Rupees 32 lakh. These days, that'll get you a nice executive luxury sedan. And not a basic one either. It'll have ventilated, powered leather seats, a touchscreen infotainment system and maybe even a hybrid powertrain. Something that'll really make you feel like you've arrived.
Right now, though, I'm standing in the display area at Dubai's Rolls-Royce Boutique – the first and only of its kind right now – staring befuddled at a price tag of Rs 32 lakh. Befuddled, because of course, it's not attached to a car. Nor to a motorbike, or a bicycle, or a surfboard. It's a picnic hamper; an optional accessory that you can put in your boot. Of course, this being Rolls, it takes 500 hours to build from oiled teak, saddle leather and polished aluminium, it houses Hungarian Ajka crystal glassware, and it can be customised to match your car.
And the look on my face right now – a mix of awestruck and baffled – is, it seems, why Rolls-Royce has brought me here. You see, the Boutique is not a showroom; that's a few blocks down the road. You can't buy a car here. This is simply a place for you to be awestruck and baffled; or 'inspired', as is the intention for actual customers. They come here to smell the leather that will eventually line their seats, run their fingertips over the wood that will become their dashboard, and wriggle their toes through several lambs' worth of wool to pick just the right carpet. They look at scale models of yachts, fiddle with custom-built electric guitars and picture themselves in some rather fashionable clothing on display, and yes, there are a few cars strewn around too, but it's all there for one explicit reason – to suck you into the Rolls life. So, that's what that feels like, then.
Carbon fibre? That’s for commoners. This is a special carbon-aluminium weave.
Rolls-Royce is a brand that's always leaned hard on tradition and history, and been quite firm about what it stands for, obstinately so sometimes. No pandering to trends, no base models, no diesels, no downsizing, and, for the foreseeable future at least, that's how it'll stay. The customers, however, are changing. They're younger, more fashion-forward, and generally live more active and interesting lives than ye olde aristocrats of the past, and this is something that must be addressed. At the end of the day it is still a business, and all businesses have to adapt to stay afloat. So, of course, Rolls is doing it in the most Rolls way possible. Say hello to the Black Badge.
You see, the company realised that a lot of its new customers would take delivery of their cars and then march them straight into customisation shops to have them tuned and fiddled with; and that's just a big no-no, isn't it? The thought furrowed my brow as I stared out from my infinity pool into the empty triangle of private desert stretching out behind my sprawling hotel villa (all part of my immersion into the Rolls life). You didn't just pay for one of the finest vehicles in the world to be hand-built to your specification, only to go and have it re-specified, right? Two changes stood out as being quite popular. One was adding more power, which is pretty much par for the course with customisation jobs, and the other was painting everything black. 'Murdering out' your car – as it's called in circles considered a touch too uncouth for Rolls-Royce – is all the rage, and so it's now available straight from the factory in the form of these Black Badge editions.
Offered on the Ghost sedan and the Wraith coupé, the Black Badge editions are a two-fold change – cosmetic and mechanical. For the first time ever, the Spirit of Ecstasy – the winged lady that's perched proudly on the nose of every Roller – is finished in black chrome, as is the immense grille, and the Rolls-Royce badges, rather literally, are black in colour too. The 21-inch wheels are something truly special. They took four years to develop, are uncharacteristically chunky in their design and are made from a combination of aluminium, titanium and carbon. 22 sheets of carbon, in fact, meticulously folded over one another to give that gorgeous shape and finish. Sure, you can choose different paint colours, coach lines and insignias to make the car your own, but doesn't it just look gorgeous in jet black?
You can specify any colour you like, but come on, it’s a Black Badge; best to make it as sinister as possible.
Similarly, on the inside, you can choose any number of configurations for the upholstery, but you'll want to stick with the special dashboard finish of the Black Badge. They've thrown out the burr walnut wood, and because this is the 'sporty' variant, they've drafted in some carbon-fibre. Now, yes, a carbon-fibre interior trim has become a bit passé, and in such a heavy car, it's certainly not saving any weight. But since this is a Rolls, even that is more than meets the eye. The carbon has actually been interwoven with fine threads of aeronautical-grade aluminium in a process that sounds so tedious, it's making my head hurt.
I'm commandeering a Ghost Black Badge from the Boutique in Dubai to the desert roads of Ras al-Khaimah, the neighbouring Emirate. Out here, away from the skyscrapers and traffic, with only dunes as far as the eye can see, is the perfect place to soak in the majesty of driving a Rolls-Royce, and maybe get a chance to feel the effect of those mechanical changes. For one, there's more power – up from 570hp to 612hp – while torque gets only a slight bump from 820Nm to 840Nm. Can you feel the extra punch? Certainly not here on the open expanse of the Emirati motorway, but we're told it's just that little bit more effortless. But mind you, the Ghost's 6.6-litre, twin-turbo V12 was always famous for being able to shift the 2.5-tonne sedan with silent, consummate ease. In fact, you're not supposed to feel a punch at all, but instead be confident in the fact that you have a slightly stronger reserve at your disposal. It doesn't leap off the line; there's no 'squat' from the air suspension either, as you might expect when you transfer 840Nm to the road in a hurry. There's an eight-speed ZF gearbox in there somewhere too (which can plan its shifts in advance based on the road ahead using the sat-nav, no less), but I can hardly tell it's shifting. There's no Sport button, and there's certainly no louder exhaust note. This is still very, very Rolls-Royce.
The climb up Jabal Jais mountain isn't quite as exciting as I'd hoped, honestly. Mostly because it's so wide and well paved, and the corners and the ascent are really quite gentle. But isn't that just ideal for this sort of car? You aren't going to do a hill climb in one of these; you're going to be touring in the hills around St Tropez with that special someone. If there are, as they say, quicker responses from the chassis and air suspension to your steering inputs, they're so subtle, it actually tricks your mind a little. Isn't this supposed to be 'more dynamic', you wonder. The truth is, it is – but ever so slightly; not enough to tread on what it means to be a Rolls-Royce. Remember, this is a car that whisks, not shoves, you forward. But like the added power, it's merely the knowledge that it exists that matters more than its actual effect.
So as the day's stress evaporated in the aromatic steam room, prior to the massage of course (ah, this Rolls life; I could get used to it), I tried to wrap my head around why the Black Badge exists. The results of the oily changes are only ever so slightly discernible, and the look – well, even if you gave your money only to Goodwood, you could come up with something pretty close yourself. No, the Black Badge is a statement, both for Rolls-Royce and the people who buy one, that times are changing. That even tradition can be mixed with a little modern flair. That every lady, even the Spirit of Ecstasy, sometimes needs a little black dress instead of a ballroom gown.