Driving the new Rolls-Royce Phantom is six-star luxury on wheels

By Businessweek , November 21 2017
Driving the new Rolls-Royce Phantom is six-star luxury on wheels

After more than a decade, the historic brand is relaunching its flagship sedan. The result is a US$450,000 hunk of power and opulence.

Reaching 7,976 feet above sea level, Switzerland’s spindle-thin Furka Pass is one of the highest mountain roads in the world. Its sheer edges are so abrupt they make professional drivers sweat.

The climb is suited for something small and athletic, such as a Porsche 911, or the Aston Martin DB5 James Bond drove here during an epic chase scene in Goldfinger.

It’s not typically where you’d land a 5,754-pound, 20-foot-long coach that’s meant to be enjoyed from the back seat.

Yet that’s exactly the spot Rolls-Royce Motor chose to introduce its latest effort, the eighth version of its Phantom flagship sedan.

For the first time since 2003, the carmaker has orchestrated a complete update on the model - only the second time it’s done so under BMW ownership.

The Phantom is the marque that John Lennon and Elvis Presley drove, the one Queen Elizabeth commissioned as her preferred mode of travel.

First designed in 1925 by Henry Royce himself, it’s the oldest automotive model still produced today. Last year, Phantom sales generated about 15 percent of Rolls-Royce’s revenue in the Americas; it’s the company’s single-biggest money-making series.

It’s also the largest vehicle Rolls-Royce makes, with a 6.75-liter, 563-brake-horsepower, V12 engine powerful enough to run a tank. The Phantom can hit 60 mph in just over five seconds – remarkable for a car of its heft.

To appreciate the US$450,000 vehicle’s full glory, start with its outside and admire the sheer wall of the grille, from which designer Giles Taylor has made all the other elements flow.

Each steel prong has been hand-polished to mirrored deco glory; the rectangular headlights are the only ones in the world frosted in Lalique glass.

Climb in the back. With a gentle pull, the rear-hinged door closes toward the front of the car. The interior is specifically designed to dazzle with its inch-thick dyed lambswool carpeting; high-gloss polished wood paneling; drinks cabinet with whiskey glasses, decanter, Champagne flutes, and chilled compartment; and a ceiling glittering with tiny lights.

Rolls-Royce says the new Phantom is the quietest car on Earth. After three days spent winding through mountain passes and visiting rural retreats near Zurich, I believe it.

Engineers tested 180 prototypes of the tires alone – they’re filled with noise-canceling foam – and inserted thick layers of felt between alloy skins inside the cabin floor and along the bulkhead. The result is a suite that’s officially 10 percent quieter than its predecessor when moving at high speeds.

The new Rolls-Royce Phantom easily dominated Switzerland's Furka Pass.
The new Rolls-Royce Phantom easily dominated Switzerland's Furka Pass.

Today’s wealthy, many of whom are relatively young and newly affluent, expect these comforts. The average age of the Rolls-Royce buyer is 44, down from 56 seven years ago and younger than the average age of 50 among all luxury car buyers, according to Kelley Blue Book. (In Rolls-Royce’s second-biggest market, China, 38 percent of all new luxury car buyers are under the age of 40.)

A foot on the pedal reveals that BMW’s full engineering resources have made the car lighter, stiffer, and more technologically advanced than anything that’s come before.

Rolls-Royce is very proud of a new double-wishbone suspension coupled with an air ride system that makes the car as smooth as a magic carpet, as executives will say to you often.

Excuse the cliché this time - they’re right. Push the gas pedal, and the Phantom uses its massive power to surge effortlessly forward with authority and elegance.

Most impressive is the car’s novel four-wheel drive. It allows each wheel autonomy to choose traction and vector over any change in direction.

This was the secret to breaking the Furka: Even as the Phantom thrust forward like a bullet train, it danced across the pass like a much smaller car, surprising at every turn.

This bodes well for the Project Cullinan, the much anticipated first-ever SUV from Rolls-Royce, which arrives late next year. It had better be good. That is, if you need another Rolls.