WORDS: ELLIOTT HUGHES | PHOTOGRAPHY: rolls-royce
We’re greeted by a wall of heat as we step bleary eyed out of the airport. Passports have been checked, bags collected, the gauntlet of COVID and security protocols completed; the pleasant, warm sensation confirms that after seven hours in the sky, this isn’t going to be the usual desk-bound beginning to the week.
A man in an immaculate suit then ushers us over and relieves us of our baggage with such enthusiasm it’s as if we’d dragged our cases 3500 miles by foot. With the bags in the boot, he swiftly grasps the handle of the rear suicide door and pulls it open, welcoming us into an indulgent sea of leather, chrome and lamb’s wool. The electrically operated door then glides shut, as if delicately pushed by a poltergeist.
The location is Dubai, and we’re being whisked to our hotel in a Rolls-Royce Black Badge Cullinan. After a sumptuous few minutes in the back seats, it’s easy to forget that we haven’t won the lottery but do, in fact, have a job to carry out. And what a job it is: a test drive of the new Rolls-Royce Black Badge Ghost, a car designed to embody the new brooding, glamorous and modern ‘alter ego’ of Rolls-Royce. But first we have to get to our accommodation for the night.
We pull to a stop, and before we can reach for the interior door handle it has already been opened by the driver, while a bellboy loads our bags onto a trolley; they’re like stagehands performing all their necessary assignments as we very literally change scenes. The fact that the lavishness of the transfer to the hotel has made such an impact speaks volumes; it’s usually the part of a trip that rapidly fades from memory, or is recalled with an impression of tiredness, boredom or inconvenience.
It’s all very deliberate, and mirrors what Rolls-Royce calls the “Black Badge experience”, but it’s when we step into the ME Hotel in downtown Dubai that the sentiment really hits home. Walk into its impressive lobby and it feels as though we’re on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey; its glass-roofed atrium climbs four storeys and is accented by warm LED lighting and curvaceous white balconies that protrude outwards, each apex resembling the bow of a super-yacht. The setting is in stark contrast to the stereotypically stoic Rolls-Royce image of oil paintings, chandeliers and baroque architecture.
Having settled into the rarefied air of our new home and partaken in a whistle-stop tour of Dubai and its gargantuan Expo, we’re now sitting in a Bond-villain-esque leather chair for a media presentation before being handed the keys to the Black Badge Ghost. Again, it isn’t what you’d expect from such an affair; cocktail shakers rattle, a DJ plays deep house music, figures dressed from head-to-toe in black hand out edgy canapés of caviar in miniature ice cream cones, and the blue hue of neon Black Badge logos diffuses the darkness.
“A few years ago, we began creating a product for a different kind of Rolls-Royce client: the rule-breaker, the risk-taker, the iconoclast,” says the plangent voice of Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös in our presentation video.
“At the time, it was an extremely controversial idea. Graceful and subversive, we had to discover the alter-ego of our great brand. Our very own dark side. We’ve cloaked all our most precious assets in black, including controversially, our precious Spirit of Ecstasy.”
By now it’s abundantly clear that this is a car targeted at the new, well heeled generation with more bitcoins than banknotes and designer sneakers and streetwear rather than suits. In other words, Black Badge is aimed towards the marque’s burgeoning demographic of customers who are under 40 and who don’t fit what they see as the po-faced persona of the traditional elite.
On the other side of Rolls-Royce’s slick presentation there is one key question to answer: is Black Badge the real Jekyll and Hyde transformation it’s purported to be, or just a very cleverly marketed ‘black pack’ offered by so many other marques? Fittingly, the key to the question is now in the palm of our hand.
The press car before us is finished in a deliciously rich shade of red – reminiscent of Rosso Fiorano, for Ferrari aficionados. Its future owner will perhaps be relieved they don’t have to select from Rolls-Royce’s dizzying palette of 44,000 colours. The lustrous paintwork and imposing, brutalist proportions perfectly complement the surrounding monolithic metal and glass skyscrapers.
The thick, beautifully polished chrome door handle is cool to the touch, and now strangely familiar after a day of jumping in and out of the Black Badge Cullinan. The door opens with a similar, satisfyingly mechanical snick. Inside, the same smell of leather and bombastic saturnalia of luxury beckon us into the cabin.
The plush leather driver’s seat is impossibly comfortable, yet supportive. After playing with myriad chrome seat-adjustment buttons, the finishing touch is to enable the seat cooling and massage functions – this is a Rolls-Royce, after all.
The wait continues for our regal convoy of Black Badge Ghosts to set off, with grinning journalists, future customers and smartphone-wielding influencers ensconced behind the wheel of each. The wait provides an opportunity to test the car’s studio-quality 1300-watt sound system. The sound quality is sublime, and reveals every instrument and nuance to any given track. Turn up the volume as high as you like – the sound refuses to distort, and the interior is so well made that vibrations and rattles are utterly absent.
And then it’s time to set off. Right foot on the brake, press the piano-black ‘Engine Start’ button, and the 591bhp 6.75-litre V12 comes to life with a distinguished growl. Release the brake and the car creeps forward onto the sun-kissed streets of Dubai.
Driving through a foreign city in such a massive, unfamiliar and expensive car is something of a nerve-racking experience. The wheels are £5000 apiece, and Rolls-Royce doesn’t refurbish them if they’re scraped against a kerb. No pressure. Thankfully, the majestic Silver Lady protruding from the tip of the bonnet gives us an idea of where it all ends, although the car’s width is still difficult to gauge. But for all its imposing menace the Black Badge Ghost is keen to put us at ease, and once we’ve settled in, the driving experience is effortless; the crystal-clear mirrors are huge, and the head-up display means that we always know where to go and at what speed.
As the feelings of nervousness evaporate, all there is to do is enjoy the experience. As we waft through the city, looking out of the double-glazed windows, the glass buildings reveal the car’s glamorous red reflection. Soon we’re free of the rush-hour traffic and surging down a black ribbon of motorway that cuts through the desert. Golden sand dances mesmerisingly across the asphalt as the sky turns orange and the sun slowly sinks into the horizon.
The motorway surface is choppier than the billiard table-smooth roads of downtown Dubai, which is the perfect test for the car’s GPS-assisted Flagbearer suspension system. It brilliantly cossets the car’s occupants from road imperfections, and is bettered only by the hydropneumatic set-ups fitted to classic Citroëns. Unlike hydropneumatic suspension, however, it can also deal with bends without feeling like a ship at sea.
Pitch the Black Badge Ghost enthusiastically into a corner, and the air suspension and rear-wheel steering work to negotiate the bend with surprising adeptness for a two-and-a-half-tonne car. The illusion is furthered by the fact that the power-assisted steering is effortlessly light and accurate, and the leather-trimmed steering wheel feels thin and rests delicately in our fingertips.
It’s also extremely quiet – eerily so. The combination of double-glazed windows and nearly 100kg of sound-deadening prove their worth as we climb to motorway speeds; when we turn off the incredible sound system, we can literally hear ourselves breathe. Switch lanes to overtake, and the car thrusts towards the horizon; the power delivery is linear and the GPS-assisted eight-speed ZF transmission is so smooth that it’s as if there’s an endless torrent of power available with a mere flex of the right toe.
Forty-five short minutes later, we arrive at Skydive Dubai – a small, private airfield that sits like an oasis in the desert. It’s a surprising destination for a Rolls-Royce test drive, and so too is the promise of a dynamic test. With the daylight now superseded by the inky darkness of the desert night, it is time for the Black Badge alter ego to emerge.
The dynamic test involves putting the car in Low Mode (a Rolls-Royce euphemism for Sports Mode) and testing its acceleration along the runway. Having pressed the black button, a small green ‘Low’ icon unassumingly illuminates, and we wait with anticipation at the start line, seated under the Ghost’s beautiful, twinkling Starlight headlining.
A thumbs-up from one of the Rolls-Royce personnel is our signal to go. We unceremoniously mash the throttle pedal. The car squats on its haunches, its chunky rear tyres claw into the Tarmac. We’re pinned into the seat, and the V12 exhaust note is more audible and purposeful than before. Rapid gearchanges make themselves known for the first time as 0-60mph is eclipsed in just four seconds. The head-up display reads 120mph as we reach the braking markers. Top speed is governed to 155mph.
Stamp on the brakes, and the car’s illuminated front Pantheon grille descends towards the ground as the nose pitches downwards. The brakes are mercifully responsive and slow the Rolls-Royce in ample time before the runway disappears into the sand. Dr Jekyll has become Mr Hyde.
After another few runs the dynamic testing is over, and we make our way back towards the glittering cityscape under the cover of night. With Low Mode off and the sound system and massage function back on, tranquillity has returned, which gives pause for reflection.
In isolation, the idea of creating a more dynamically focused and edgier Rolls-Royce sub-brand makes little sense. For the majority of its 117-year history, the marque’s identity has been synonymous with demure restraint and uncompromising quality; outright performance and pleasing “the rule-breaker, the risk-taker, the iconoclast” would have traditionally been seen as uncouth.
But as controversial as it may have initially been, Black Badge is a master stroke that has widened the audience of the quintessentially British luxury brand to a bold new generation of customers in the Middle East, China and Silicon Valley that is fundamental to the company’s long-term relevance and survival. And somehow Rolls-Royce has managed to inject a more sinister and sporting persona to its Ghost without corrupting what made it great in the first place.
Perhaps the Jekyll and Hyde analogy goes a little too far; think of the Black Badge Ghost as the Silver Lady sporting a risqué black ballgown.
Rolls-Royce Black Badge Ghost pricing starts from £260,000/$350,000.
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