The Rolls-Royce is the big daddy of our funky bunch at 19.1 feet in length, and it's easily the freshest and most interesting. By turns, one is impressed by its mass, its audacity, its design cleverness, its comfort, its performance, and the sheer wonder of the thing being made in the first place. No one fails to clock a car boasting the world's largest passenger-car tires (22-inch Michelins which stand 31 inches tall and feature a hubcap with an RR logo that remains upright while the wheels spin around), especially when it has a grille as big and bold as the Phantom's. In spy pictures, we hated it. At the auto shows, we were frightened of it. But on the road, coming up fast in your rear-view mirror, the Phantom's visage looks just right. Driving it feels just right, too, even though this is a giant car with a high, cab-rearward seating position quite unlike anything else going.
The Phantom and the Bentley Arnage start with the same design DNA in mind. Both cars pay visible homage to the Silver Clouds of the 1950s and '60s, our favorite Rolls period and most everyone else's. This undoubtedly explains the related feel of the rear styling of the two cars. We think the Bentley might be the better-looking car overall, but toward the rear, the Phantom-the work of Marek Djordjevic, a young designer based at BMW's Designworks/ USA studio in Newbury Park, California-has got some magic of its own going on.
Keeping things down to a comparatively trim 5577 pounds, the Rolls-Royce is spotted an aluminum spaceframe clad with composite and aluminum skin, with an interior nicer than any we've ever seen. BMW 7-series mechanical bits and electronic gadgets populate the Rolls, but they don't define it. It is the best proof yet of the wisdom of spending a little bit more to make a car a little more different from its corporate relations, the first proof being the splendid cabin of the underrated BMW Z8 convertible. If you accept the need for spending more than $300,000 for a car, the additional cost of a Phantom over the others might be considered well spent.
In the Phantom, BMW's extra trouble gets you the world's best wood-and-leather car interior, circa 2003. From the deco overhead lighting to the gauges using Rolls's own 1930s typeface, to the brilliantly reverent retro steering wheel with its large-diameter rim, to the trademark organ-stop fresh-air vents, heavily chromed and as wonderful as ever to use, to the most credible wood veneers in all creation, it spells Rolls-Royce the way the Maybach spells Mercedes-Benz. And, miraculously, the Phantom's computer control dial seems considerably less irksome than it does when it appears as iDrive in the 7-series, omitting the heating controls.
The aluminum spaceframe makes the Rolls not just lighter than the others but stiffer (more than twice as stiff as the Arnage and the lately canceled Silver Seraph), which aids the causes of refinement and handling. At low speeds, there is no quieter, more serene vehicle. As the pace quickens, the Phantom loses the edge to the Maybach, although it, too, uses double-glazed glass and is still very quiet into the triple digits. The Phantom leans more than the king of Sindelfingen, but it also can be hustled with more alacrity than any Rolls ever, with brakes to match. The steering has better feel than the Maybach's, and the car is almost as stupid fast (5.7 seconds from 0 to 60 mph), with a bored 6.75-liter version of BMW's 6.0-liter V-12 dispatching 453 horsepower and 531 pound-feet of torque. The transmission, electronically actuated and most delightful for it, is a good six-speed ZF unit, but it can't be downshifted manually by its operator, having but two positions, forward and reverse. For $325,000, I think I'll reserve the right to shift for myself.
Not surprisingly, the Phantom gets about no miles per gallon (the Maybach actually averaged 20 mpg over one full highway tankful, which was a pleasant surprise). Thanks to its thick C-pillars, however, it actually affords its showoff occupants complete privacy, meaning that no one necessarily knows who is wasting all that gasoline and enjoying the pleasures within. That's assuming you aren't driving, which you might well want to be. In the driver's seat, you will be more visible, though still looking down on the world, high and mighty, as Rolls drivers were in the old days. The Phantom feels 1930s tall and 1950s strong. Viewed in today's terms, it bridges the gap between the feel-good elevational majesty of a high-end SUV, a performance car, and a balls-to-the-wall luxury automobile. Isn't this what they call a segment buster?