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2016 Rolls-Royce Dawn Review

Luxurious beyond compare

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Pretty much everyone would agree on the words that come to mind when you mention the brand Rolls-Royce: Rich. Opulent. Aristocratic. Genteel. Quiet. Stately. Sumptuous. Grey Poupon.

Now add a completely new adjective: sexy-as-stiletto-pumps.

The Dawn, the new fourth model in the British maker's range and only its third convertible in the past 50 years, is a Rolls unlike any other before it. Yes, the outgoing Phantom Drophead Coupe is also a mobile tanning bed, but apart from its folding roof it's still very much a Rolls in the classic mold: massive, upright, the sort of buttoned-up convertible the queen would deem fitting for a relaxing cruise around the English hunting estate. The Dawn, in contrast, is a car a playboy prince would nab to wing down to Marbella or Monaco or Capri for some sun and high-brow carousing. Or put it this way: If the Phantom is a symphony orchestra, the Dawn is a hot DJ spinning thumping house.

The Dawn simply radiates hedonism. Compared with the Drophead Coupe, it's shorter in length and height, narrower, sleeker. It rides on the smaller Wraith chassis—but, says design director Giles Taylor, "It's definitely not a drophead Wraith. Roughly 80 percent of the Dawn's body panels are unique. Up front, the grille is recessed and the lower front bumper is slightly extended by roughly 2 inches each, adding focus and an edginess to the face. And with the top up, the Dawn's high shoulder line and narrow side windows give it an almost hot-rod look."

Taylor also proudly points to the decklid that wraps behind the rear seat passengers and hides the massive fabric top when folded. Trimmed in a gorgeous, hand-finished "open pore" wood (as is much of the car's interior), which Rolls calls Canadel paneling, the decklid rises upward compared with the bodywork behind it. "It's not because we needed more room to stow the roof," Taylor says (and, indeed, the soft top folds well below the height of the rear deck). "In designing the Dawn, we placed considerable emphasis on how passengers would look while riding inside it. Visually, the swell of the rear decklid frames the passengers in back, a bit like turning up your jacket collar against your neck."

Asked if his company ever considered designing a folding hard top, Rolls CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös shakes his head in an unambiguous "no." Then he smiles: "Our customers like the sound of raindrops falling on a fabric roof." Not that a hard top would've been much more secure anyway: The Dawn's soft top is six layers thick and feels as impenetrable as Kevlar body armor. It also sports a glass rear window—which, Rolls says, is designed to be just big enough for rearward visibility yet small enough to protect the "priv-a-cy" of rear-seat occupants.

The top itself is a magnificent feat of engineering. It's easily one of the largest fabric roofs in production, yet there's not a wrinkle to be seen, no sign of the elaborate ribs and framework underneath (that skeletal "hungry cow" look often seen on lesser convertibles). Refusing to subject Dawn occupants to so much as a peep of motor whir or gear whine when raising or lowering the roof, Rolls engineers aimed for what they dubbed "the silent ballet." And, like a performance of Swan Lake with a sleeping orchestra, they've seemingly achieved it. At the push of a button, in 22 seconds the top glides out from under the rear deck, folds over the sprawling cabin, and secures itself to the windshield—without a sound. Seriously, it's amazing. What's more, when raised, the soft top curves elegantly onto the deck and also wraps around the window glass, lending the polished appearance of a fixed roof. And despite being roughly big enough to parachute a tank safely to Earth, the roof can be raised or lowered at speeds of up to 31 mph.

The Dawn is easily one of the cushiest convertibles in existence. Unlike many other ultra-lux two-doors, it' not a 2+2 (i.e., two standard seats up front plus whatever can be squeezed—small kids, the dog, a briefcase—in back). This is a bona-fide four-passenger ride with room for an adult in every seat. The aforementioned Canadel paneling covers huge swaths of the doors and console, while the seats and much of the rest of the interior are dressed in leather so exquisite, it must have come from cows fed a steady diet of Camay beauty bars. In my test car, the leather's hue was a spectacular Mandarin orange that could probably be seen from outer space. "It works, doesn't it?" said Torsten Müller-Ötvös as he noticed me ogling the car. "The color is inspired by the signature color of Hermès [a renowned French maker of high-end leather and luxury goods]. I think it's going to be quite popular." Then again, if you want your Dawn's leather to match the color of, say, your pet Persian cat, well, Rolls can do that, too.

In an era when too many luxury cars suffer from "feature glut," the Dawn is refreshingly simple and approachable. The various buttons and switches on the dash and steering wheel are all easy to reach and use. A central 10.25-inch high-resolution screen displays nav and multimedia info. So as not to mar its gleaming surface with fingerprints, it's controlled by a rotary knob and a small touchpad in the center console. (It's also voice-activated.) The LED headlights feature reflectors that move with the steering wheel. A head-up display offers useful car and road info, while a heat-detection system can pick up the infrared signatures of humans and animals at night and warn the driver accordingly. The audio system, created by Rolls itself, is a 16-speaker masterpiece that sports a highly sensitive microphone to automatically adjust tone and volume depending on ambient external noise. There's no mistaking this interior as being anything other than pure Rolls—the luscious materials, the rich finishes, the character of not being machine-made perfect—yet the Dawn seems a generation or two younger and more vibrant that its stolid Phantom sibling. Jeeves might not approve, but for the rest of us Rolls-Royce has pulled off a triumph.

Mind you, up to this point all my fawning over the Dawn has been with the car standing still. But press the starter button, and a truly sublime motoring experience is yours. Under the hood lies the familiar twin-turbo 6.6-liter V-12, good for 563 horsepower and delivering all of its massive 575 lb-ft of torque from as low as just 1,500 rpm. Press your right foot down hard, and the V-12 will squash you into your Mandarin seat so hard you might very well produce orange juice. This isn't a sizzling, screaming powerplant; instead, it's all hushed prowess and efficiency, a Gulfstream V, not an F-16. Shifts from the eight-speed ZF automatic spool out all but imperceptibly. The transmission is also aided by GPS, which "sees" the road ahead and automatically adjusts its shifting behavior accordingly. (For instance, it will know not to upshift if it notes an upcoming turn that could be better maneuvered in your current gear.) Steering forces build usefully through corners, and despite its near 3-ton weight, the Dawn bites into turns with enthusiasm—even with the standard 20-inch run-flat tires. A combo of air springs and active roll bars helps deliver both a creamy ride and all that handling verve. Yes, this is a big car, and on narrow roads it feels wide. But it's easy—and damn entertaining—to drive briskly. If you have a butler, he'll just have to get used to the back seat.

It's no surprise that Rolls unveiled its new baby in the spectacular wine country of South Africa. An automobile like this not only delivers stunning environments to its passengers in 3-D surround-sound, it also accessorizes beautiful places like a diamond broach on a designer dress. All day long, other motorists flashed their lights or honked at the sight of the approaching Dawn. Crowds gathered wherever it parked—and "oohed" and "aahed" whenever I swung open one of the rear-hinged suicide—er, "coach" doors. A few jumped right into traffic to take pictures. For all of its undeniable visual presence, a Phantom simply doesn't light up the scene like this rakish, libidinous ragtop does.

Perhaps it's crazy to say this of an automobile that starts at around $360,000, but I think Rolls is going to sell a zillion of these things. The Dawn does everything it's supposed to do to near-perfection. It's gorgeous, roomy, luxurious beyond compare, fast, agile, distinctive, and very likely the quietest convertible in the world today. It's also dripping with character and panache—certainly more so than such rivals as the Bentley Continental GT convertible. I can easily see the affluent denizens of Beverly Hills, Miami Beach, and East Hampton having ugly, Rolex-smashing brawls just to get a priority spot in the orders book.

But, hey, as the old saying goes: It's always darkest before the Dawn.

2016 Rolls-Royce Dawn Specifications

On Sale: Spring
Price: $360,000 (est)
Engine: 6.6L twin-turbo 48-valve V-12/563 hp @ 5,250 rpm, 575 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Layout: 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
EPA Mileage: 11/24 mpg (city/hwy) (est)
L x W x H: 208.1 x 76.7 x 59.1 in
Wheelbase: 122.5 in
Weight: 5,650 lb
0-60 MPH: 4.8 sec (est)
Top Speed: 155 mph (governed)