The new £196,000 'compact' Roller glides across the road...then there's the wood, the leather, the craftsmanship

It was a dark and stormy day. Through the beating rain, in near-silence – apart from the splash of tyres on black road and swishing of rain along windows – came a near-invisible ghost of a car.

No, deploy the shift key and make that a Ghost of a car: a Rolls-Royce Ghost. It was a looming presence all right, a dark, surprisingly sleek but unsurprisingly imposing occupation of inky space, defined not by the mass itself but by the bright-metal details and the sharply-focused light sources at each end.

This is the new "compact" Rolls-Royce, merely very large rather than inhabiting the gargantuan dimensions of its elder Phantom sibling, but no less spookily quiet. It is also cheaper, at less than £200,000 if you keep the options catalogue shut, and significantly different in demeanour. A clue here is the 4.9 seconds it takes to arrive at 62mph from a standstill, having apparently expended almost no effort in the process.

Here's what happens. You're ambling at 50mph. You depress the accelerator pedal to the floor. A small increase in mechanical activity is detectable as the nose rises, the tail squats, the "reserve power" meter heads toward zero and you hurtle forward as if in a speedboat. There have doubtless been downshifts within the eight-speed automatic transmission, but their existence is lost within the seamless surge of energy production. This is typical of the Ghost, a car perfectly named, given the discretion and mystery of its powerful presence. Some new, expensive cars flaunt their technology. Not so this Rolls-Royce: there is no sport mode within the transmission, nor a manual mode, just a slender lever on the steering column with a minimum of positions. The suspension has adaptive dampers and "active" anti-roll bars, so the damping is always right and the body stays level in corners, but you can't tell the Ghost that you know better how it should conduct itself.

Today's Rolls-Royce company is owned by BMW and uses some BMW-derived parts in its grand glass-fronted factory on the Goodwood Estate in Sussex. But the essence of what Rolls-Royce has always been is fully intact, with some new twists to move with the times. The Ghost is that new notion, a Rolls-Royce designed to give its driver a good time in the assumption that the driver is likely to be the owner. Here the company is nudging the territory historically occupied by Bentley, which for years was effectively Rolls-Royce's sporting brand before the two companies "demerged". It's interesting that the imminent Bentley Mulsanne is a car of similar size to the Ghost, similar purpose – and slightly similar looks.

The most remarkable thing about the Ghost, though, is this. Two-and-a-half tons of car it may be, but it's an unfeasibly enjoyable driving machine. The 6.6-litre, twin-turbocharged, 570bhp has much to do with this (it's actually significantly more powerful than the Phantom's engine), but it's also the way such a large car feels so agile. It steers precisely, with a credible heft to the action, it never floats or wallows, yet it soaks up bumps as if remaking the road as it goes. Only the worst ice-ravaged pothole generates a distant shudder somewhere below.

If I told you that I had more driving fun in the Ghost than I had in the new BMW 5 Series, you might think me deranged. But it's true, and not just for the incongruity of a truly rapid and sporting Rolls-Royce. And I haven't mentioned the wood, the leather, the craftsmanship, the sound system, the commanding driving position, the space...but you've probably assumed those already. It's just pleasing when the laws of physics sometimes take a battering.

The Rivals

Aston Martin Rapide: £139,950

New saloon, based on a stretched DB9, blends luxury and pace. Very sporting; only in this company could the 470bhp V12 seem lacking.

Bentley Mulsanne: £220,000

The Mulsanne uses a new version of the venerable Rolls/Bentley V8, now with 505bhp and an astonishing 752lb/ft of torque. Will be intriguing.

Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG L: £153,342

This is a tuned-up S-class, but it still oozes luxury. It just happens to have a 612bhp turbo V12, too. Some Rolls owners also have an S-class...

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