The pleasure begins with the way the car situates itself around you. The driver's seat is more like a driver's throne, with a commanding view outward, the long reach of the hood stretching into the scenery. The eye position is as high as in many SUVs. The central console between the seats pairs with the door bolsters to create armchair-like support at the elbows -- though it is easy to inadvertently pop open the console's compartments. Also, the power-seat controls are secreted in the console, so adjusting the seat position takes some attention.
One of the direct drafts from parent BMW is the Rolls "Command" panel, a dumbed-down version of the notorious I-Drive system operating the navigation, DVD and telephone systems. The rotary controller deploys from a compartment at the base of the seat console, while the white-face analog clock on the dash slips away to reveal the display panel. Mercifully, the basic climate and audio controls are available as rotary dials flanking the dash-mounted units.
The new Rolls carefully observes the tactile proprieties of tradition. The dashboard vents are opened and closed with sterling-silver organ stops, while the window controls are the classic violin key design. The large-diameter steering wheel is ultra-thin, like Brit cars of memory, and the steering wheel center has a glossy, piano-black roundel with the double-R emblem. The starter is a push- button affair. The woodwork is orchestra-instrument quality, with a buyer's choice of figured woods, from burr walnut to black tulip. Cabinet-style marquetry, inlays and crown-cut veneers are optional, but the lambs'-wool rugs and cashmere headliner are standard.
The rear compartment is likewise luxe, with lots of welcome extras, including adjustable ambient lighting, Jazz Era-style reading lamps and umbrellas hidden in compartments in the doors. Even so, the Rolls is not so thoroughly accessorized as the rear compartment in DaimlerChrysler's Maybach 62, which is nothing quite so much as a corporate jet.
No, the Rolls is definitely a car, a motorcar, with all the stately advance the word implies. Rolls has long invoked the term "waftability" to describe the cars' effortless, nearly levitating acceleration and deep reserves of power. The word dates to 1907, from a motor journalist's happy phrase about a Rolls "wafting" down the road. But this powertrain -- comprising a 60-degree, multi-valve, 6.75-liter V-12 buttoned to a six-speed ZF transmission with shift by wire -- has waft coming out its ears.
The stroked version of BMW's 6-liter V-12 features state-of-the art combustion technology, including direct injection, and infinitely variable valve timing and lift. Long gone are the days when an engine's inherent torque characteristics were fixed by metal parameters. The engine has been calibrated to produce an ocean liner-like 531 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm, but 75% of that grunt is available at a mere 1,000 rpm, lending the Phantom a tsunami-like surge upon acceleration. Horsepower tallies a considerable 453.
It's enough to launch the 5,600-pound Rolls to 60 mph in less than six seconds; meanwhile, the thrifty direct injection gives the car an impressive fuel mileage of 14/24 miles per gallon, city/highway.
Over the road, the Phantom has all the glycerin smoothness and cathedral quiet you could hope for. The body structure is a space frame built up of aluminum and magnesium castings, riveted and glued alloy panels and exotic steel sub-frames. It is one of the stiffest chassis in production. The Rolls uses air springs at all four corners, double wishbones up front and multi-link suspension in the rear, all fastened to steel sub-frames.
There is no denying that this is a big car, and it drives big, particularly if you push it on a country road. There's a fair amount of body movement before it acquires its stance in a corner, and it feels a little ungovernable at high speed. But for the most part, the ride-and-drive is phenomenal. The Michelin PAX run-flat tires are -- get this -- 31 inches tall, centered on 20-inch rims. That's 11 inches of sidewall, which makes for a pillowy soft, if predictably elastic, ride. The brakes are monsters, and then some, at all corners.
Rolls-Royce was once a kind of shorthand for excellence, for stately British cars with unsurpassed engineering, bespoke quality, craftsmanship and superb good taste. Now, in an odd quirk of fate, a big German company has rescued the marque -- reanimated it, if you will.
Skeptics, put down your pitchforks.
Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom
Wheelbase: 140.6 inches
Length: 229.7 inches
Width: 66.3 inches front, 59.4 rear
Curb weight: 5,577 pounds
Powertrain: 6.75-liter V-12, six-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 453 at 5,350 rpm
Torque: 531 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm
Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds
EPA rating: 14 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway
Price, base: $320,000
Price, as tested: $324,000. Includes $3,000 gas-guzzler tax and $1,000 destination fee
Competitor: DaimlerChrysler's Maybach 57
Final thoughts: Return of the King
Los Angeles Times