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Making Rolls-Royce Relevant Again by Jim Burt (3/4/2003)
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sponsored by Mercedes-Benz USA
The rich are different from you and me, or so it’s often been said. If you need proof, consider the new Rolls-Royce Phantom, the first child of the marriage between the venerable British marque and its new parent, BMW.
At $320,000, one could alternately purchase a fleet of 7-Series sedans. Indeed, there’s likely to be a BMW or two in the garage already, according to Rolls marketing gurus, since the typical Phantom buyer will already own six or seven cars. So how justify the price? TheCarConnection jumped to find out when an invitation to drive the new sedan landed in our mailbox recently.
It was becoming an anachronism in a world where even the wealthiest motorists preferred sitting behind the wheel, rather than turning driving duties over to a chauffeur. Worse, in the increasingly competitive auto industry, Rolls was having more and more trouble justifying claims to being the standard by which all others are judged. There simply wasn’t the cash to maintain product development. And so, in 1997, Vickers plc, its British conglomerate parent, put Rolls-Royce Motor Co. up for sale.
Hopes for a British buyer were quickly dashed, as, the bidding came down to two suitors: Volkswagen and BMW. The irony was thick, for barely a half century before, the two German companies powered the Luftwaffe’s attack on Rolls’s factory in Crewe. But the Royal Air Force, flying Spitfires with the Rolls Merlin engine, turned the tide of War during the Battle of Britain.
Fifty years later, the two German companies took on each other to claim the automaker intact. But in a convoluted, Solomon-like resolution, the baby was cleft in two, VW getting Bentley and the ancestral factory in Crewe, while BMW went home with Rolls.
The settlement required BMW to keep its plans private until January of this year. When it finally lifted the sheets at the Los Angeles Auto Show, it revealed a massive sedan bearing one of the most famous badges in the British marque’s illustrious history.
The Phantom isn’t a retro car — well, not precisely. Designer Marek Djordjevic was pulled in two different directions, having to design a car that would reflect the new ownership while also honoring Rolls’s centennial, which comes up in 2004.
Where former sibling Bentley’s new look, unleashed with the Continental GT coupe, is sleek and low-slung, Djordjevic has enshrined the formal dimensions of classic Rolls. It rises tall, as solid as old money and absolutely unbowed by the changes that have swept through the world of automotive design.
There’s no question the styling is controversial, though Djordjevic, a youthful-looking Serb, stares wide-eyed when asked to respond, surprised anyone would question the absolute correctness of the design.
How does one define luxury these days? Even so-called “entry luxury” vehicles, like the Jaguar X-Type, now boast the leather, wood and other up-market accoutrements that once set apart a Rolls or Bentley. And it’s hard to ask for more technology than you’ll find on a BMW 7-Series or Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Bentley’s answer is to return to its roots in racing with the high-powered Continental GT. Mercedes’ parent, DaimlerChrysler, bet the best is defined by more of everything. Its new Maybach aims to offer the most horsepower, the biggest back seat, more DVD screens.
By that standard, some would argue, the new Phantom falls short. It certainly doesn’t match Maybach’s horsepower, nor does it offer the twin, business jet-style reclining rear seats.
Does it matter?
There’s a very different mindset in the rarified atmosphere in which Rolls competes. And the automaker put a premium on presence and poise. The Phantom clearly makes a statement, but whether the message is relevant in today’s market remains to be seen by the 1000 buyers it hopes to attract each year.
It’s a bit easier to assess the car’s road manners. For a vehicle measuring 20 feet nose-to-tail, Phantom proves surprisingly graceful. Swinging out of the parking lot, you quickly notice its tight turning radius. On the road, it feels smaller than the numbers suggest. You sit high, closer to an SUV than a standard sedan, but there’s no sense of driving a truck.
The car is extremely well-mannered on the highway virtually gliding down the road. But unlike Rolls past, there’s a reasonable amount of road feel for the driver. The speed-sensitive steering gives a sense of command that will encourage owners to drive, rather than ride.
During several hours roaming the hills and dales east of Santa Barbara, Phantom proved far more nimble than one would expect of a 5478-pound vehicle. There’s more body roll than with a 7-Series, in part due to a conscious decision not to borrow the Bimmer’s active roll control system. But in a decidedly subjective judgment, Phantom appears to handle the highway much more nimbly than either version of the Maybach.
The car’s strong suit is its powertrain, the centerpiece its 453-horsepower, 6.75-liter V-12. Rolls started with the 12-cylinder engine offered in the BMW 760Li, boring it out and making other changes emphasizing low-end torque. The massive engine develops 75 percent of its peak torque at just 1000 rpm, launching effortlessly into motion. But the power stays with you, quickly pushing the speedometer past the 100 mark on a stretch of open road. Rolls claims a 0-to-60 mph time of 5.7 seconds for this colossus.
There was a classic Rolls-Royce ad, many years ago, boasting the car was so quiet the only thing you’d hear was the tick of the clock. The clock doesn’t even tick anymore. The Phantom delivers a reassuring roar when the V-12 goes into action. And at highway speeds there’s a modest amount of wind noise. But the huge cabin’s acoustics are so well-tuned that passengers front and back can converse at a whisper. In town, a special, secondary exhaust baffle hushes the car to the point you might not even know it’s running.
One negative on a long drive is the steering wheel. It’s attractively styled and perhaps the most unabashedly retro piece of the Phantom, but it’s very thin and gets rather cramped and tiresome after a few hours.
A look around the interior reveals a few clues to the Phantom’s parentage. The four stalks, for example, are lifted, to varying degrees, off the 7-Series. But with one painful exception, you won’t mistake this car for a BMW.
Rolls’ use of wood remains exquisite, still as good as it gets. Kudos, as well for the leather and wool. Our test car was finished with touches of satin aluminum, a lovely look but for the material’s tendency to show every spot and fingerprint.
The front seats balances luxury and performance, providing plenty of lateral support on tight-and-twisty back roads, without making you feel you’d settled into a sports car’s buckets. The wraparound rear bench in our test vehicle was a good bit less supportive in the turns, being designed to create a sort of communal environment.
Our biggest is the 7-Series BMW’s much-maligned iDrive system — on the Phantom, it’s called the “Controller.” For those unfamiliar, BMW uses iDrive to operate virtually all of the 7-Series’ electronics. Rolls offers a variety of manual dials and switches, thankfully. But where Controller is required, as when programming a destination into the navigation system, it remains frustratingly counter-intuitive and user-unfriendly.
Our test vehicle had a few minor problems: latches on the center armrest would be triggered by an elbow. And you’d then need to slam them hard to close. But otherwise, our Phantom was seamlessly put together and flawless in operation.
There were some lovely “surprise-and-delight” features, such as the fold-up umbrellas quite literally tucked inside the forward opening back doors. Teflon coated, they slip into ventilated tubes designed to quickly dry them off.
The new Phantom will shortly go into production at an all-new plant in Goodwood, two hours south of London. Each car will be custom-built to a buyer’s specifications and virtually every detail of the car can be customized. That even means the body, company officials note, unlike the Maybach, which will modify only the passenger compartment.
This build-to-order approach certainly enhances Phantom’s appeal. But that doesn’t dismiss lingering questions about the car’s long-term viability. Up through the late 1980s, Rolls outsold Bentley almost 20 to 1. In the years prior to the brands’ divorce, that ratio reversed. To critics, Bentley’s emphasis on the driving experience had become more relevant that Rolls’s ostentatious imagery.
The new Phantom attempts to cover both bases. It doesn’t disguise its opulence, but it makes a strong and commendable effort to deliver a car serious drivers can take pride in. Whether there’s a market for such a car remains to be seen in the extremely crowded stratosphere of the new car market.
2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom
Base price: $320,000
Engine: 6.75-liter V-12, 453 hp/532 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed electronically controlled automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 229.7 x 78.3 x 64.3 in
Wheelbase: 140.6 in
Curb weight: 5478 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 13/19 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual-stage front airbags, side and head curtain airbags, all regulated by Intelligent Safety Integration System, four-wheel disc brakes, anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control, auto-leveling suspension, integral safety cage designed into space-frame body
Major standard equipment: Six-zone climate control system, 420-watt Logic7 7.1 surround sound AM/FM/six-CD system, satellite navigation with 6.5-inch monitor, hands-free phone, power windows, door locks and mirrors, remote keyless entry, built-in umbrellas and holders
Warranty: Four years/60,000 miles, including all maintenance during warranty coverage
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