AN HOUR OR SO'S drive south-west of Tokyo in picturesque Kanagawa prefecture lies one of the most celebrated stretches of bitumen in the world, a 16km-long ribbon of petrolhead paradise. Known variously as the Hakone, the Toyo and, most recently, the Mazda Turnpike, this private toll road winds up from the sea towards Lake Ashi, a famous beauty spot near the foot of Mount Fuji, with almost every turn in the tarmac heralding another gorgeous view, either of the coast far below or of the sacred volcano's snow-white cone.
Lovely though these panoramas are, they're not the reason why growling GT-Rs, souped-up Civics and cacophonous Kawasakis have been heading here in convoys for more than 50 years. The attraction is rather the road itself or, to be more accurate, its thrilling succession of short straights, long curves, cambered switchback corners and gradients, ideal terrain on which to perfect the automotive art of drifting that has captivated Japanese car nuts since the early 1960s.
While these days you're as likely to see European exotica lined up at the turnpike's toll booth as any locally made metal, the car I'm driving – though British and undeniably exotic – would not seem the obvious choice for taking on an epic challenge such as this. You see, I've just motored down from Haneda airport at the wheel of a Rolls-Royce Wraith, one of the most luxurious, elegant and exclusive automobiles on the planet, and aside from the fact it's just plain massive, antics of the Fast and Furious variety are surely way beneath this stately juggernaut's dignity.
But then this isn't my idea at all – it's the people at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Japan who've arranged this little jaunt, and I must admit I've been bewitched by this extraordinary four-seat coupé ever since climbing into it, straight off my Cathay flight from Hong Kong. Until now, I've never been able to take Rollers entirely seriously as drivers' cars, the kind of machines, in other words, that impart a genuine frisson when you get behind the wheel, but the past 60 minutes have given me plenty of reasons to reconsider.
First, it looks amazing – better, admittedly, from some angles (the front three-quarters, for example) than others, but nonetheless masterfully melding traditional R-R gravitas with a less familiar raciness. That's thanks to the long bonnet and short front overhang, the tall wheel arches, the high beltline that runs uninterrupted from headlights to tail, the relatively low roof and that slopes rakishly from the car's mid point to its truncated stern. The appearance is necessarily patrician, yet sufficiently distinctive as even to hint at a chopped-down California rod (though naturally avoiding the latter's proletarian connotations).
The interior – hand built, of course, from the richest materials available – is equally sensational. The long, rear-hinged coach doors (others will disagree, but these are among several Rolls-Royce diosyncrasies I could happily do without) swing open to reveal metre upon metre of the softest and most sumptuous white leather, which is meticulously stitched around four expansive bucket seats, as well as door and side panels. You sit lower than in a “normal” Rolls, if such a thing exists, but higher up than in other luxury coupés.
In stark contrast to the hectares of hide are the gleaming planks of piano-black wood veneer that adorn the dash and, indeed, any other surface to which they can reasonably be applied, while the fluffy sheepskin carpets are deep enough for smaller passengers to get lost in. Above my head, more than 1,300 tiny fibre-optic lights twinkle in the roof lining like a mini Milky Way. Forget about being in a different world – you start imagining you're in another galaxy when riding in a car such as this.
There's an appropriately old-school look and feel to the polished, solid-metal vents, switchgear and instrument surrounds, and to the leather-covered steering wheel, which, though smaller in diameter than on other Rolls-Royces, is both larger and slimmer than on most driver-oriented cars. But the Wraith is also packed with the highest tech, from touchpad, voiceactivated controls and wireless hotspot to satellite-aided automatic transmission that anticipates the road ahead and pre-selects the appropriate gear for upcoming bends and corners – all done without you even realising it.
Which brings me to the power unit, a BMW-derived, 6.6-litre, twin-turbocharged V12, whose 624bhp and 800Nm (the latter from only 1,500rpm) make this monumental machine the fastest and most potent Rolls-Royce ever. It certainly feels that way on the motorway out of Tokyo, the instant response from just a dab on the gas pedal belying the fact that, with three passengers, my luggage and a full tank of petrol on board, our gross weight is a good deal closer to three tonnes than two. Claimed 0-100km/h acceleration is 4.4 seconds – impressive for a behemoth such as this and even more so given the absence of anything so vulgar as launch control to help get things moving.
With Japanese highways limited to a 120km/h maximum there's little opportunity for exploring the outer limits of the Wraith's performance envelope. At 130km/h, however, it wafts along with barely a whisper from the engine, the airassisted, front double-wishbone and rear multilink suspension providing a “magic-carpet” ride that insulates us so completely from the undulations in the road that we could almost be in bed.
In spite of the feather-light steering the slightest inputs are answered precisely and immediately, though a somewhat smaller helm would be easier on the arms. Similarly, while the eight-speed rarely fails to choose the correct gear ratio, I do find my fingers reaching for the nonexistent paddle shifters. Those – like a proper tachometer (which is substituted by a “power available” gauge whose needle confusingly swings from right to left) – are clearly things that Rolls-Royce will never stoop to provide.
Reaching the foot of the Hakone Turnpike I hand over a small pile of ¥100 coins at the toll both and then accelerate up the hill. Unsurprisingly, the transmission lacks sport mode (I'm told the “L” setting does more or less the same thing) but even without it the car feels unfeasibly fast, the V12 emitting a distant growl as the road in a distinctly un-Roller-like fashion.
Although there's no escaping the Wraith's considerable size and its inevitable tendency to roll, the smart electronic dampers kick in reliably, flattening the bends and providing just the right degree of backbone. This isn't a car to throw around impulsively, let alone get sideways (though switch off the stability control and I'm sure there'd be entertainment in abundance), but find the right groove on a road like this – flowing, wide and beautifully surfaced – and it‘s infinitely more rewarding than you'd imagine. Sadly, as we approach the hairpins near the turnpike's summit the weather steps in to curtail the fun. With thick cloud enveloping the road I'm forced to cut our speed to a crawl – and that's how we cover the next 20km, feeling our way through the mist until eventually it lifts, just as we're entering the on-ramp of the motorway back to Tokyo. So much for the Hakone Turnpike.
Not that I need further convincing, for if I were initially sceptical of the Wraith's credentials, the past couple of hours have left me dazzled by the blistering speed, the supreme comfort and craftsmanship and the regal refinement of this remarkable and alluring machine. No vehicle of such dimensions could ever be considered a sports car, but I'm constantly amazed by its leisurely athleticism, by the ease and composure with which it obliterates distance, and by the intuitive and almost uncanny way it reads the road.
As for the competition (and ignoring R-R's lofty assertion that there isn't any), you could reasonably argue that in strict dynamic terms Ferrari's f12, Bentley's Continental, Aston's Vantage or Mercedes' S-Class Coupe all have the edge, and also lack the Roller's mildly irritating foibles. But then, as no lesser automobile can challenge the aristocratic grace and magnificence, the air of sumptuous luxury and space, and the ridiculously long legs that make journeys so effortless, the Wraith stands imperiously apart. There are GTs and there are pukka grand tourers, but none are quite as grand as this.