Rolls-Royce once advertised itself as "the best car in the world." At some point that might well have been true, but until the Rolls-Royce Phantom was introduced in 2003, it hadn't been the case for at least sixty years. That car, an artful combination of traditional restrained British elegance and rigorous German engineering -- courtesy of parent BMW -- was a splendid anachronism that resonated with traditional R-R buyers the world over. If its facade was less than felicitous, the Phantom's overall impression was one of massive magnificence. Now, with minimal but absolutely vital and extremely effective exterior changes for the Series II, the design is far more refined. The too-small, round, pig-eyed headlamps that spoiled the frontal composition have been expunged, the gigantic grille shell is formed as a single stainless-steel piece, and forged twenty-one-inch wheels are simpler in appearance (and the better for it).
The Phantom -- available as a sedan, a coupe, and a convertible -- stands alone at the pinnacle of very large prestige automobiles, the ultimate symbolic conveyance for "the one percent." Even Bentley's impressive Mulsanne is directly comparable only to the "entry level" Rolls-Royce Ghost, not the huge Phantom. R-R CEO Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes emphasizes that the company has no interest in cars selling below a quarter-million dollars and has no concerns about other companies entering that rarefied, demand-driven segment. As Daimler's overblown Maybach -- now relegated to history books for the second time -- shows, it is impossible to invent heritage, however soundly based. Profiting from its impeccable, continuous 106-year history, Rolls-Royce sold some 3500 cars in 2011, its best-ever year in terms of volume. Most of them, we'd venture, were sold more for what they represent than for what they do.
Driving the Series II cars, both on the autoroute and on challenging secondary roads north of the Mediterranean on France's Cote d'Azur -- the French Riviera to Americans -- shows why sales were so good in bad economic times. The Phantom is powerful, quiet, and supremely comfortable. On the toll road, we were struck by the level of wind noise. No, not by any annoying whistles caused by leaks but by the simple sound of a silent vehicle's passage through the air mass, just as one is aware of movement in a sailplane. Stability at speed is unaffected by wind or road surface, as one might expect from the Phantom's considerable weight, very large tire footprint, and carefully designed suspension.
Even more impressive was the big sedan's behavior on narrow, winding mountain roads. It is a long way from being a sports car, but it holds the line a driver sets for it as though pressed down by aerodynamics, as in a racing car rather than just by its own weight. One is subliminally aware of that weight on initial takeoff from rest. Push your foot down, and there are a few thousandths of a second when the sound of the V-12 engine -- newly mated to an eight-speed automatic -- rises but the car doesn't move. The Phantom's 0-to-60-mph time of well under six seconds belies one's fleeting sense of immovability. Yet the Rolls is really not a driver's car, as it is intended primarily for people who prefer to be chauffeured.
The Phantom Coupe and the Drophead Coupe (convertible) are a different story entirely. Getting in through their rear-hinged doors is so effortless that it's easy to understand why they were ubiquitous in the classic era, despite less capable latches. Steering feel is slightly more positive, self-return a bit stronger, and the dampening feels firmer but does not hamper the still outstanding ride comfort. Braking power of all Phantoms is absolutely phenomenal, whether roads are dry or streaming from a sudden downpour. Intermittent rain showers had us putting the top up and down several times, a perfectly painless and reasonably prompt procedure but one that requires a stop.
The cabins in all of the Phantom variants are, of course, finished to the expected highest standards, with lovely wood, soft leather, bright chrome bezels, and tactile handles and buttons. Everything you touch, or that touches you, has the right texture and tension to tell you it's the best possible solution. The steering wheels themselves are magnificent, evocative of the traditional, very plain, black steering wheels of yore but with multiple buttons integrated around the hub.
As your time at the wheel increases, the cars feel smaller and handier, and the odd ergonomics are less intrusive. Rolls-Royce thinks most controls should be tucked away until needed, but having to open an obstructive central console lid that tips forward and upward in order to be able to adjust a seat seems illogical. The counter to that criticism was that one becomes used to such things once you've lived with the car for a while. Perhaps. It would certainly be nice to verify that.
The Specs //
On Sale: September
Price: $403,970/$475,295/ $434,295/$474,900 (sedan/extended-wheelbase sedan/Coupe/Drophead Coupe)
Engine: 6.7L V-12, 453 hp, 531 lb-ft
Fuel Mileage: 11/18 mpg (est.)
Minor changes, major effect
In its initial configuration, the German-influenced Phantom was certainly imposing but also just a shade goofy-looking. There was no mistaking its marque identity, but "huh?" was an appropriate response to a first look at the clumsily composed facade. Changes made by recently appointed head of exterior design Giles Taylor for the Series II transform the Phantom's frontal aspect from brutal, railyard-shunting locomotive to credible, if still not beautiful, luxury sedan. The bulk, proportions, and centerline profile are unchanged, but the lines, lamps, and auxiliary openings are carefully refined, making this a highly successful face-lift.
1. Sharp edges of the Series I's built-up shell are replaced by a softer, curved single stamping for pedestrian safety. Looks better, too.
2. Indented area around the headlamps is much smaller on the Series II, more cohesive and consistent. And more elegant.
3. Bright tube across the headlamp serves as daytime running light and makes the car look wider. Lamps are complex in function and simple in appearance.
4. Bright trim surrounding this slot links it to the lamps above, completely changing the proportions of the frontal graphics.
5. Chrome bar in outer inlets in the smooth bumper fascia draw the eye downward and outward. The visual width of the whole is improved over the previous blocky battering-ram look.
6. Entire periphery of the bumper turns under, giving the impression of a carefully shaped complete form, even the underside.
7. Simplification means only one applied piece where formerly there were two.
8. Grouped door handles were a key feature of the side view and remain an elegant and highly functional R-R design element.
9. Rear wheel openings are as big as those in front, which is unusual on a sedan and more often seen on sports models. It gives the car a planted look, enhanced by twenty-one-inch wheels.