The first Rolls-Royce since BMW took custodianship is quite an achievement. By Jonathan Crouch.
Ten Second Review
Spookily smooth and virtually silent at cruising speeds, the Rolls Royce Phantom is an astonishing motorcar. Its ultra high-end specification and expert craftsmanship give real weight to its claim of being the best car in the world. Can you think of anything better?
What is a Rolls-Royce? Stop for a moment and think about it. What does the brand represent? What does it mean nowadays? These were questions that needed to be answered by senior executives at BMW when designing the iconic luxury car. It looks like they may well have formulated some convincing answers to those quandaries in the imposing form of the Phantom, the first Rolls-Royce built under BMW. Certain traditions have gone by the wayside. The arcane cottage industry that was the factory at Pyms Lane, Crewe was replaced a few years ago by a gleaming facility at Goodwood. The bodywork is fabricated at BMW's specialist plant at Dingolfing in Germany, with aluminium panels draped over an aluminium spaceframe. The composite front wings and steel bootlid are the only non-aluminium metalwork. The engines are also shipped over from Germany. Their 6.75-litre capacity is a match for the old V8 units, but these are modern V12 engines all direct injection, variable valves and 453bhp without recourse to anything as vulgar as a turbocharger.
More often than not, the engine in the Rolls Royce Phantom will have adequate power in reserve. With 453bhp and 719Nm of torque marshalled by a six-speed column mounted automatic gearshift, the Phantom can accelerate to 60mph in 5.7 seconds and on to an electronically limited 150mph. A whisper valve in the exhaust system means that at wafting speeds, the car is virtually silent. With air springs and aluminium multi-link suspension, ride comfort is also superb. You wouldn't expect anything less, would you?
Design and Build
At 5.84 metres long and 1.99 metres wide in standard wheelbase form, there's a lot to cover where the Phantom's design is concerned. The key design features are the hawkish front lights, the huge wheels and the unusual back-hinged rear doors. Each car uses 18 hides for its 450 separate pieces of leather. Each of the 60 pieces of veneer is 40 layers thick, glued onto aluminium and finished by hand - 2400 slivers of timber in every car. Two door-mounted umbrellas are finished in Teflon so as not to rot if you store them wet. The top of the tyres is 31 inches high, designed to replicate early sketches that indicated the ideal proportion between wheel size and cabin height. The Phantom is a very tall car, its overall height disguised by such styling sleight of hand that the proportions work well. At no point does this car ever have that coarse stretch limo look that the Mercedes designers who penned the Maybach - the Phantom's only current conceivable rival - have failed to avoid. The interior, while traditional at first glance, hides a number of modern refinements behind its luxuriant marquetry. There are 31 switches evident and it's possible to drive the car and control not only the stereo but the climate control as well without opening the fascia. There's also a drawer in the centre that pops open to reveal the telephone keypad and a pop-out door that houses the Rotary Controller. Call it iDrive (BMW's driver interface system) at the Goodwood factory and you may well be excommunicated. Activate the controller and the clock and its surround fold silently back to reveal a colour LCD screen for the satellite navigation and other custom settings. The heavily chromed spherical air vents are welcome sights, as are the old-fashioned organ stop levers that operate them. The instruments have black faces with slender serif needles and the rev counter has been replaced by a power reserve dial. This reads 100 per cent at rest, and indicates how much more power the engine has to give.
Market and Model
It's not cheap but it's a mere drop in the ocean for the typical Rolls Royce customer. An estimated 1,000 cars roll out of Rolls Royce's £65m Goodwood plant each year, which at a quarter of a million pounds apiece bring in £250m. The factory itself is an astonishing facility, designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, architect of the Eden Project in Cornwall. The floor has been sunk 5 feet below ground level and the roof has been landscaped over with grass, leading some commentators to envision a sort of subterranean Blofeld's lair. Indeed, there is something a little sinister about the silence, the immaculate employees identically dressed in pleated corduroy and tweeds and the German vowel sounds occasionally ringing down the line. There's no paint shop: instead there's a 'Surface Technology Centre'.
Cost of Ownership
Buying and running a Phantom is a pastime for the super rich only. Running costs will cripple most millionaires within the first year, so even most lottery winners should think twice. The simple fact is that the people who buy a Rolls Royce Phantom have enough money to make even the most crippling service and fuel bills an insignificance. Residual values will be too but at least these promise to be very strong. If you're interested, the standard car manages just 12.2mpg on the urban cycle and puts out 377g/km of CO2.
Is the Rolls Royce Phantom the best car in the world? It's certainly hard to think of another with luxury, elegance and style on this level. The purchase of one would render most people destitute but for those who can spare the cash, motoring just doesn't come any better than this. Despite the excellence of the end product, there's something about the Rolls-Royce Phantom that nags. It's an irrational feeling and one that takes some time to formulate itself. When it finally does coalesce, it's the depressing realisation that the Germans can do British better than we can. First the MINI and now Rolls-Royce: BMW have shown that they understand the subtlety that handling such icons deserve. They also understand how to deliver a product on time. The rights to the Rolls-Royce name passed from VW's Crewe operation to BMW on 1st January 2003. On that same day the Phantom was unveiled, and six days later it made a big splash at the Detroit Motor Show. Think of what it must have taken to achieve that end. And then rest assured that the Rolls-Royce marque is good hands.