T HE strength of the Rolls- Royce legend is such that, even when the company was going through hard times, its name was still associated with the type of refinement, quality and status that others could only hope to one day aspire to. That’s why, even when Rolls-Royce cars could hardly be considered “the best in the world”, it remained common to describe, as an example, Dom Perignon as the “Rolls-Royce of champagnes.” Or perhaps talk of a Patek Philippe being the Rolls-Royce of watches. But being the Rolls-Royce of anything requires more than just a high price tag or glitz. It requires excellence, undoubtedly, but also a sense of flair, and, for lack of a better description, class. Praise comes no higher than being described as the “Rolls-Royce” of something…
But when BMW took over Rolls-Royce in the late-’90s, it was faced with a challenge. The time had come to once again build a Rolls-Royce that would justify the high esteem that seemingly comes automatically from wearing the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot. BMW had to build a proper Rolls-Royce again, a car that would truly live up to its own hype.
Not many publications in the world are afforded the opportunity of testing a Rolls-Royce, and we were delighted when we received the news that CAR would join a small group of magazines in the world to have put the Phantom through its paces. Not only is the Phantom the first Rolls-Royce ever to be tested by CAR, it is also the most expensive car ever to go through our full road-test programme.
The Phantom is also the biggest saloon car to have ever graced our test garage. Its 5 834 mm length makes it 862 mm longer than a Range Rover, for example, and at 1 632 mm high, it is only 270 mm lower than that vehicle. In isolation, the Phantom’s size is somewhat hard to judge, but see it amongst other “ordinary” cars, or see it in traffic, and its size becomes very, very apparent. Its imposing presence isn’t only a result of its sheer size. In terms of design it raises eyebrows too, and comments aren’t always positive at first.
But classical elegance and voluptuous beauty have never been part of the Rolls-Royce formula. Instead, undoubted presence is a requirement, and in this nothing can match the Phantom. Its design is neither retro nor inspired by any single previous Rolls-Royce model. Design director Ian Cameron and stylist Marek Djordjevic have instead come up with a car that could best be described as an amalgamation of signature Rolls-Royce styling details, strung together by a fresh, very modern body design. Look closely and you’ll see the strong, steady and ever-soslightly sloping shoulder line of the Phantom II, the roofline and C-pillar of the Silver Wraith, and the front-end wing tops of the Silver Cloud.
Had BMW decided to build an all-steel Phantom of this size, excessive weight and poor rigidity would have been the result. For that reason the company went to the considerable effort and expense of developing an all-new aluminium spaceframe for the Phantom, the largest of its kind ever for a motorcar. Its light weight (only 550 kg as a body-in-white), contributes to a relatively light overall mass of 2 497 kg, and also to a perfect 50:50 weight distribution. Rolls- Royce claims the rigidity of the Phantom’s structure rivals a Formula One car’s! The spaceframe consists of some 200 extruded profiles and over 300 sheet parts.
The saving in body weight allowed Rolls-Royce to develop an elaborate suspension system for the car, necessary to achieve the company’s demanding ride, NVH refinement and dynamics aims. Double wishbones are used in front, with a multi-link set-up at the rear. Self-levelling and adjusting air suspension is used all-round. The system is so sensitive that it can react to a rear seat passenger moving from one side of the car to the other. The rack and pinion steering system is mounted on the same steel subframe as the sus- pension, which is in turn attached directly to the aluminium spaceframe. A hydromount is used to counter any knocks travelling up through the steering system and into the driver’s hands.
The Phantom rides on enormous, 21-inch wheels shod with 255/50 rubber at the front and a pair of 285/45s at the rear. The tyres are of the run-flat variety, understandable given the amount of space a spare would have taken up!
Under the bonnet is perhaps the most obvious bit of BMW parts-bin sourcing. But at 6 749 cm3 in capacity, it is quite a large “bit”. The V12 engine, though proudly stamped with the Rolls-Royce name, is based on the unit also used in the BMW 760i, but in a significantly different state of tune, and with increased stroke and bore resulting in Rolls-Royce’s traditional 6 ¾ litres displacement. In the Rolls-Royce the direct-injection monster is tuned for torque and refinement, the result being 720 N.m of torque available at 3 500 r/min. Rolls-Royce says as much as 75 per cent of the maximum torque figure is available from just over 1 000 r/min. Maximum power is 338 kW, reached at 5 250 r/min.
The engine is mated with a ZF-developed six-speed automatic with shift-by-wire technology, driving the rear wheels. No manual shift function is offered – how unbecoming, the thought of it! – but the Phantom does offer a “Low” function. At the push of a steering-mounted button, the gearbox offers more engine braking on descents, and will also hold a gear a little bit longer before shifting. If you want to get off the line quickly, it is advisable to press the “Low” button, as it will then allow the car to start in first gear, as opposed to second in normal Drive.
Speaking about acceleration, the Phantom gives quite an impressive showing, considering its size and emphasis on refinement and decorum. We achieved a best 0-100 km/h sprint time of 6,17 seconds, and an electronically limited top speed of 242 km/h, at which time the unusual “power reserve” dial was still showing 25 per cent available!
Impressive stuff, as is the flexibility. A highly desirable aspect of driving the Phantom is its ability to almost instinctively react to any throttle input with just the amount of verve that you had hoped for. Mash the throttle pedal to the floor and the electronic brain responds impressively quickly – the result is a lovely feeling of being pressed into the soft backrest by some large, invisible force.
The brakes, too, proved impressive. Tasked with hauling the big 2,5-ton car down a stop are 374 mm ventilated front discs, with 370 mm ventilated discs doing duty at the rear. They’re certainly up to the job, the Phantom achieving an excellent average emergency stopping time of 2,86 seconds with no sign of fade or overheating. Now to the cabin, a place where a poor performance would see this Rolls-Royce fall flat on its flat face. Slide onto the driver’s seat for the first time, and you’ll probably remain seated there for a few moments, taking in the full scope of the hand-crafted facia
Treading a fine line between too ornamental and restrained elegance, the Phantom’s facia is an achievement in its own right because nothing you see or touch – besides, ironically, the key – is sourced from the BMW parts-bin, yet many of the “behind the scenes” software items are shared with the 7 Series.
The Phantom’s instrumentation is simple and minimalist in execution. A large centre speedometer dominates, flanked by the aforementioned power reserve meter, and a dial for fuel and heat levels. As with Rolls- Royces of the past, the instrument faces are black, with fine white lettering and delicate white needles. The steering wheel is absurdly thin at first grasp, but becomes slightly thicker on the lower half of the wheel.
The centre hangdown section is essentially constructed of three blocks of solid wood or, in the case of our test car, a more modern piano key black finish.
Right at the top, flanked by two chromed eyeball ventilation outlets with organ stop controls, is a block housing a delicate looking analogue clock. But all is not what it seems. Press one of the organ stops and the block rotates, revealing a colour screen for the slightly simplified version of BMW’s iDrive system.
The controller for this slides out of the centre armrest. Housed slightly lower down on the hangdown is the front-loading CD player sound system (a 6-disc loader is located in the glove compartment). At the bottom you’ll find ventilation controls that look similar to those used before in the Corniche, as an example. The controls for the seating arrangements are hidden under the armrest, and the built-in car-phone slides out of a drawer just above the ventilation system. Once you’ve acclimatised, the ergonomics are actually fine, although the iDrive system still ranks as our least favourite of such systems.
Driver comfort is superb, the seat being both accommodating and offering plenty of adjustment. Our test unit came with black leather but, of course, Rolls-Royce offers buyers a vast list of possibilities for interior trim, and when delving into the “Bespoke” programme, it really becomes a case of “your wish is Rolls-Royce’s command”. Similarly, it is hardly worth talking about standard equipment as each car is essentially purpose built for its buyer. Suffice to say, everything is available.
The Phantom’s wheelbase is 3 570 mm, so space is hardly going to be an issue. Keep in mind, however, that this is the so-called short-wheelbase version…
Enter through the novel “suicide” rear doors and, on the way in, you may notice the pullout umbrellas hidden within the doors. The rear seat is more akin to a couch, and curves into the sides of the car allowing rear occupants to sit slightly angled towards one another. Legroom is of the stretch-out variety at the rear, but the boot is relatively small for a car of this size, measuring only 336 dm3. A further 48 dm3 of underfloor storage is available, but there is, not surprisingly, no folding rear seat.
Then again, this is hardly a family-oriented car. Seated in the back, and with a driver experienced in the delicacies of driving a Rolls-Royce behind the steering wheel, a ride in a Rolls- Royce is a tranquil, relaxing experience. At idle, our sound level reading of 35 dBa is amongst the best ever recorded, but has in fact been beaten by a few cars. However, get up to a cruising speed of 120 km/h, and the hushed cabin is unmatched.
But, perhaps in contrast with expectations, it is driving the Phantom that is a truly memorable exercise. Initially, the novice Rolls-Royce driver tends to overly “manhandle” the Phantom, grabbing the thin steering wheel in the normal “10 to 2” position, and trying to hustle the big machine. Do this, and you simply won’t gel with it. No. Sit back, relax the shoulders and guide the steering wheel lightly with the tips of the fingers at the “20 to 5” position. You’ll be amazed at the change… 105 years ago a British motoring magazine described riding in a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost as “the feeling of being wafted through the countryside.” This remains the case today, and waftability is a vital part of the Rolls-Royce DNA, so much so that the company went to the effort of defining what it meant before starting work on the modern Phantom. According to the marque’s “book”, waftability defines, “the smooth, resolute performance of the engine and driveline.” Mission accomplished.
But it’s also an involving car for the driver. Although the steering initially feels too overassisted and light, it does allow some feedback from the wheels to get through, but without any harshness. The same is true of the suspension. It smothers minor road irregularities, seemingly ironing out all the wrinkles on the road surface without transmitting any harshness to the cabin, but it’s also not completely desensitised. Go over railway tracks, and you’ll know what you’ve done, although it will be a “distant” sensation. As a result, the driver never feels completely isolated from what’s happening underneath.