The Rolls-Royce Phantom is one of those things that breathes air so rarefied, one's imagination runs wild. It's not hard to envision a factory perched atop Mount Olympus that's staffed by gods turning solid blocks of unobtanium into these individualized rolling spectacles. Remarkably, the Phantom is actually the work of mere mortals. Some are in Germany, the rest in England at Rolls-Royce's Goodwood factory where these cars are hand-assembled with an incomprehensible attention to detail. Massive in form, decadently appointed, stratospherically priced and absolutely, positively unmistakable, each Rolls-Royce exiting this facility is an event in and of itself. The experience is reserved for the select few who can cover the significant cost of entry, but sometimes there are exceptions. Like me, for example. The Car Gods (and the good people at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars North America) saw fit to place a two-tone silver Phantom in my care for a weekend. When it pulled into my driveway, I couldn't help thinking my life had turned into a rap video.
All photos ©2007 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.
Okay, maybe an otherwise very boring rap video. After all, I have no entourage of yes-men and bikini-clad dancers, no motorcade of Escalades and G-Wagens on standby, and no paparazzi giving chase. Nor are any of those things required. The Phantom transfers instant demi-celeb status to its driver and passengers. A car longer than a Chevy Suburban with a sticker price equal to a substantial mortgage tends to have that effect. Plus, the Phantom is awesome to behold, carrying with it a unique road presence, to say the least. If someone were to say that it had its own gravitational pull, we'd simply nod and avoid driving near shopping carts. Then, for kicks, we'd head to the seashore and investigate whether we could alter tidal patterns with a few drive-bys.
As mentioned earlier, ours was decked out in a classy two-tone silver finish -- dark on the bottom, lighter on top, with subtle contrasting pinstripes running along the coachwork's upper swage line. The car's mammoth physical proportions are best appreciated in profile. Despite a hood that looks expansive enough to support naval flight operations, the car's front overhang itself is actually very short. A rakish windscreen climbs up to a roofline that's taller than the angled side glass would suggest, and it arcs back down into the Phantom's signature, ultra-thick C-pillar. A longer rear overhang accommodates a spacious trunk, which RR says will swallow four golf bags. There are no unsightly antennae marring the Roller's bodywork -- they're all hidden beneath the radio-transparent composite front wings (that's "fenders" to you, my fellow Americans). The chrome 21-inch wheels' always-upright "RR" center caps are spaced 140 inches apart. Let that sink in for a moment, and then realize that this is the "short" wheelbase Phantom.
Moving forward, the car's expressive front end coolly sizes you up through its narrowed "eyes," which actually house the high-beams and turn signals. The round, low-mounted lamps are the Phantom's Xenon headlights, and they flank the iconic, Pantheon-shaped radiator grille. That highly-polished edifice is topped, as always, by the Spirit of Ecstasy, and when the sun hits it straight on, playing off the vertical slats and that flying lady, we're pretty sure it's visible from the International Space Station. The car's uncluttered rear is the only area that can be accused of coming up short in terms of visual drama. Aside from a substantial chrome trim plate on the bootlid, there's little flash to be seen back there, and the subtly detailed taillamps look small against the rest of the package. That stated, it doesn't matter. There are cars that make an impression when they arrive, and then there's this. This, dear friends, causes a commotion. And if the outside isn't impressive enough, opening the doors to the cabin introduces you to new, absurdly fabulous levels of luxury.
If you're the driver, a pull on the front door's chrome handle grants you entry into a cockpit that is a visual and tactile feast. Sliding into the the Consort Red leather seat, the first thing to cross my mind was, "so this is what 'no expense spared' looks like." How else can one react to the ambiance Rolls-Royce has created? Before you, the instrument panel is finished in splendid, warm Elm, which also dresses up the wide spokes on the thin-rimmed multifunction steering wheel and the lid to the front seat cupholders. Three round white-on-black gauges tell you what you need to know. In lieu of a tach, Rolls-Royce uses a Power Reserve % gauge. At idle, the needle sits at 100%. Give the car gas, and it creeps leftward as the engine uses more of its available power. You quickly learn that the Phantom always has a healthy power reserve available. It never breaks a sweat.
A 160-mph speedometer sits front and center, and to its right is a combination fuel/temperature gauge. A pair of small rectangular displays house the warning light cluster and the digital multifunction readout (fuel consumption, trip odo, etc.), completing the set of primary instrumentation. A handsome analog clock takes up the middle space, and tumbles out of sight to reveal the main LCD screen if the hidden iDrive controller is popped open (a nice touch) or if the "organ pull" located to its left is pressed. More often than not, I kept the LCD screen tucked away, preferring the classic look the clock bestows. The nav display isn't the only thing that's hidden, either. The power seat controls are placed out of view under a front-hinged leather lid in the center console.
While iDrive is required for a number of the car's myriad techno features like the navigation system and Tomahawk missile launcher, the things you're most likely to adjust while underway can be set with old-fashioned dash-mounted controls. (We're kidding about the TLAM, by the way. It's not standard, but we're sure Rolls can accommodate you via the Bespoke program.) The controls at hand (or on the steering wheel) let you tune the radio, change audio sources and manage the HVAC system without delving into a menu. Oh, and all that switchgear is high quality, too. Everything from the little "violin key" nubs used to control a variety of different functions (window lifts, radio presets, sunroof -- the list goes on), to the fan-control dials and HVAC temperature selectors have a robust feel. The same goes for the round air vents, which are heavy to the touch and, like everything else in this rolling salon, simply ooze sybaritic quality.
Now that we've established that the front seat's a nice place to be if you're driving, let's head to the back. Entering the rear passenger cabin is inherently dramatic. Tug the handle and the rear-hinged coach door opens wide. Light spills into the compartment and exposes the gorgeous, curved rear lounge. If you know to look for it, the "RR"-embossed handle of the Phantom's standard-issue umbrella sparkles at you from its in-door holster (there's one for each side). The contrasting black leather trim on the door panel itself accentuates the red primary leather beautifully, and a chromed lid hides a substantial ashtray. In a Rolls-Royce, your vice is accommodated without having to check an option box and give up a cupholder.
The reasoning for the "suicide" doors in back is obvious the moment you step into the car. That's because you really do just step into the cabin. There's no need to maneuver around the door once you open it, so entry is easy. After your tush is planted on the rear seat, you can take a moment to appreciate your surroundings. Your feet rest on an impossibly thick lambswool rug. It's so lush, in fact, that friends and passengers instinctively kick off their shoes to better appreciate it. It's easy to get lost in the moment at this point, when you realize that you forgot to close the door. From the rear lounge, this would be a long and inelegant reach, massive door pulls notwithstanding, as you're positioned behind the doorframe when seated comfortably. No worries. There's a button on the window pillar beside you. Hold it down and the motorized door glides shut with a satisfying thud. This is usually followed by surprised laughter and exclamations of "No %$#@ing way!" from the rear occupants.
Pulling up on the front seatback reveals an exquisitely detailed snack tray. When it's stowed, the part facing the passengers is the same red leather as the seat. When opened, it's presented in the same veneered wood finish as the rest of the interior trim, and it's held up by sturdy, highly-polished hinged supports. The pièce de résistance, however, comes when you then lift the front edge of the snack tray and it slides up, revealing a 12" LCD display (one of a pair -- each seatback has one). This impresses folks as much as the power rear doors. The screen automatically blinks to life, briefly displaying "Rolls-Royce - Goodwood" and then defaulting to the onscreen menu and currently-selected entertainment source. An iDrive controller built into the hideaway center armrest lets the passengers choose what they want to watch or listen to. Those options include AM, FM, Sirius, TV (there's an OTA antenna built-in), CD or DVD. The audio is delivered through the fabulous fourteen-speaker Lexicon audio system, which makes the opening theme from "Shaft in Africa" sound particularly awesome with the volume cranked.
With the interior tour complete, lets talk about how the Phantom drives. Dock the Bimmer-style fob in its slot to the left of the steering wheel, apply the brakes, press the white Start/Stop button above it, and the 6.75L V12 awakens with a muted thrush then instantly settles into a quiet idle. Pop the car into gear via the column-mounted shifter and you're off. The first thing you notice when underway is the almost total silence that envelops you. Rolls-Royce didn't play around, and the occupants are ensconced behind double-pane glass in a compartment surrounded by sound-deadening materials. The attention to detail here shouldn't be overlooked. The wheel wells, for example, are fully-carpeted. Preserving the serenity of the cabin environment was clearly a top priority, and the Rolls-Royce engineers did a predictably good job. Around town, all you'll hear inside is the occasional thump from a pronounced road imperfection. What you won't do is feel it, as the Roller's suspension sucks up just about everything thrown at it. Get out on the highway, and the car remains quiet despite its blocky shape. You do get some wind noise around the rearview mirrors when you get the car's speed up, and it's probably exaggerated by the fact that everything else is so damned quiet. A flick of the stereo volume will blot it out entirely, and the rear seat passengers won't even notice it to begin with.
The car's 450 horsepower and 531 lb-ft of torque conspire to make driving at any speed a completely relaxed endeavour. Most of that torque is available at 1000 rpm, and unless you drop the hammer from a stop, the Phantom will launch in second gear, floating away gently, leaving its passengers unruffled. If you're cruising on the highway and dig into the throttle to put some space between yourself and the unwashed masses, the V12 responds instantly and effectively. Don't pay attention, and you'll find yourself humming along at speeds where the explanation, "Seriously officer, it only felt like I was going around 70" will likely be met with great skepticism and a hefty fine -- one the local constabulary will assume you'll have no trouble swallowing, at that. (Fortunately, I don't report this from experience.) Oh, and fuel economy? Not that the Phantom owner cares, but we observed between 9 and 10 mpg over the 4 days it was with us.
Behind the wheel, the 50/50 weight distribution lends a real sense of balance, the steering effort is light but never feels overassisted, and the big Roller goes where you tell it to with no unwanted drama. Comparisons to Aladdin's magic carpet are apt, only the Phantom's a lot better-equipped. The tradeoff for this almost complete lack of road-induced cabin turbulence is some notable body roll if you try and fling it into a turn too aggressively. Of course, if you expect the handling of an Elise in a 19-foot-long, 5,500-lb car appointed like the Queen Mary 2, you're really not being a very reasonable person. At a relaxed clip, the Phantom glides through those corners in the dignified manner an owner would expect. Brakes that could halt a locomotive corral the Phantom with ease and complete the overall dynamic package.
Forward visibility is good, but getting used to the long hood might take a little time for some. Rear visibility is obviously impacted by the massive c-pillars, but if you use your mirrors like they taught you to in driver's ed, you won't encounter any problems. Still, the car's length can create situations that are initially vexing. For instance, while taking my Dad for a ride, I came to a stop sign where the quiet local road I was on intersected with a busier, more-trafficked route. Even though I had the car's nose lined up with the sign, I was set so far back, I couldn't get a clear read on what was coming from either direction. This was slightly unnerving, as blindly driving a car that cost more than my house into oncoming traffic didn't seem like such a hot idea. My dad, riding shotgun and thinking he had discovered a weak spot, weighed in with, "Aww, come on. You can't see the road."
"Watch this," I replied, knowing something he didn't. I flipped the clock back, bringing the LCD display into view. Then I pulled back on the short stalk poking out of the steering column's left side -- the same one used to flash the high-beams. In this case, however, that action activated a little dual-lensed camera mounted in the center of the front bumper. A split-screen image showing me views up the intersecting road in both directions popped onto the display. With this extra assistance, I was able to easily judge when it was safe to pull out of the side street. My Dad's jaw has yet to return to a fully-closed position. It's the littlest details that blow people away.
Dropping jaws are a common sight outside the Rolls, too. You see, in-the-wild sightings of Phantoms are kind of rare for the average Joe, and while you might be able to slip by quietly if no one's looking, the Rolls is a commotion-in-waiting for those whose field of vision it does cross. It's not something you miss when it comes into view, and be prepared to host impromptu Q&A sessions if you're ever fortunate enough to have one for a spell. A routine trip to Starbucks became a lengthy affair, as it took me an extra 10 minutes just to walk into the shop while I chatted with folks sitting at the outdoor tables. As this went on, a steady stream of people in the shopping center approached the parked Roller, peering into the windows and giving it a thorough walkaround. I think the entire kitchen staff of the local pizzeria came out before it was over. A nighttime trip to Dairy Queen saw several local kids' eyes turn into saucers as they comprehended what just cruised into their hangout. And after a trip to pick up some sushi, the denizens of a local cruise night -- and these were people with some seriously nice cars themselves -- all tracked the Rolls as it drove out of the shared parking lot, heads on swivels. Everywhere the car went, it became the focus of attention. People stopped me. They asked questions. I let them check things out. They smiled at the peek-a-boo hood ornament when she ducked into the grille on command, and walked away happy. Sometimes astonished. Mostly delighted.
There's a reason for that. The Rolls-Royce Phantom is rare and special. There are, at this moment, around 1500 of them in the United States. In most neighborhoods, you'll never eyeball one. You cannot buy one (a new one) without spending upwards of $330,000. That figure, gaudy though it may be, is perhaps its most irrelevant statistic. For the shopper considering a Phantom, our tester's $372,600 sticker might as well read $3,726. The Phantom shopper has the money -- it isn't even a consideration. For example, I had a Phantom for a weekend, but there are plenty of Phantom owners who keep a spare one at their weekend homes. Now, I now know why. The Rolls-Royce Phantom is one of the best cars in the world -- some would say it's the best. Exquisite detail, an effortless but rewarding drive, and an unparalleled, magnetic street presence make the Phantom unique, giving credence to that point of view. People often asked if I was intimidated by it. The answer is no. I embraced it for what it is and drove it everywhere I would drive my own car.
Four days later, I wasn't intimidated. I was impressed.
All photos ©2007 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.