First Drive: Rolls-Royce 102EX

Rolls-Royce has sent five people to look after the Phantom Experimental Electric parked in the back of my hotel, and they all look nervous. Not just because the 102EX, as it's known, is a $3 million one-off that has just graced the floor of the Geneva auto show and still has a year of testing ahead of it. And not because I'm the first person outside Rolls-Royce to drive it. No, it's what I'm planning to do with their car that's causing them anguish.

They think it has a range of 125 miles. They don't know, because they only finished it a week ago. It's 112 miles around Lake Geneva. That's where I plan to go, and they really don't want a car that just headlined the Geneva show and for which range is a crucial issue getting beached ignominiously on the side of a Swiss road.

The 102EX is not about environmental sustainability; it's about the financial sustainability of Rolls-Royce. Its customers don't ask for "green" cars. It's not that they don't care -- it's just not what they go to Rolls-Royce for. If they want a Tesla, they can just buy one. But Rolls needs to be ready with an alternative to V-12s before the oil runs out.

You'd have thought that electric motors would be ideal for a brand that majors in refinement. But a Rolls-Royce is more than a luxury good, and the company is unsure how important an actual engine is to its reputation for engineering. It has built the 102EX to find out -- and it seems quite prepared for its customers to hate it.

Because a Rolls-Royce is already so furiously expensive, the cost of the battery, which usually distorts the economics of ordinary electric cars, is much less significant. So, up front is what Rolls believes is the biggest lithium-ion battery ever fitted to a passenger car. Total capacity is 71 kWh, and a full charge takes a lengthy eight to twenty hours, depending on supply. There's a socket in the C-pillar and an induction-charging plate underneath. Two AC motors drive the rear wheels and make a total of 388 hp, down from 453 hp with the V-12, but torque goes up ten percent to 590 lb-ft.

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Sounds like the ideal vehicle to go battery-powered. I'm glad there are alternatives popping up.

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