Black Badge to the Black Mountains: Rolls-Royce vs. Britain’s best road

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge

I was tempted to stay in bed. With the wind and rain crashing against the bedroom window and the radio reporting “atrocious driving conditions”, the thought of venturing out from beneath the duvet was about as appealing as a spot of early morning root canal surgery.

But it’s not every day you have a Wraith Black Badge parked outside your house, even if a Cullinan would have been a more suitable Rolls-Royce for a courageous battle against Storm Erik, or whatever the most recent bout of bad weather was called.

I have a history with the Wraith. In 2015, I drove through the night from London to Edinburgh in a race against the overnight sleeper train, but this was before Rolls-Royce launched the performance-enhanced Black Badge.

This was to be a different kind of fight. The plan was to tackle the A4069 – also known as the Black Mountain Pass – considered, by some, to be Britain’s best road. It sounded like a good idea on paper, but Erik was in town to play party-pooper, and he wasn’t about to let the fastest and most potent Rolls-Royce enjoy the freedom of mid-Wales.

Wake up to money

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge Flying Lady

In the meantime, there was the small matter of a short schlep along the A30 and up the M5 for a 7am rendezvous with Bradley and his camera equipment. I click the button on the thickset key fob to awaken the Wraith from her sleep – the door handles illuminate and the slimline LED headlights cast enough light on the surroundings to prompt the local birds into a pre-dawn chorus.

The vampish Flying Lady, dressed in black on Black Badge models, emerges from her sanctum atop the noir-like grille to take up a position akin to a figurehead on the bow of a ship. A rather apt analogy, given the prevailing weather conditions. It’s just as well the Wraith features a steering wheel the size of a helm.

Once inside, safe from the continuing wind and rain, the electric suicide door shuts with a reassuring thud, plunging the cabin into near silence. Few, if any, cars cocoon you from the outside world quite like a Rolls-Royce – the ambient lighting, starlight headliner and lambswool foot mats can give hygge a run for its money in terms of cosiness.

With the 6.6-litre V12 engine ticking over and the heated seat set to the max, I spend the first five minutes searching in vain for a USB port. The Wraith – a car that dates back to the 2013 Geneva Motor Show – might be the last word in performance luxury, but from a connectivity point of view, it is being left behind.

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge interior

Six years is a long time in the automotive world, so while newer luxury and premium cars boast multiple USB ports, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the Wraith Black Badge has to make do with DAB and Bluetooth. Sensing that Bradley will require some juice for his camera gear, I stop off to buy a USB adapter for the cigar lighter socket.

It’s one of two cigar lighters in the Wraith, which are complemented by a pair of ashtrays – old-school features in a thoroughly old-school cabin. An unashamedly analogue cabin that’s dripping in old money charm – anything digital is either hidden away or cleverly disguised.

It’s funny: while premium carmakers go to obsessive lengths to garnish their cabins with the latest touchscreen infotainment systems, digital displays and climate controls that allow you to set the temperature to the nearest half-a-degree, Rolls-Royce steadfastly refuses to conform.

The blowers can be set to soft, medium, high or max, while the temperature is controlled by a set of traditional rotary controls. The art deco dials, complete with dim lighting, remain one of my favourite features of the car.

Severn heaven

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge at Severn Bridge

Ninety minutes later, I’m sat in the dark alongside the River Severn, between the two bridges, waiting for the arrival of Bradley. Both the car and I have enjoyed a stress-free drive on the M5 – the Wraith’s power reserve rarely dropping below 90 percent, while I’m no less comfortable than I was beneath my duvet.

The rain has stopped (for a while), but the night sky has made way for ominous looking clouds on the other side of the river with the wind strong enough to make opening the Wraith’s Swiss bank vault-like doors feel like a morning workout.

None of this discourages us from setting the sat-nav to Llandovery – the northern gateway to the A4069.

The skies seem to get darker the further west we head, and by the time we’re bypassing Merthyr Tydfil, we’re facing a two-pronged attack by Welsh rain and commuter traffic. The wipers are unable to cope with the conditions, and soon we’re slowing to a steady crawl.

Maybe we should have headed south. With the strong winds and a 6.6-litre V12 at our disposal, we could have made the south of France for lunch and be back in time for tea. Instead, we’re facing the wrath of Storm Erik in what is now a two-tone Andalusian White and grubby Wraith.

We press on, with any attempts at a rapid exit from a roundabout greeted by wheelspin, a flashing traction control light and the profound fear of having to call the Rolls-Royce press office with tales of an unfortunate encounter with the crash barrier.

Chasing waterfalls

Crossing into the Brecon Beacons, we catch our first sight of the snow that blanketed much of the country just a week earlier. Fan Fawr appears to be enjoying its role of a water fountain, sending torrents of rainwater towards the A470. We watch as the waterfalls are taken by the wind, with the water transported vertically up the peak.

Only a fool would take a £340,000 (including options) 624hp Wraith into mid-Wales in conditions such as these, we ponder as we watch a legion of squaddies clamber out of a Defender for some exhausting manoeuvres in the wet.

Turning left off the A470 towards Sennybridge, we’re greeted by what can only be described as carnage. Rocks, stones and even the occasional brick have been strewn across the road by the water gushing out of the fields, with the monotony of the debris broken only by the pools of standing water.

The driving conditions are as atrocious as the weatherman warned at stupid o’clock this morning. The road is passable – just – but when you’re using the centre of the road to wade through standing water, you just have to pray that you’re not going to be greeted by a Suzuki Vitara hurtling round the bend. Suzukis appear to be as common as sheep in this part of the world.

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge petrol station

We needed fuel. This is a regular occurrence in a car that’ll do 19.3mpg on a combined cycle. Hypermiling in a Wraith isn’t recommended, especially in mid-Wales where petrol stations don’t appear as frequently as sheep… or Suzukis.

It’s as though the engineers at Rolls-Royce had this in mind when they configured the display to tell you that you’re using a reserve tank, rather than the usual ‘low fuel’ alert. Nothing focuses your mind on dwindling reserves of fuel quite like the word ‘reserve’.

The first stab at refuelling ends in failure, partly because there was no super unleaded on offer, but also because I was unwilling to risk the 21-inch carbon-alloy composite alloy wheels between a high kerb and a badly parked Countryman.

Did I mention that each wheel costs £5,000? This figure is never far from your mind when you’re driving a Wraith Black Badge – get a width restriction wrong, and you’ll be parting with the equivalent of a family hatchback to put things right. Call me risk-averse, but I rather fancied handing the car back with a full quota of unblemished alloys.

Fortunately, the next petrol station was a little more Wraith-ready, and as I brimmed the tank, a chap filling his Rover 420 made an admiring comment about the car. I can’t tell you precisely what he said, because it was difficult to hear above the sound of the wind and rain lashing the Oil4Wales filling station.

Needless to say, I made some humble remark about it not being my car, although he would have guessed this from the sight of my £30 hoodie and Converse.

Following the road less travelled

Rolls-Royce Wraith dials

Age-wise, I hit the Rolls-Royce audience profile squarely on the nose, but I’m far removed from the demographic. The Black Badge press material from 2016 makes for interesting and mildly amusing reading – at times it’s like a series of Instagram updates from a social media influencer.

“Today’s generation of young, self-empowered, self-confident rule-breakers are just as uncompromising and unapologetic in their choice of living and lifestyle as their predecessors. They follow the road less travelled, live the unconventional life, darkly obsessed by their own pursuits and accomplishments from which they derive a pure adrenaline rush.”

Today’s road less travelled with its promise of a pure adrenalin rush was now just a few miles away, but these self-confident rule-breakers needed breakfast.

Llandovery was in the midst of playing host to its own natural disaster movie. We’re greeted by the sight and sounds of metal bins crashing into the sides of parked cars and recycling boxes being carried across the road by the wind.

The sight of the aftermath of a JCB used to steal a cash machine from the local Co-op only added to the sense of it looking like a scene from Llandovery Has Fallen. Gerard Butler was nowhere to be seen, so we headed for the sanctuary of the Old Printing Office cafe for crumpets.

“Just passing through?” enquired the lady behind the till. Glancing out of the window at the weather when I outlined our plans, she told us that Jeremy Clarkson and James May had stayed in the hotel opposite. I suspect they weren’t in town for the crumpets.

Waze and making waves

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge Llandovery

Venturing back to the Wraith – and with no sign of Gerard Butler – we dodge low-flying bric-a-brac and follow a faded red E36 BMW 316i towards the A40. The chap behind the wheel – who you just know has owned the car from new – is forced into an emergency stop as a green recycling bin makes a break for freedom. Llandovery was falling, and we needed to get out of town.

The A4069 starts on the western fringe of Llandovery and snakes its way south before ending in Brynamman just 20 miles later. You can split it into three sections, with the speed limit getting progressively slower the further south you go.

From Llandovery to Llangadog it’s a typical British A-road – the surface is good, the lanes are wider, and the hedges mask a succession of farms and fields. It is, if you like, an appetiser for the main event.

It’s not without incident. Appearing over the brow of a hill – never easy when you have the full length of the Wraith’s bonnet pointing at the sky – half the road is blocked by a fallen tree. Bradley promptly alerts other users via the medium of Waze, as I begin to question what we’re letting ourselves in for.

Spirit of Ecstasy in Wales

At Llangadog, there’s a sharp left between the Castle Hotel and a village shop, where the elongated bonnet becomes a bit of a hindrance. Fortunately, the vampish Spirit of Ecstasy is on hand to perform the role of navigator.

Once past the signs for Bethlehem – turn right at the football pitch if you’re in the midst of a different pilgrimage – the road becomes a whole lot more technical, and the speed limit drops to 50mph.

Today, 20mph almost seems optimistic, let alone the dizzy heights of 50mph. The road hugs the River Sawdde, which at times looks ready to turn the A4069 into a tributary. At 1,948mm wide, the Wraith is narrower than a Range Rover, but it barely fits along its side of the road.

Having a steering wheel the size of the London Eye adds to the exaggerated sense of girth, while the £5k wheels are never far from your mind. It’s fun – up to a point – but the Wraith is feeling like a duck out of water. I fully intended to keep it that way.

Black Mountain Pass

Black Badge vs Black Mountains

Eventually, the road emerges from the trees, before a cattle grid signals the beginning of stage three – the Black Mountain Pass. It’s a breathtaking view, although it’s hard to distinguish between the gushing waterfalls and the snow still hanging on from a week earlier.

One thing is clear – even in the gloom of the mid-Wales weather – is the stretch of glistening tarmac clinging on to the edge of the hillside. After a couple of double bends, the road passing over a narrow bridge and heads up towards its most photographed corner.

Before then, there’s the small matter of maintaining traction as the Wraith struggles to gets its power down. With 620lb ft of torque, the Black Badge makes light work of hauling itself up towards the summit, but today, enthusiastic bursts of acceleration are greeted with wheelspin in first, second and third.

A 40mph limit was introduced years ago, but today, the series of signs serve only to ruin the landscape. Quite why so many lollipops are required is anyone’s guess, but the view would look a lot tastier without them.

I can’t resist trying a little antisocial driving on the famous hairpin, but the traction control acts like a sleeping policeman, telling me to behave and ruining the momentum ahead of the continued climb past and beyond Herbert’s Quarry.

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge 21-inch wheels

Once you reach the top, the views become even more spectacular, and the A4069 teases you with a vision of the road of your dreams. Think of the best Scalextric layouts you created as a kid and exchange the living room carpet for moorland, and you’re halfway there.

I could do with some Magnatraction today. The road is coated in stones and pedals, which act like ball bearings, robbing the 285/35 Continental tyres of grip. The road feels too narrow and twisty for the 2.4-tonne Wraith and is arguably better suited to cars like the Elise, GT86 and 205 GTI. Not that they’d be out in this weather.

For such a big car, the Wraith Black Badge is surprisingly agile, but asking it to tackle a series of double bends with vigour is akin to asking the Royal Albert Hall to appear on Strictly Come Dancing.

More than just a novelty act

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge A4069

One could argue that the Wraith is also too quick for this kind of road. It’ll sprint to 62mph in 4.8 seconds, but it actually feels faster in real life. Planting your right foot in the lambswool results in the back of the car squatting down on its haunches, like a big cat ready to pounce.

Quick as a flash, you’ve hit the speed limit, regardless of what road you’re travelling on. It’s an intoxicating and addictive experience, especially when the electronic aids are forced to work overtime to keep the car on the straight and narrow.

At times, the Wraith can feel a little out of control, like a tiger on a loose leash. It’s as though the engineers wanted to give the ‘wealth-creating entrepreneur’ (Rolls-Royce’s words) a feeling of control and power. The Wraith’s rapid acceleration might be a novelty, but I suspect this is one novelty that will never wear off.

Once at Brynamman, we turn around to repeat the journey in the opposite direction. By now, the low cloud that had capped the peaks like tufts of cotton wool have dispersed, but the rain is getting heavier.

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge in Wales

Any hopes of capturing video are quite literally blown away by the strong winds, while the near-horizontal rain hitting your face like tiny needles is making photography a challenge.

I decide to call it quits when the Wraith is sent aquaplaning towards the side of the road only for the tyres to miraculously and mercifully find some grip before the Rolls-Royce becomes an expensive moorland ornament. It took a lot longer for my heart rate to return to normal.

Paddles required

Heading back to Llandovery, I discuss the Wraith’s place in the world of driver-focused performance cars with Bradley, and in particular this Black Badge version.

Up here, on the A4069, particularly in these conditions, the Wraith would struggle to find friends. It lacks the precision and deftness of touch that is required to get the best out of the Black Mountain Pass.

It’s over-engineered for this particular task. Even with the blanket speed restriction removed, the Wraith would be too quick between the corners – you’d be forever scrubbing the speed long before you reach a bend.

A pair of steering wheel paddles would undoubtedly add to the sense of involvement, but paddles of the seafaring variety may have been more appropriate today.

But ask a group of road testers which car they’d like to venture home in and there’d be a queue of people ready to grab the keys to the Rolls-Royce. There is just so much to love about the car, and its talents extend to far more than just supreme luxury and craftsmanship.

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge in the rain

The steering is so direct and positive, the brakes appear good to enough to stop the earth from spinning, and the way in which the air suspension is configured to be soft enough to smooth out the worst of Britain’s roads yet supple enough to remain fluid when cornering is as beguiling as it is bewildering.

Meanwhile, the driving position is bewitching. You sit low-slung behind the massive wheel, with the view ahead enhanced by the narrow windscreen, head-up display and Spirit of Ecstasy. It makes it surprisingly easy to plot a path along the road ahead, with the precise steering giving you the confidence to tackle long and sweeping corners at speed.

And then, when you hit the motorways again, the Wraith Black Badge seamlessly morphs into a long distance cruiser of the highest order, matched only by other cars from within the Rolls-Royce stable.

I was only half joking when I told Bradley I was contemplating a trip to Inverness after I’d dropped him off near Bristol. Even the M6 on a Friday evening would feel pleasant in a Wraith.

River deep, mountain high

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge Abergwesyn Pass

Meanwhile, there was still time for one last excursion. With glimpses of blue sky in the distance, I noticed that we were just 13 miles from Llanwrtyd Wells – the smallest town in Britain.

Not an interesting fact in the context of the Wraith, but the town lies a few miles away from the Abergwesyn Pass, arguably one of the most scenic roads in Wales, if not the entire country. It’s an opportunity that’s too good to miss.

Just before noon, we find ourselves nestled between Cefn Coch and Pen Carreg-Dan, staring at a view that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Skyfall. It’s a humbling and life-affirming experience; both literally and metaphorically, the Abergwesyn Pass feels like a world away from the rest of civilisation.

Moving on, a trio of fast-running fords are crossed with a little trepidation – and a little help from the raised suspension function – before the Wraith makes light work of the Devil’s Staircase, although it struggled for grip on the switchbacks.

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge driving through ford

For the next 90 minutes, we have the entire road to ourselves, stopping many times to allow Bradley to grab photos as we make our way past the Llyn Brianne reservoir and back down into Llandovery.

It was on the Abergwesyn Pass and the subsequent roads that the Wraith Black Badge really shone. As a relaxed, effortless and refined Grand Tourer, it’s almost without equal, with enough precision to ensure it doesn’t feel out of place on a B-road.

The V12 engine generates enough noise through the sports exhaust to make it sound interesting, with Rolls-Royce allowing a subtle hint of the soundtrack to enter the cabin. But as impressive is the way in which it settles to a quiet hum – at times, all you can hear is the sound of tyres on the wet road.

A national treasure

Rolls-Royce Wraith Black Badge

With Bradley safely deposited at his Corsa, I made my way back down the M5, contemplating a final verdict for the Wraith Black Badge.

You’d expect a car costing the best part of £240,000 before VAT and options to be great, but you can’t really judge a Rolls-Royce against other vehicles. A Rolls-Royce is more like a feat of engineering that should be placed alongside historic buildings, aircraft and landmarks. A national treasure, if you like.

Driving a Wraith Black Badge is something that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime, and while I wouldn’t recommend heading for the Welsh hills during a storm, it’s incredibly reassuring to know that it can handle such conditions with aplomb.

I’m not entirely convinced that the A4069 is Britain’s best road – the 40mph limit has put paid to that – but the Wraith Black Badge is one of the world’s best cars. Long may it rain.

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