The plan seemed foolproof. I had a 2020 Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge for a weekend, a car that – at extra cost – features a headliner with shooting stars (more on that later).
So why not take it to view Comet NEOWISE before it vanishes for 6,000 years?
Meticulous research found that the blackest sky in California – the lowest levels of light pollution, allowing for the greatest clarity in stargazing and comet-watching – could be found in Hope Valley, a serene and lovely spot filled with high-altitude meadows (7,000 feet) ringed by mountains that block out light from South Lake Tahoe, 20 miles to the north.
Binoculars, tripod, camera gear and a couple of light jackets went in the boot of the Wraith, and my wife and I settled into the sumptuous white leather seats with Turchese piping for a very special trip.
The Rolls-Royce did not disappoint.
Lap of luxury
I became fascinated by what’s been billed as “The World’s Finest Motor Car” as a child, seeing late-1950s and early-1960s Silver Clouds on the streets of my native Los Angeles. I peered through the windows at auto shows, marveling at these relatively rare, hand-built masterpieces. I had even, prior to this, driven and reviewed two Rolls-Royce models – a 2000 Corniche convertible, one of only 374 built, and the 2005 Phantom sedan (the “big” Rolls, now in its second generation).
The Wraith is part of a family of “smaller” Rolls-Royces, though that is only in comparison to the Phantom and the Cullinan SUV. The Ghost is the four-door sedan, the Dawn is the convertible and the fastback coupe is the Wraith. It is 17 feet, 4 inches long, weighs 5,300 pounds and is powered by a 623-horsepower, 6.6-liter V12 engine.
For all that, it is remarkably serene. The power is there to accomplish a task, not overwhelm the driver. Yes, it will leap to 60 mph from a standing start in just 4.1 seconds and knock back a quarter-mile in 12.5 seconds, but that’s not the point. On a steep mountain road with a short passing lane, gently depressing the throttle brings locomotive-like torque, resulting in drama-free acceleration. Despite muscle-car output and extremely competent handling, the ride is silky-smooth and the cabin so quiet that conversations can be held at a whisper without losing a syllable to road, wind or engine noise.
The Wraith reminded me that somewhere along the way, a lot of cars have lost the thread of what luxury looks, feels and sounds like (they’ll argue they’ve “redefined” it). By aiming for, and attaining, the finest money can buy, the 2020 Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge also points up that second-best luxury is in fact about seven rungs down.
We flew through the Sierra foothills and forest, the bright sunlight illuminating the optional Adriatic Blue paint ($11,900) that covered the car, but not the Spirit of Ecstasy. No, in the Black Badge series, the lady with the billowing cloth resembling wings at the top of the Rolls-Royce radiator – which would normally be bright, gleaming stainless steel – is painted black, as are, naturally, the badges and other brightwork.
As we made our way from near sea level to 7,000 feet as storm clouds gathered, we were entertained by the astonishingly powerful and natural-sounding Rolls-Royce Bespoke Audio system as we rode in perfect comfort thanks to a climate-control system that allows not only temperature, but also fan speed adjustments for driver and passenger.
We arrived at Hope Valley just as a summer thunderstorm let loose with sheets of rain all across the vast alpine meadows. Nothing the Wraith couldn’t handle, but not a good omen for stargazing unless the clouds were to suddenly move on after spending themselves.
We found the meadow we liked best for photography and later comet-watching, and the rains calmed down a bit, enough to employ one of the Wraith Black Badge’s most ingenious features.
The doors on the Wraith are hinged at the rear, allowing you to step out and forward, rather than out and back as in most cars. In the forward door jambs on both sides is a large, stainless-steel polished knob with the Rolls-Royce “RR” logo engraved in it and a smaller stainless-steel button below. Press that button and a beautifully crafted black umbrella glides out of the door jamb and into your waiting hand (black is standard, other colors are, naturally, available).
The umbrellas, introduced in the 2003 Phantom and standard on every Rolls-Royce model, are a unique solution to the dilemma of what to do with an umbrella while in the car – especially after it gets wet. Rather than soaking your clothing, the flawless leather upholstery or the optional lambs- wool floor mats (Rolls-Royce uses the term “footmats”), the umbrellas are stored in a specially designed compartment within the door. And that compartment has channels in it to allow the water to escape, giving you a dry – or at least, drier – umbrella when arriving at your next destination.
My wife made use of the umbrella while I did some photography and hoped for some clear skies ahead. Ultimately, though, it became clear that seeing Comet NEOWISE was not going to happen that evening. However, we could still stargaze, thanks to the most spectacular feature in an automobile filled with them – the Starlight Headliner.
Up to 1,600 fiber-optic stars shine through tiny perforations above the seats – the entire length of the car’s ceiling. Every 20 seconds or so, there’s a shooting star that jets from one spot in the headliner to another. The intensity of the light is adjustable, and you can switch it off to eliminate distractions on darkened roads. It may sound gimmicky, but the effect is breathtaking.
In our Wraith, the Starlight Headliner was the most expensive option at $17,500. You can spend even more through the Rolls-Royce Bespoke program, with different colors arranged in any constellation, even ordered specially to duplicate the night sky of a specific day and date (birthday, wedding anniversary, birth of a child, the day your bank balance first hit seven figures).
So we may not have seen Comet NEOWISE, but we were treated to a canopy of stars and dozens of shooting stars as we made our way home that evening.
Now, let’s discuss price.
The base price – without extra-cost options – is $330,000. In addition to the $17,500 for the Starlight Headliner, the stunning Adriatic Blue paint is $11,900, the Rolls-Royce Bespoke Audio system is $10,250 – and there was another $86,250 in extra-cost optional equipment beyond that.
Add a $2,600 federally-mandated gas-guzzler tax (the Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy estimate for the Wraith Black Badge is 12 mpg city/18 highway) and $2,750 destination and handling charges, and the as-tested price totaled $461,250. I’ve been reviewing cars for 23 years, and that’s the highest price tag of any I’ve driven.
So it’s not for everyone. We knew that going in. The point of luxury is to feel special, to enjoy your hard-earned success. The Wraith Black Badge will do that for you in ways no other vehicle can approach.
Mike Hagerty is vice president of membership for Western Automotive Journalists (waj.org). Read more of his reviews at MikeHagertyCars.com and follow him on Twitter (twitter.com/mikehagertycars) and Facebook (facebook.com/mikehagertywritesaboutcars).