Phantom to the Opera: 2006 Rolls-Royce Phantom

Richard Newton

While the car is taking a well-deserved nap, we tour the opera house, climbing the opulent staircase, descending toward the mighty stage, browsing through the semicircular auditorium. In here, it's easy to picture a dark figure hiding behind one of the giant columns, or to imagine a network of subterranean passages and keeps, or to understand the dangerous double role of the female protagonist. Tonight, Cos Fan Tutte is playing: we give it a miss and go back to the Rolls, which emerges from the catacombs like a submarine rising for air, majestically parting the waves of the mid-afternoon traffic. What music do we select as we leave? The original 1986 London cast of Phantom, volume turned up.

We flow with the flock downriver, slowly zooming in on the Eiffel Tower. Soon it's stop-and-go again, giving plenty of opportunities to marvel at the dazzling dashboard or to play hide-and-seek with a navigation screen that flips over to turn into a clock. This cockpit is all about false bottoms and trompe l'oeil effects: the phone hides in a pneumatic drawer, the power seat controls are concealed beneath a leather-covered lid, the doors pull themselves shut automatically, the parking brake and starter are button-operated, and the light switches look like carry-over items from a vintage Silver Ghost. Like the Bugatti Veyron, the Phantom sports a power gauge, but its calibration is in subtle percent, not brash horsepower. The Lexicon sound system converts the land yacht into a rolling concert hall. Massive resonating chambers under the front seats create enough acoustic pressure to pop your eardrums. With the exception of iDrive, the ergonomics require neither a sixth sense nor programmed fingertips.

Like a gondola through the canals of Venice, the Phantom glides gracefully through the geometric grid that forms the streets in the heart of Paris. We move gradually away from l'Opra to explore new quartiers and arrondissements. Avenues become boulevards, squares diffuse into rues, portes alternate with quaies. Going west means Herms and Fauchon and Hdiard; north means Les Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps; south we find museums and government buildings; and east means bistros, bars, and brasseries. The sidewalks are dotted with men in dark coats-some of whom even wear berets like they did way back when-but the only masks we see exist in our imagination. There are also plenty of young blondes pretty enough to pass as Christine, the phantom's pupil and sole desire.

After a day and a half of zigzagging through Paris and it suburbs, the Rolls needs fuel again. Filling up draws a crowd. We pop the lid, and half a dozen heads bend over twice as many cylinders, a 453-hp, 6.7-liter V-12 that still tries to be quieter than the clock. The slushmatic cuts the 531-lb-ft torque pie into six juicy slices. In top gear, 1000 rpm equal 39 mph, so if the Priphrique-the ring road surrounding Paris-were a racetrack and if the engine would spin to the nominal 5350 rpm, one could max this thing at 209 mph-but of course there is insufficient power for that. Although the top speed is electronically limited to 149 mph, the acceleration is inspired, with 0 to 60 mph taking just 5.7 seconds.

In case you didn't know, the phantom never got lucky. Holding Christine captive was a rather dumb idea, so when he did let her go, she was Raoul's for the taking. The man with the mask disappeared from whence he came-"a mystery never fully explained," which produced goose bumps and long queues at the box office when the first movie came out in 1925. That same year, and fifteen years after the book was first published, Rolls-Royce released the Phantom I, which was followed by five successively numbered iterations. The Phantom VI, the last of the classic body-on-frame behemoths, remained in production until 1991. The seventh Phantom is the one you see here: a radically modern sedan developed from scratch by BMW and built in a brand-new factory.

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