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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.

At nearly 6000 pounds, the electric Rolls is less than ten percent heavier than a normal Phantom; it will hit 60 mph in less than eight seconds and is limited to 100 mph.

The styling isn't radically different, to keep the focus on the tech.
There's a gorgeous new sixteen-layer Atlantic chrome paint finish, and a new, more environmentally friendly, vegetable-tanned chestnut leather trim shows more of the hides' natural creases and even covers the now-flat floor.
The Spirit of Ecstasy is made of translucent Makrolon polycarbonate and is lit with blue LEDS. The RR logo is red, as it always has been on Rolls-Royce's "experimental" models. Few have been as experimental as this.

Numbers can't describe what it's like to drive an electric Rolls-Royce. The 102EX might be the most refined car ever made, and driving it is one of the weirdest experiences I've had at the wheel. There's a faint, Star Trek sigh as you pull away, and because the Rolls has arguably the best chassis refinement of any car, there isn't much left to hear or feel. There is none of the noise or vibration from the chassis or tires that are unmasked by the absence of an engine in other electrified cars. Your eyes tell you you're moving, but your ears and your backside disagree. It's eerie yet delightful; it made me giggle aloud the first time I moved off, and I think Rolls-Royce owners are going to love it.

But the engineers are less happy. They have made some graph of energy use against distance, and we're some way south of the "critical path" we need to follow. From the support car behind us, they call the Rolls-Royce guy traveling with me, and in the calm of the cabin I can hear what they're saying. "Slow down! You've got to get him to slow down!" Of course I take no notice. I want it to be a fair test, so I'm driving this car the way a Rolls-Royce should be driven, accelerating moderately and sticking to the speed limits. And the devil on my shoulder says that readers would find it much funnier if we run out of power and have to be rescued. At our lunch stop at the halfway point, the engineers plug in their laptop, read the car's true state of charge, and again plead with me to slow down.

On the final leg, the "fuel" gauge falls more slowly than the miles accumulate; I don't know whether we're drawing less power or if the gauge isn't perfectly linear, but with about thirty miles to go, my bad math tells me we're going to make it. So, to the distress of the engineers behind, I hoof the 102EX out of intersections. Purely in the interests of dynamic assessment, of course. I'm pleased to report that it feels pretty good; it's deliberately gentle up to about 20 mph, but then you get a lovely, irresistible, guilt-free surge as the vast weight is overcome by even greater torque. It might not be as fast as a V-12 Roller, but it's fast enough.

We pull back into the hotel parking lot in Lausanne with exactly 180 kilometers (112 miles) on the odometer and a little less than a quarter still remaining on the charge gauge. I thought the young engineer tasked with getting the 102EX around the lake without public embarrassment was going to kiss me. Does it matter how far you can drive a car that Rolls-Royce says is purely experimental and will never be built? I'd say yes; by putting such a big battery in such a big car, it shows the limits of the possible. It's the first real exploration of how superluxury cars might drive in twenty years' time. And despite its protestations, Rolls-Royce is going to find it very hard to resist the customers who will arrive with open checkbooks once they've driven this extraordinary car, asking for a 102EX of their own.