Rolls has fallen short is in the technology department.
“To make the claim of offering the best cars in the world, they have to be beautiful, wonderfully engineered and have acres of wonderful luxury inside, but they must also have the very latest technology,” said Carter. “Most people tend to think of Rolls Royce technology as old fashioned. That’s not the case anymore. We have loads of great technology. It is all just hidden away and beautifully integrated so you don’t notice it.”
Case in point is the industry-first satellite aided transmission. The system links the GPS location of the vehicle with the gearbox management system so the car can “see” far beyond he driver’s gaze. The result is a transmission that knows exactly what gear to select for the terrain that lies ahead.
The system is beyond subtle and means that the car is always composed. Drivers never feel like they have to kick it down or endure that millisecond hesitation while it searches for the right gear when turning or changing elevation.
Used Market, Marketing and the Likelihood of an SUV
Lamborghini, Jaguar and Bentley no doubt left a few shocked industry watchers in their collective wakes after announcing each would put a SUV model into production soon. When asked if Rolls would join the fray, Carter said the company hasn’t been able to get past a conflicting dichotomy – Rolls Royce makes vehicles that are neither sporty nor utility in nature.
Though the SUV segment has proven to be extremely resilient around the world, Rolls Royce admitted it just can’t get around the brand issue.
“We can’t work out what a Rolls Royce SUV should look like,” Carter conceded. “We’ve tasked our designers to do some early-day designing work and they’ve come back with some ideas. But the Rolls Royce board hasn’t seen anything that has grabbed them… We know there is money to be made in the segment, but we don’t know how we fit into it.”
Regardless, even with this third nameplate, what won’t change is its retail strategy. The company does not chase volume but rather seeks to grow in relation to the ultra-high net pool of people in the world. The automaker’s numbers show that rarified segment is growing by four to seven per cent annually.
Roughly 95 per cent of its units are built to order as opposed to straight off a dealer’s lot. Carter said there were some “instant gratification markets” like the U.S., where dealers need to carry one or two unit-inventory. Canada currently has dealerships in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Bulking up that dealer inventory is the certified pre-owned program called Provenance. Though the worldwide number of units in operation is not excessive, volume gains over the last four years mean dealers will start to see more importance placed on the CPO program.
What remains constant is the marketing plan. The OEM never buys an advertisement but rather relies on routes to the market that are twofold. First is through traditional communication activities like the press launch. The second and far more exclusive marketing plan involves finding the enclaves of the world’s super wealthy people – like in Monaco or Villa d'Este or in St. Moritz during the winter – and hosting money-can’t-buy events for potential customers.
The big effort, he says, involves dispelling the myth that Rolls Royce make low-tech and old fashioned cars.
“Our cars are sold to some of the most unique people in the world. Kings, queens, prime ministers, stars of stage and screen, entrepreneurs who have made tons of money or people with old world, old money handed down. They are people who are exceptionally demanding with big characters.”