Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
To say there was some skepticism surrounding the 2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom would be like saying reality TV occasionally resorts to fabrication when ratings are at stake. When BMW first announced it would be delivering a completely new Rolls-Royce to a paying customer on January 1, 2003, most analysts wrote it off as the kind of posturing that typically accompanies a corporate takeover. BMW made the statement after a rather ugly battle with Volkswagen over the purchase of Rolls-Royce. A battle that left Volkswagen with every part of the Rolls-Royce/Bentley organization except the rights to the Rolls-Royce name (which BMW picked up for a relatively tidy sum).
That was in July of 1998, and it would be four and a half years before BMW acquired the rights to sell the storied brand. In that time, the Bavarian automaker would be challenged with relocating, redesigning and reintroducing perhaps the most honored luxury marque in the history of the automobile. Within the halls of BMW, it was officially dubbed "Project Rolls-Royce."
But shortly after midnight, January 1, 2003, the first all-new Rolls-Royce in nearly 40 years left the all-new Rolls-Royce plant at Goodwood in West Sussex, England. It was delivered to a well-connected, but discrete, English gentleman who shall remain nameless (despite our continued prodding of several Rolls-Royce representatives).
As one Rolls-Royce official told us, "We did it. We delivered a customer-ready car just minutes into the 2003 calendar year. The car was fully constructed at our new Goodwood production facility on a line that is ramping up to produce 1,000 units a year. This was not a one-off version specially built at a BMW facility. That would have been cheating."
Talk with the Rolls-Royce people and you quickly realize that if there's one thing they never want to be accused of it's cheating. These guys understand the responsibility that goes along with recreating a brand like Rolls-Royce. Their target customers may have money to burn, but they certainly aren't looking to buy a pumped-up 7 Series.
After spending 300 miles in a 2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom we can assure you the car is not just an extra-large 7 with the Spirit of Ecstasy stuck over the roundel. In fact, at over 19 feet long, it beats the 7 Series by more than two feet in total length, and it can completely swallow a Mini between its front and rear axles. Producing a vehicle of such size that doesn't also flex and bend over every road imperfection calls for a unique structure. In the Phantom's case, that structure is an aluminum space frame that is both lighter and stiffer than conventional steel. It gives the Phantom a bending resistance two and a half times greater than the outgoing Silver Seraph, and slightly superior to even the new 7 Series. The Phantom is also a half-foot taller and 3.5 inches wider than the 7, and its rear doors open "suicide" style rather than being front-hinged.
If the hard numbers don't convince you this isn't your boss's Bimmer, the car's appearance and presence quickly will. While photographs effectively show off the short front overhang, thick C-pillars and imposing front grille, the message conveyed when standing near the Phantom cannot be captured on film. The designers wanted every aspect of the Phantom to be kept in proportion, thus avoiding the "stretch" effect of certain competing ultraluxury cars. The result is similar to that of watching Tom Cruise on screen, except that whereas Tom Cruise appears unexpectedly meager in person, the new Rolls-Royce threatens to overwhelm you.
You might assume such an imposing vehicle isn't particularly light and cheery when it comes time to get in and drive, yet the engineers were going for just such characteristics when they designed the Phantom's suspension and steering systems. Utilizing an air suspension, along with the ultrastiff aluminum frame, allowed them to keep suspension settings soft while still avoiding harsh impacts or "crash through" over larger bumps. The double-wishbone front suspension is the first for a BMW product and was used to maintain control over the 20-inch wheels. A "hydromount" in the rack-and-pinion system gives the steering a direct, on-center feel while dampening any wobble or shimmy that might travel through the system to the steering wheel.
A multilink setup in the rear works with the air suspension to maintain a level ride height regardless of vehicle load. The air suspension can also raise the car one inch to increase clearance over uneven surfaces, and it can adjust damping forces up to 100 times a second based on driving style and road surface conditions. However, there are no driver adjustments for "sport" or "comfort" suspension settings, as the designers felt this feature didn't fit with the Rolls-Royce mentality. Nor is there active roll stabilization because such systems tend to transfer what would have been the car's rolling movements directly to the passengers and Rolls passengers don't like being jostled.
Driving the Rolls bears this mentality out. The large three-spoke steering wheel feels light in your hands and the big sedan changes direction with ease when traveling at a relaxed pace. Start kicking things up a bit and it rapidly becomes apparent that BMW didn't let any of its "ultimate driving machine" philosophy play a role in the Phantom's design. That's not a knock on the big Rolls, just a heads-up for those who think anything BMW touches (like the Mini or Range Rover) becomes an instant canyon carver. This Rolls-Royce is not meant to be driven enthusiastically, as its heavy curb weight (5,500 pounds), light steering and tall run-flat tires (31 inches from top to bottom) make it abundantly clear. This isn't a grand touring sedan; it's a grand traveling sedan. Don't even think of chasing after that E-Class sedan.
Relaxed demeanor or not, this Phantom's alacrity when hitting the "go" pedal is amazing, even after you've been informed of the 6.75-liter V12 under the hood and are aware of its 453 horsepower. The key to this Roller's 5.7-second 0-to-60 time is the engine's 531 pound-feet of torque, over 75 percent of which (413 lb-ft) is available at 1,000 rpm. Think of it as the anti-Honda S2000 engine. This all-aluminum unit uses direct injection, dual-overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing, yet no forced induction was required to deliver these horsepower and torque figures.
Hooked to a "shift-by-wire" six-speed automatic, the Phantom achieves speed seamlessly. Because you never feel the transmission changing gears, and because the engine essentially makes no noise, pushing the pedal to the floor can be a bit surreal. It's like playing a video game where your only sense of acceleration is the increasing rate at which scenery passes. There is some wind noise around the A-pillars at highway speeds (payback for the Rolls' tall roofline), but it is minimal and likely only evident because there is absolutely no engine or road noise. The Phantom starts out in second gear unless the throttle's kickdown lever is engaged, and while using second doesn't make the car feel especially lithe, it certainly isn't cumbersome. The bonus of such a design comes in the estimated 18 mpg achieved in mixed city/highway driving (and a manufacturer-stated 25 mpg during pure highway usage). Of course, if you don't care about mpg, booting the throttle and engaging first gear will get you to highway velocities as quickly as a six-speed Nissan 350Z.
But the new Phantom isn't just about an all-new aluminum chassis and direct-injected V12. For the majority of its buyers, these issues aren't even half of what this car is about. Tony Gott, chief executive of Rolls-Royce, says the 2004 Phantom " reflects timeless values of quality, distinction and authority, combining the best of the past with the best modern design, engineering and technology to reinterpret the role of Rolls-Royce in the 21st century."
If you're thinking Tony's statement means a 21st century Rolls should have iDrive, four-zone climate control and power-closing rear doors, you're on the right track. But don't let the iDrive reference scare you. A key component of Rolls-Royce philosophy is easy, uncluttered driver control. As such, the iDrive knob isn't even visible unless you press a panel at the front of the center console to deploy it. All basic audio and climate functions can be performed without ever viewing the LCD monitor hiding behind the elegant, centrally located clock. Ventilation controls are the familiar push-pull chrome knobs seen in many a previous Rolls (and Bentley), and the large three-spoke steering wheel has a classic look (though the thickness of said spokes tends to block various dash controls located behind it).
While little about the Phantom appears sourced from the BMW parts bin, starting the car and using the shift lever will come naturally to 7 Series owners. And anyone familiar with BMW products (including the $16,000 Mini) will recognize the basic layout of the various LCD displays. One characteristic we noted was the lack of any interior temperature display (not even on the LCD monitor). The basic climate control dials are marked with red and blue lines, and another set of dials can be used to quickly adjust fan speed. But if you're the type of person who likes to know the climate control is set at 72 degrees, you won't like the Phantom's system. There's also only a single CD player in the dash, though a changer can be found underneath the rear seat.
Rear-seat accommodations are both impressive and disappointing. Impressive because of the aforementioned power-operated reverse-opening rear doors that can be closed via a button located on the C-pillar. The C-pillar itself is thick and offers a sense of privacy and security. There are also dual-zone climate controls on the back of the center console, acres of leg- and knee room and carpeting so plush you'll feel bad putting your feet on it. The rear seating position is elevated nearly three-quarters of an inch above the front seats to enhance forward vision, and the slight wind noise I noted while in the driver seat was completely absent in the rear seat. A special phenomenon further noted by this author when seated in the rear was how the Rolls' hood and fenders were completely below my forward view, but the Spirit of Ecstasy was clearly visible right down to her base. The net effect was that of the Spirit "floating" out ahead of the car and guiding it along. Don't expect a similar effect in the Maybach's aft chamber.
However, items I expected to find in back but didn't included ventilated and adjustable seats (the Rolls-Royce folks told us these would soon be available), rear audio controls, television monitors and power (or even manual) window shades. Company representatives told us these types of features aren't important to Rolls-Royce customers. Phantom buyers aren't like Maybach buyers who expect to be forever chauffeured around as they recline in rear seats and check the stock indexes behind shaded windows. The company's research told them that while many Rolls owners will utilize a chauffeur on occasion, they will just as often drive themselves, especially when going out for a special evening. It's worth noting that no official "stretched" version of the Phantom yet exists, but the methodology for creating the car's aluminum space frame can be easily modified to change its overall length. It will be interesting to see how long it takes either Rolls-Royce, or an aftermarket company, to start offering such features on (and even a stretched version of) the Phantom.
Until those features arrive, Mercedes' Maybach will claim superiority in terms of ultimate high-tech gizmos. But the Rolls-Royce Phantom will boast superior styling, a more powerful and recognizable heritage and that beautiful lady out front leading the revival charge.
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