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2021 Rolls-Royce Ghost First Drive | First class from New York to Michigan

By Rolls-Royce’s own admission, the Ghost is not the model that pops to mind at the mention of “Rolls-Royce.” And yet the Ghost has been the brand’s bestseller since the modern iteration (referred to by its maker as “the Goodwood Ghost”) made its debut in 2009. Which means the model’s 2021 redesign is a very big deal for the double-R brand.

With travel to attend press launches still a little dicey under coronavirus restrictions, Autoblog’s first turn at the wheel of the new car would come with a short-term loan. The imminent arrival of a Ghost press car in New York meant it would be my good fortune to take the first test drive. And the equally imminent need to pick my kid up at college meant that first drive would be a long one: 700 miles to East Lansing, Mich.

Sounds crazy, but the more I thought about it, the more the idea of making the trip with the new 2021 Rolls-Royce Ghost made perfect sense. After all, what is the point of a high-dollar luxury car? Most are underutilized, puttering from home to office to golf club or fancy restaurant. The promise of all that engineering, though, is the ability to traverse great distances at substantial speeds and do so without fatiguing driver or passengers. Thinking in terms of the Ghost’s home turf, it was akin to a brisk cross-channel run from London to, say, Liechtenstein for some private banking, and back again. That’s surely something the Rolls was designed for. My trip would be much the same, except that I would be traveling without an attaché case full of Krugerrands.

My wife initially thought we shouldn’t take the Rolls, fearing it was too ostentatious. I dismissed her concerns: “It’s not the Phantom,” I said. “It’s the small one. It’s basically a 7 Series BMW.”

That last part was a lie. While the previous-generation Ghost did utilize the same platform as the 7 Series, the new car does not. Instead, it uses a variation of the spaceframe aluminum architecture that also forms the basis of the Phantom and the Cullinan. With the switch to this new architecture, the Ghost has added all-wheel drive and four-wheel steering, both as standard.

Nor is it small. The new Ghost is slightly larger than its predecessor (3.5 inches longer, 1.2 inches wider), although compared to the Phantom, it’s nearly 9 inches shorter in length, an inch-and-a-half narrower, and some 3 inches lower. (There’s also an extended-wheelbase Ghost, but that variant sells in extremely limited volumes in the United States and is primarily for the Chinese market.)

As it turns out, my wife’s concerns about ostentation were shared by Rolls-Royce itself. A stated goal of the new car’s design was to be less ostentatious. To that end, there’s a cleaned-up front-end design with the under-bumper air intake now a single unit, simpler headlamp shapes, and more smoothly integrated turn signals. Similarly-proportioned front and rear doors (the latter again rear-hinged) convey the message that the car equally emphasizes driving and being driven. A quest for simplicity in the body panels — all of which are new — has banished welding seams. Rolls even calls the design theme for the new Ghost “Post Opulence.”

Still, the Ghost remains an imposing machine. With its aristocratically long hood, swept-back windshield, crisply tapered rear end, and single upswept sheetmetal crease along the lower body, the car has presence. And, of course, some degree of showmanship is permitted, which is why the pantheon grille is now illuminated with 20 LEDs. I mean, the Ghost isn’t a four-wheeled sack cloth, after all. But the light-up grille is done tastefully: on the illuminated slats the finish is brushed rather than polished. Polished would be too splashy.

It’s safe to say that Rolls-Royce thinks more about doors than most other carmakers. Its rear-hinged “coach” doors are a hallmark of the brand, and have long had a power-closing feature, actuated via a button on the C-pillar (in sedans) or on the dash (coupes and convertibles). The Ghost builds on that, offering power closing for the conventionally hinged front doors as well, via pull-up switches on the console. And both the front and rear doors can be power-closed from the outside, by touching the button on the meaty metal handle. Another new function is power opening. A second pull on the interior door handle starts the power-opening procedure; occupants hold the handle until the door is open sufficiently; releasing the handle causes the door to stop opening and hold its position, wherever that may be. There are no fixed door checks.

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Settling into the Ghost interior for the 700-mile, 11-hour journey to Michigan, it’s clear that technology has not pushed aside traditional luxury elements. The predominant features of the dash are the wood surfaces and the chromed buttons and switches. Traditional Rolls-Royce elements include the eyeball air vents opened and closed via organ-stop plungers, the chromed metal switchgear, and unique rotating-disc climate controls (rather than selecting a temperature, the driver turns the discs — one for upper airflow and one for lower — toward the red or the blue side for warmer or cooler.) Looking out over the hood, one sees the Spirit of Ecstasy’s wings — unless you delve into the menu system and send her into her hiding space, but why would you do that?

The instrument cluster is digital but shows a rendition of traditional gauges. Rather than an enormous central screen, the Ghost infotainment system is a 10.25-inch unit that runs a reskinned version of BMW’s iDrive 6 – as opposed to the latest seventh generation. That’s as much trivia as a complaint as the system itself is perfectly functional apart from missing Android Auto and pairing with only a single USB port up front. There are two in the rear.

I started off in misty rain, first along the tightly coiled country roads near my house then through more wide-open sweepers after I crossed the Hudson River. The creamy steering has a commendable sense of straight-ahead, but hustling through bends, particularly on slick pavement, it’s a little disconcerting that it doesn’t load up as cornering forces build. Instead, efforts remain about the same as when wheeling into a parking spot.

Despite the obvious emphasis on ride smoothness, though, body roll is surprisingly controlled. At 5,628 pounds, the Ghost is far from ethereal, but with the V12 located behind the front axle line, at least that weight presses down equally on the front and rear wheels. Trust in the machine, and you can feel the balance implied by the 50-50 weight distribution as you hustle through corners. The sense of mass is unmistakable but the car doesn’t push or plow.

As you’d expect of any new car, the Ghost has modern driver assists including forward collision warning (with pedestrian detection and large animal detection), adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-departure warning. Alerts from the LDW are the subtlest of vibrations rather than a jarring beep that would probably reflect poorly on a chauffeur. But the Rolls eschews more active features such as lane-keep assist and semi-autonomous lane-centering, which meant I could not simply drape a hand over the wheel and leave the driving to Rolls. In the Ghost, the driving is down to you or, again, a chauffeur.

The 6.75-liter twin-turbo V12 at your disposal calmly spins out a substantial 563 horsepower. Additionally, at just 600 rpm above idle speed, the engine is already making its peak torque, an immense 627 pound-feet. Not that you know at what rpm the engine is spinning at any given moment; at Rolls-Royce, that’s TMI. Instead of a tachometer, there is a Power Reserve gauge that shows the percent of power that remains — sort of like a tachometer in reverse. Fun fact: At a steady 85 mph on a level highway, 85 percent of the engine’s power remains in reserve.

To watch the Power Reserve gauge needle swing toward the lower numbers, bury the long-travel accelerator. Rolls says the Ghost can reach 60 mph from rest in 4.6 seconds. What’s more fun, though, is to give the accelerator a shove when you’re already cruising along at a substantial speed. The Ghost does its best imitation of a speedboat on Lake Como: The nose rises up in the air and the car steams ahead as the V12 finds its voice, emitting a subdued growl.

By late morning, the sun finally came out and the pavement dried. I was now heading west on I-80, my home for the next several hours, and in the sparse traffic my speeds began to drift higher. It soon becomes clear that one issue with the Ghost is that it feels not a whit different at 68 mph as it does at 79 mph. Or 86. Or 93.

As the hours pass, one thing that creeps into my consciousness is that the Ghost oozes cohesiveness. The effort of the steering is in harmony with the motion of the accelerator and the action of the brake pedal, all of which seemed designed to make you the smoothest driver possible. Perhaps that’s why there are no drive modes in this car. Selectable throttle mapping or steering effort or suspension stiffness would throw off this equilibrium.

The Ghost steering wheel has the brand’s characteristic hub design, but it’s not the overlarge and thin-rimmed unit found in the Phantom. It‘s normal-sized. With my fingers lazily hooked over the junction between the rim and the spokes, I eventually noticed something not normal about it, though. In every other car with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, there’s a rough edge at that spot due to the stitched seam. Not on the Ghost. The stitching for the seam of the leather-wrapped rim is somehow hidden, eliminating that rough edge.

As I continued along the Ohio Turnpike, the setting sun turned the sky pink and orange, and on that flat, arrow-straight road, I finally let the adaptive cruise control do its thing. Despite the lack of lane-centering, the cruise works well, and Ghost seemed as if it were being pulled forward by a tractor beam. The idyll was broken when I exited onto the freeways around Toledo. There, on a long section of construction-narrowed lanes, the Ghost felt every bit of its just-under-78-inch width, although the steering’s precision is reassuring. Running in the thick after-work traffic, though, one notices the substantial blind spots created by the beefy B- and C-pillars.

Crossing into Michigan, I soon experienced the worst pavement so far. The Ghost’s newly designed suspension utilizes air springs and adaptive dampers, and for the first time incorporates secondary dampers that act upon the upper wishbones. I can’t say the bumps passed unnoticed, but while you sometimes could hear a solid twack, nothing caused more than a minor upset to the ride.

On the concrete boulevards of East Lansing, the Ghost’s Flagbearer system came into play to further calm the ride. This system, which works at speeds up to 62 mph, employs stereo cameras that scan the road surface and adjust the suspension accordingly. Again, despite the numerous bumps and cracks in the pavement, the suspension was able to limit the disturbance to the cabin.

The Ghost is a big car, but it’s not a huge chore to maneuver and park thanks to the four-wheel steering (which at low speeds turns the rear wheels a few degrees in the opposite direction of the fronts). A second helper is the 360-degree-view camera, which can show two views at once on the split screen. One thing that tripped me up in parking maneuvers: The shifter is a column-mounted stalk, which is a charming anachronism and certainly preferable to a dial or buttons, but I have to admit to occasionally turning the wipers on instead of engaging reverse.

When it came time to head back, the immediate question was whether my charge would sit in the front seat or in the back. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he chose the full-chauffeured experience. At 6-foot-1, he claimed to have scads of legroom and set about enjoying the same amenities I had up front, including the full range of power-seat adjustments and a panoply of massage functions. They can be cooled or heated, and the heating extends to the armrests. Behind the center armrest is a refrigerated cool box sized for a Champagne bottle with holders for two flutes. Fancy, though my version of in-car refreshment was merely a packed sandwich at a rest area during the drive out. At least the little motorized seatback picnic table made it civilized.

While the Ghost didn’t appear to turn many heads in New York or Ohio, in car-aware Michigan, that changed. The kid manning the lobby in my son’s apartment building came bounding out on a frosty morning as I was loading the trunk. I opened the front and rear doors so he could get the full effect. “That’s the most beautiful interior I’ve ever seen,” he opined. Personally, I thought the interior color scheme of Scivaro Grey and Arctic White with Mandarin accents looked like it was borrowed from a high-fashion ski jacket. He might have been additionally wowed by the Dark Amber trim, in which glossy, dark-stained wood is laced with aluminum particles.

Later, motoring south toward Ohio, the Ghost caught the attention of a middle-aged couple in a Passat, and two teenage girls being shuttled in a Honda Pilot turned and pointed. I watched in the sideview mirror as a dude in a GMC Sierra in the next lane over propped his phone up on the steering wheel and snapped a picture. Careful doing that while driving, friend.

Mid-November travel means that darkness falls early, particularly as you head east. But the inky blackness that greeted us on rural I-84 proved to be nothing more than a stage on which to showcase the Ghost’s headlights. The car uses lasers for the low- and high-beams, with LEDs for the DRLs. Rolls says the high-beams are good for 500 meters of illumination, the max allowed under DOT regulations. Impressively, the illumination from the low-beams seemed to stretch nearly as far.

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Inside, one can gaze at the brand’s Starlight Headliner, which is now standard on the Ghost and which features a new innovation: a shooting-star animation. The starry-sky ceiling is newly joined by the similarly themed Illuminated Fascia dashboard. On the passenger’s side of the dash, the glowing GHOST nameplate is surrounded by a galaxy of 850 stars illuminated by 152 LEDs.

Some 220 of the Ghost’s 5,628 pounds come in the form of sound-deadening material, which joins double-glazed windows and the double-walled bulkhead and floor sections in the fight to keep noise and vibration from intruding on the cabin. In the final hour of the return drive, I finally got sick of bouncing around satellite radio, so I switched off the stereo and soaked in the silence. It might have been quieter still, but Rolls actually dialed sound back in. The car initially was considered disorienting, so engineers tuned the resonances of various components to create a harmonious single tone, a “whisper” white noise. What you actually hear at highway speeds, though, is wind rustle and faint tire noise.

The quietness is just another way this car lives up to its promise of comfortable, fatigue-free long-distance travel. Is it perfect? Of course not. To wit, here are a few quibbles: The band of chrome trim at the base of the side windows can be a powerful sun reflector. The front cupholders aren’t sized for anything much bigger than a soda can (the rears are larger). There’s only one USB port up front, and there’s no Android Auto. Finally, my passenger endured a spell when the rear power-seat controls and the power-deploying tray tables wouldn’t work — truly a first-world problem. It should be noted that this is a pre-production car and they came back to life when I restarted the engine after a gas stop.

Speaking of refueling, my indicated average fuel economy was 19 mpg. That’s spot-on the EPA highway estimate; the city figure is a somewhat more distressing 12 mpg. Anyone who finds that to be profligate will be mortified at the Ghost’s sticker price, which starts at $332,500. The car I drove would ring in at about $425,000 with options. Otherworldy pricing, perhaps, but of the dozens of cars I’ve driven between New York and Michigan, the Ghost provided an experience like no other.

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