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Is Rolls stretching the marque with its less-grand 200EX?

February 24, 2009|Dan Neil

Rolls-Royce will debut a smaller, leaner, less formal car next week at the Geneva Auto Show. The 200EX concept is a near-production version of the saloon that will begin production in 2010.

So, is this a smaller Rolls for leaner times? Is the car's gross tonnage some kind of index of the global economy?

Not really. The fact is, sales of the Phantom, extended-wheelbase Phantom Coupe and Phantom Drophead Coupe have been brisk, despite the $400,000- to $560,000-plus price tag. Global sales of 1,212 in 2008 were up 20% from the year before.

The 200EX debuting March 3 -- the development of which predates the current financial China Syndrome -- appears to be an attempt to extend the brand to compete in the suburban grocery-getter segment. That's a price point in the $230,000- to $300,000-plus range, somewhere just above the coming Aston Martin Rapide and Porsche Panamera.

It's also about amortizing parent BMW's engineering costs in the new top-end line of BMW sedans. The 7-series and 200EX will be mechanical first cousins.

But a smaller Rolls? How will that work?

This is a delicate matter. The visual language of Rolls-Royce cars is one of grandeur and monumentality, a kind of enduring classicism and formality somehow outside the stream of time: the long, proud prow, the Parthenon grille, the high shoulders and sweeping contours, the sheer dizzying size of the thing.

The marque made a succession of more modestly sized two-doors from the early 1970s to early 2000s called Corniche -- "modest" being relative, since the cars were over 5 meters long.

Hard-core enthusiasts have argued that the smaller Rolls precipitated the decline of RR that ultimately ended with the ignominious acquisition by the Germans. (Actually, the cars sold very well, but you can't reason with enthusiasts.) The argument ran that the smaller cars lacked the aristocratic hauteur of the big cars.

Perhaps when it comes to Rolls, size -- avoirdupois, scale, mass, dimension -- matters.

Now Rolls-Royce seems to be getting more comfortable in its own skin: The grilles are smaller (as a percentage of frontal area) and more streamlined and contemporary.

Judging by the 200EX, which is a gracious 5.4 meters long, Rolls isn't exactly abandoning its road-going arrogance. Note the sweet coach doors (the rear doors have the hinges at the rear, like the larger Phantom).

The question remains: Is a more reasonable, rational car still a Rolls?

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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