Driving in the lap of luxury
I was once sent to review a play starring Ian McKellen, the world's greatest Shakespearean actor. Afterwards, in his dressing room, he handed me a glass of champagne and earnestly inquired, "How was I?"
I felt the same way after driving a 2005 Rolls-Royce Phantom when the press people asked me, "Well? How did you like it?" I'd just driven the most venerable automobile on earth, a car loaded with history, nobility and now, respectfully updated with the latest technology. It is also a car, I should quickly add, that commands a starting price of $328,750. And now I was supposed to pick my jaw up off the ground and critique it? Worship it? Yes. Critique it? That's tough.
Now, before you begin to try to poke holes in my enthusiasm, let me say that I've driven Aston Martins, Bentleys and Maybachs and never had this reaction. The Phantom has a feeling of intelligence and artistry that goes beyond filthy lucre. This wasn't just a case of throwing money at a project and forcing it to succeed. This Rolls-Royce, built by new owner BMW in a state-of-the-art factory in southern England, was designed and created with respect and, yes, even love. It is truly a car that is greater by far than the sum of its parts.
What makes me say this? Two things.
After having the car for five days, and driving it (very carefully) around Los Angeles, I enjoyed watching people react to it. This has happened many times before with other cars. But the Rolls was different. While you can always count on "car guys" to spot a new model, most others are blind to cars in general. But everyone notices the Rolls. Once they've taken in the imposing chrome grille and the hood that seems to stretch from here to infinity, they look to see who is driving it. The expectant looks on their faces seem to say, "Is it a king? An Arabian prince? It must be somebody."
Unique driving experience
Let me reach deep to try to describe the driving experience, for it surely is an experience — even an event. With 453 thoroughbred horses under the hood, delivered via an ultrasmooth 6.8-liter, 48-valve V12 engine, you have power, torque and speed. And you have all these things any time you want them. Some 90 percent of the torque is delivered at 1,000 rpm, just where you want it (max torque is 531 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm).
OK, you say, there are a lot of monster power plants around these days. But here is the difference: as you tap the near nuclear reserves of power, you get no corresponding growl from the engine and never, never anything that sounds like the engine is actually working hard. The car is eerily quiet both inside and out. The effect is to disconnect our expectations. It's like Marlon Brando as the Godfather gently stroking a cat as he discusses how he will seize control of New York. That's power in reserve, baby.
But wait, there is one more factor that contributes to the exotic driving experience equation and that is the steering wheel. Yes, the feel of the wheel will seal this deal. It is very thin, contoured and leather-wrapped. The steering is light with speed-sensitive varying assistance so that the lightness doesn't translate to numbness at higher speeds. You feel dialed in to the road while still having the confidence to pilot a large and heavy car. Visually, the steering wheel is a treat, too, with wood veneered spokes and chrome inserts to control the radio, voice activation and the cruise control.
But does it handle?
BMW, being what it is, seems interested in convincing us that the Phantom is not just some luxury yacht that wallows its way to the country club and back. The media relations people set up a slalom course on an airport runway and invited auto journalists to take it through the cones. It felt predictable, stable and safe even as it leaned heavily in sharp turns. During an avoidance maneuver situation, the stability control kicked in to keep it from spinning out and allowed this 5,577-pound car to avoid the obstacle thrown in its path.
Braking was also impressive, with the four-wheel ventilated discs hauling the speed down from 60 to zero in 123 feet. The stiffness of the all-aluminum frame, keeping body flex to a minimum, provided a sense of safety and placement that makes you feel like you are traveling in a bank vault.
The commanding presence of the Rolls is likely to please and amaze you every time you walk up to the Phantom. There are critics of the imposing, blockish chrome grille but there are likely no detractors of the tapered hood (sorry, bonnet) with the thin chrome strips giving it definition. From the driver's point of view it is a lesson in perspective seeming to touch the horizon. The profile might be its best angle, though, showing off the characteristically wide C-pillar provided to give the rear-seat occupant privacy.
Open the heavy, coach-style doors (a.k.a. "suicide doors") and step inside the Phantom for a surprise. Press the button in the C-pillar and the door slowly closes. Your first impression may be disappointment with the lack of gadgetry and gimmickry. Yes, there are folding trays in the seatbacks, and even reversible footrests for added comfort. But unlike the Maybach, there are no magnetic goblets or power privacy curtains.
Your second and ensuing impression is likely to be admiration for the subtle design and expert craftsmanship. The cabin is cloaked in 2,400 square meters of leather as well as wood and chrome. No painted plastic surface here because that is not cool to the touch. Some controls are shaped like flute pedals that conform pleasingly to the fingertips.
The Phantom uses an iDrive-like system it calls "Control Center." BMW's iDrive created a lot of frustration in its owners so Rolls is quick to point out that the climate control, radio and other features can still be adjusted the old-fashioned way. Climate control, with six different zones, is particularly straightforward with large, easy-to-read dials. Press one of the "organ stop" buttons and the clock in the center of the dash flips over to reveal a navigation screen. When approaching objects either in front or behind, the nav screen shows a radar map of the proximity. With the amazing dimensions of the Phantom (19 feet long and 6.5 feet wide), the Park Distance Control is a lifesaver.
One of my favorite features was the wraparound lounge seats in the rear. Let a corner toss you into the gentle curve of leather and you might not want to come out again for hours. Looking to the left you will see your own reflection in a small mirror; this was a common attribute in the early Rolls design. The sound system is nothing less than breathtaking with 15 speakers, including two floor-mounted subwoofers that will vibrate the soles of your feet until you beg for mercy. The "boot" offers 16.2 cubic inches of space — not huge — but has two additional compartments under the carpeted floor.
Adding it all up
Rolls designers deserve a lot of credit for producing a cutting-edge car that keeps the technology behind the curtain instead of sticking it in your face. If you prefer a clock over the nav screen, you only have to push a button. The gearshift lever looks mechanical but is clearly electronic, and its operation is simple, direct and effortless. The English history and heritage of Rolls-Royce comes through loud and clear while coexisting peacefully with the precision and innovation of BMW.
Ultimately, driving the Phantom recalibrates our automotive standards. We want to believe there is a car so awesome it will change our lives when we drive it, a car that makes everything outside the window look better — makes life itself seem better. We almost don't want to know that behind the dashboard there are wires and computer chips. We want the magic. Driving a 2005 Rolls-Royce Phantom makes you believe in magic again.
Senior Editor Scott Oldham says:
When I was in college, every dorm room wall wore the same mall-bought poster. It was a picture of a gent leaning on a Rolls-Royce. He looked generally snooty, wore tweed and held a glass of champagne in one hand and a riding crop in the other. Above the photo, in large print were two words: "Poverty Sucks."
Inching the $347,050 Phantom through West Los Angeles, that poster is all I can think of. Poverty does suck. Big time. Just ask the guy in the brand-new Range Rover Supercharged in the next lane. He's in a $100,000 truck, but his double take at the Phantom's hood ornament tells the tale. He might as well be driving an Isuzu Rodeo. He's got nothing. He knows it. I know it.
It's the Phantom Effect. You're either inside this massive machine, or you're destitute. No other car has that kind of power. That kind of impact. That kind of imperialist presence. The Phantom is more than a car. It's a 5,600-pound, 453-hp, 19-foot-long, two-tiered social scale that accelerates to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds.
If that's just too much for the working man inside you to handle, may I suggest something in a Bentley.
Senior Producer Bryan Glickman says:
Driving the Rolls is a different experience than driving other cars. Over the course of two days behind the wheel of the Phantom, I learned that there's no chance of anonymity. This car is all about image, and it literally becomes the center of attention wherever it is. The attention was constant, and frankly, grew tiresome fairly quickly. I'm too self-aware to be the focus of as much constant scrutiny on the road. That's best left for star athletes and hip-hop moguls.
But as it turns out, the Rolls-Royce Phantom is not all style without substance. I was impressed with the artisan craftsmanship of the interior. The exotic and inlaid wood, leather upholstery covering everything, and the real chrome switchgear did feel truly special and rare. Given its scale comparable to an ocean-going luxury liner, you'd expect it to lumber along accordingly. But the Rolls can hustle as well as it lumbers. And it never loses its composure.
The powerful 12-cylinder motor delivers immediate thrust and sustains a rush of power that goes on and on. And when tapping into that power reserve while already at freeway speed, the Rolls feels nimble and quick, making for confident and authoritative traffic navigation. Its handling is sturdy and secure. It feels surefooted and inspires confidence. Even still, I had a niggling sense that I was not experiencing the best that the Rolls had to offer. Next time, I'll take the backseat and let someone else do the driving.
"My 2005 Rolls-Royce Phantom is better than the Maybach 62 which I also have and enjoy. The Phantom is a great car. I cannot wait for the 100EX to arrive." — Cam Janowski, February 17, 2005
"Having both driven and been a passenger in this car, the 2005 Rolls-Royce Phantom is perfect for anyone. You never feel like you are driving an automobile that weighs 6,000 lbs. It provides passengers with tons of luxury. [I'd like] better fuel economy, but, of course, at 6,000 lbs. you can't seriously expect this." — Wonderful Automobile, May 4, 2005
"The 2005 Rolls-Royce Phantom is a joy to drive. It handles like a much smaller car. The turning radius is very good for a car of this size. The fit and finish is pure Rolls-Royce. The high-tech electronics are hidden behind beautiful burl wood and open on command. The nav system is very good." — Donald Kress, April 21, 2005