by Jim Kenzie
Santa Barbara, California – There is a new candidate for the title, “Best Car in the World”. It is the Rolls-Royce Phantom.
It may not be perfect – and you know how I love to point out others’ imperfections. And of course it is outrageously expensive (Canadian MSRP: $470,000).
But the Phantom does an astonishingly long list of things astonishingly well, including some things its designers didn’t intend. The car is made up of hundreds of aluminum extrusions, castings and sheet parts, hand-welded into an amazingly stiff and robust structure. It is powered by a re-engineered and stroked version of the BMW V12 engine, here displacing 6.75 litres, and producing 453 horsepower at 5,350 r.p.m. and 531 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,500 r.p.m.
“We could have gone for a higher horsepower figure,” said Dr. Tim Leverton, chief engineer for Phantom. “But we know our customers are looking for what we call ‘waftability’ – powerful performance without apparent effort. You achieve that with good low- and mid-range torque.”
Also to that end, the ZF six-speed automatic transmission is tuned to start in second gear, to reduce unseemly jerkiness in acceleration, and to shift smoothly at fairly low revs. Stomp on the loud pedal, however, and you’ll get first gear away from rest. And, you can push a button on the steering wheel to select “low range”,which is actually more akin to the “sport” modes on many other automatics – delayed upshifts, more rapid downshifts – and which is primarily intended to offer the driver a bit more engine braking while descending a steep grade.
That apart, there is no provision for selecting a specific gear – it IS an automatic, after all. In the event that waftability isn’t your immediate concern, 100 km/h will fetch up in about 5.9 seconds, barely believable for a two and a half tonne car.
Top speed is an irrelevant-for-us 208 km/h; more important, you’ll find yourself going 120 klicks and it’ll feel more like 60.
The shape of the car is predicated on the belief that about 90 percent of Rolls-Royce owners do most of their own driving, although many will have a chauffeur for special occasions.
So a commanding driving position was required, hence a tall seat with an excellent view down onto, not merely along, the massive hood. A nearly-flat interior floor and gigantic wheels and tires help make this a long, tall automobile. Yet such are the proportions penned by chief exterior stylist Marek Djordjevic that the car doesn’t look all that big until you see it
side-by-side with another vehicle.
From the rear, the Phantom looks maybe a trifle pinched, but it is every inch a Rolls-Royce – handsome, tasteful, and above all, imposing. About the only concern that bears expressing about the car’s functionality is rearward visibility, which has been sacrificed to both style and to the privacy the rear-cabin riders demand. But the resulting blind spots to the rear three-quarters are truly prodigious – reversing is a genuine concern, which the smallish side-view mirrors can only partially allay. The giant rear headrests and the Centre High-Mounted Stop Lamp that dips below the upper edge of the rear window also make it hard to see just who
it is that you’ve wafted past, and whether that Ford Crown Victoria behind you has a rack of red and blue lights on its roof.
The rear-hinged rear “coach” doors take some getting used to. When exiting the vehicle, you have to remember to push on the front part of the door, not the back, to open it. Power assist for opening these doors (to compliment the power-assisted closing) was considered, and wouldn’t be a bad idea at all – they are heavy. And inside each rear door face is an umbrella, furled up and stuck in there for immediate access so Sir or Madam need not get wet.
The interior design uses a lot of different materials, the multiple colours of which did not seem all that harmonious to me. But the wood, leather and chrome, and the assembly thereof are of the absolutely highest grade. Only cheap-looking sun visor vanity mirror covers really detract here.
The Phantom has a simplified BMW iDrive system buried in the centre console; its screen is hidden behind a barrel-roll-rotating panel on the dash which normally displays a lovely analogue clock. The most common functions are handled by fairly easy to discern knobs, levers, switches and dials, which will surely better suit typical Rolls-Royce customers.
The seats look simple, but are very comfortable and are multiply adjustable. There may not be quite the sense of occasion in the Phantom’s back seat as in the new Mercedes Maybach super-sedan, but it too is a very accommodating place. There is no rear seat adjustment yet, although it is being looked at. A Maybach-like two-seat package with adjustable chairs was shown at the Geneva Auto Show, and should be available shortly after start of production.
There are no immediate plans to duplicate the “Business Class” seating package of the long-wheelbase Maybach; chief engineer Leverton says that if their customers were going to be driving as far as to make such a seating package necessary, they’d probably take their helicopter or the G4 Gulfstream private jet.
If the Phantom looks big and IS big, it also seems pretty big when you first pull out of a parking lot. The extremely light steering which feels a bit vague at first is also a bit intimidating. But very quickly, the car seems to shrink around you – the steering is actually quite precise, and the turning circle is remarkably tight for such a huge car.
The thin-rimmed steering wheel is traditional Rolls-Royce, but feels unusual in these days of fat rims.
The all-new double wishbone front suspension, the revised BMW 7-Series rear suspension, and the computer-controlled dampers which read the road every second and adjust their settings automatically conspire to create what, I have no compunction in asserting, is the finest ride in the industry. Even the infamous “Bott’s dots” – the raised cat’s-eye lane markers on California highways – are dismissed with almost smug indifference.
Yet the handling is amazing. Leverton says they did not try to build a sports sedan, but he didn’t quite achieve this non-objective, I’m afraid. If the car were available with sports seats that kept the driver better locked in laterally, it would embarrass many pure sports cars on the sort of tight, twisty roads we encountered to the north and east of Santa Barbara. The “anti-dive” geometry is especially noteworthy – the car’s blunt nose does not threaten to dig a replica of the Panama Canal in the pavement every time you come to a quick stop, which the car’s gigantic brakes can easily allow you to do.
I mentioned the car is not quite perfect. The chrome “organ-stop” dash vent controls don’t move with the slickness of those on the Bentley Arnage (or the former Rolls-Royce, the Silver Seraph). You can occasionally feel the transmission shift – it’s not entirely seamless, as we’ve seen in other applications (Jaguar S-Type R, BMW 7-Series) of this ZF box.
There is more wind noise coming from the base of the windshield than I expected, perhaps unavoidable with this giant piece of glass battering the wind as it does. Solution? Just turn up the spectacularly clean and clear Harmon-Kardon sound system.
And there is only one turn signal tell-tale on the dash, which flashes for either a left or a right turn – like my 1973 BMW 2002. All the design staff seem a bit embarrassed about this one, and it’ll be fixed at the first opportunity.
Click image to enlarge
In our test car the power door closer on the right rear side couldn’t quite get the job done without having a window open about ten mm or so, to relieve air pressure. This is a finely-judged thing, and presumably a bit of fine-tuning is required.
To the credit of the engineering and the assembly team in Goodwood England, these pre-production cars were otherwise completely rattle-free, and I’m sure these minor glitches will not find their way into customers’ cars.
There are a million details that bear mentioning on this car; I have barely scratched the surface. An owner of one of these fine motor cars will have a lifetime to discover and enjoy them all, as he or she is wafted around town or across continent. Or, when he or she is just taking the car out on a Sunday morning for a blast down a favourite stretch of two-lane twisty blacktop. And when has a Rolls-Royce owner ever wanted to do that?