ROAD TEST: ROLLS-ROYCE DAWN

How do you evaluate a vehicle that is quite simply in a class of its own?

Let’s get one – usually crucial – criteria out the way first: the price. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, as our Match-up opposite glaringly indicates, there is not a single vehicle on offer in South Africa that is even in the same ballpark as the Dawn. The closest two luxury convertibles available are the Mercedes-AMG S65 Cabriolet at a mere R3,4 million and the Bentley Continental Supersports Convertible that will lighten your wallet to the tune of R4,85 million. That is still around 2,15 million South African rands cheaper than the car you see here; one that, as part of the Ghost range (along with the Wraith coupé), represents the start of the Rolls-Royce family.

The second reason, of course, is that price is not something that matters a great deal to those with the resources to purchase a Dawn. As one of these folk, you are not accustomed to embarking on a price comparison before choosing a car. Indeed, you will be buying a Dawn because you want the convertible version of what Rolls-Royce has long represented: the ultimate in automotive luxury, engineering and exclusivity.  Given its asking price, the latter is pretty much a given, but what of the first two? Well, that’s the part this road test will consider, a task the CAR team tackled with some enthusiasm given the rarity of a Rolls appearing in our test garage.

A walk around the Dawn and not even the cold fluorescent lighting suspended from our garage ceiling could diminish its elegance. Less architectural than the imposing Phantom, the Dawn’s lines are more sensual and do well to disguise its 5,5-metre length. Lest you think this is merely a Wraith with its sloping metal roof artfully removed, Rolls-Royce points out that, while it shares its 3 112 mm wheelbase with the coupé, 80% of the Dawn’s body panels are unique. With the steeply raked windscreen, long prow and Canadel open-pore wood panelling on the deck-like roof cover, the Dawn is the tastefully executed marriage of two things the ultra-wealthy deeply appreciate: luxury cars and yachts.

The 22 seconds it takes for the roof to silently unfurl and cover the cabin may be slow by current standards, but the stately procession of this six-layer fabric is entirely appropriate to the Dawn’s demeanour. Rolls-Royce claims it’s the world’s quietest convertible roof, not just in operation (it can be employed at speeds of up to 50 km/h) but in noise insulation at speed. Interestingly, in our decibel measurement – one taken at idle from inside the cabin with the car parked in our test garage – we measured 43 dBA, which isn’t particularly peaceful. The Honda CR-V tested on page 52 measured 38 dBA. To be fair, though, that is comparing a convertible with a hard top.

Open the huge, rear-hinged doors and you step into a two-plus-two cabin that’s nothing short of a master class in understated elegance. While the build quality found in luxury cars such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series may match the Roller’s, what they can’t contest is the minimalist sophistication and quality of materials. Your shoes rest upon thick lamb’s wool carpets, your buttocks sink into huge, cosseting seats made from the highest-quality hides, your hands grip an elegantly thin steering wheel and your ears register your favourite music courtesy of a 16-speaker bespoke audio system with a sensitive microphone to constantly monitor ambient exterior noise and adjust the volume and tone settings.

The Dawn’s interior is a beautiful blend of the traditional – the slim-rimmed steering wheel, the organ-stop air vents and the hallmark umbrellas which slot into the front fenders – and the modern, with a 10,3-inch LED-screen infotainment system that, when not in use, is hidden by a wooden panel in the centre of the expansive dash. Operated by a Spirit of Ecstasy rotary controller, the system is essentially a reworking of BMW’s iDrive, although it’s a touch pad rather than a touch screen because, says Rolls-Royce, that latter might leave unsightly fingerprints at driver and passenger eye level. Its green-shaded graphics are significantly different to that found on a BMW 7 Series, a vehicle that underpins the Dawn (the Ghost and Wraith, too).

The Dawn shares the previous Seven’s basic suspension, drive-train and structural elements. As Rolls-Royce points out, however, while there is some DNA courtesy of Munich’s large car, there’s also enough bespoke engineering to make the Dawn feel nothing like a Seven.
The press of a button on the dash closes those big doors – yes, servo motors do the job for you – and a press of another fires up the equally big 6,6-litre twinturbo petrol V12. The BMW-derived powerplant is good for 420 kW and 780 N.m of torque that drives the rear wheels through a ZF-sourced eight-speed torque-converter. Given the Dawn’s 2 600 kg heft, that considerable power comes in handy and is delivered in big velvety dollops that powered our car to a rather impressive 0-100 km/h sprint time of 4,99 seconds. Unsurprisingly, the more meaningful in-gear acceleration is as impressive, with the 100-120 km/h run dispatched in 1,58 seconds.

Along with that 0-100 km/h time, what also surprised us was the Dawn’ ability to scrub off speed. In our emergency-braking 100-0 km/h test, it managed a worst of 2,91 seconds and a best of 2,66 seconds. That matches the times posted by the BMW M4 GTS tested in our Performance Shootout earlier this year. Burying the accelerator in that deep-pile carpeting is, of course, a crass exercise in such a vehicle and you’re better off keeping the car’s power-reserve gauge (replacing the rev counter) at just below 100% while the low-boost, big-displacement personality of the V12 wafts you along. It’s a controlled waft, though. The stiff chassis – at launch last year, Rolls-Royce claimed it the stiffest two-plus-two convertible in the world – is managed by well-controlled air-sprung suspension with damping that both isolates you from road imperfections and manages the body roll that a comfortable luxury car this big will naturally exhibit.

Should you feel the need to test the car’s dynamic handling abilities, the big 21-inch tyres provide plenty of grip, but you do need to drive it like you would drive a classic sportscar … turn in early, feel the weight transfer laterally, let it settle and progressively get on the gas. Corner exits are then composed and entirely predictable, with the Dawn feeling a lot more lithe than its bulk would suggest. Although accurate, there is little in the way of feedback from the hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion steering; intentionally so. Being able to control the car with your fingertips is a signature Rolls-Royce trait and, whether negotiating the big Dawn through city streets or cruising along a highway, this method is both highly effective and appropriate.

Test Summary

As most of our testers noted, this is a difficult vehicle to evaluate. Is it three times better than that Mercedes-Benz S500 Cabriolet recently tested in our March 2017 issue? It’s certainly three times the price.  No, the engineering and luxury on offer aren’t quantifiably more than those possessed by other high-end vehicles in this segment … but there is a certain something that has always set Rolls-Royce automobiles apart and this Dawn possesses it in spades. Yes, it boasts silken refinement and old-money understatement, but as one member of the CAR team succinctly put it, it is simply impossible to replicate the sense of occasion that accompanies a Rolls. And you can’t put a price on that.

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CAR magazine