The 2008 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe is the only vehicle on sale today that requires new oil at each service interval.
Here we speak not of the black gold buried conveniently under the land masses of deeply eccentric regimes in Iran and Venezuela, not to mention those in Canada and Texas. Although the nearly 6,000-pound Phantom Coupe with its 6.8-liter V12 will need plenty of this stuff, both as gasoline and as engine lubricant.
No, here we speak of oil derived from the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum L.) or from the seed kernels of the Tung tree (Aleurites fordii). You see, the $410,000 Drophead Coupe is available with a $7,000 optional tonneau cover and upper cowl made from solid teakwood — yes, the stuff of expensive boat trim and patio furniture. Assuming you would like to preserve the warm caramel color of the tonneau, you will have to have your service technician slather it every so often with some penetrating oil, such as linseed or Tung oil.
You see life is, um, different with a Rolls-Royce.
Beyond the Stereotype For roughly the past 20 years, the standards by which a Rolls-Royce has been judged have been very different from the standards applied nearly a hundred years ago when the brand was new. In the beginning, a Rolls-Royce was adventuresome in its mechanical excellence. Later, excellence had to overcome a lack of the mechanically adventuresome, as a Rolls-Royce came to lack the technological sophistication of far cheaper German sedans.
Of course, people still yearned for the defiantly British spirit of a Rolls-Royce in a way that they never did for a German sedan, and it made the Germans so crazy that BMW bought Rolls-Royce in 1998 and built a new factory in Goodwood, England, to begin producing the all-new Phantom in 2003.
People are still discovering that a Rolls-Royce no longer leans heavily on the snob appeal of being the car of choice for the Third Duke of Crispy Bits and Creaky Floors. And so the moment we took the wheel of the 2008 Phantom Drophead Coupe, we quickly realized that in addition to being neither a coupe nor a drophead, it is neither a technologically disadvantaged old crock nor simply a hollow affectation for old-money wannabes. It is, in fact, a very fine yacht and quite a good car as well.
Shipping Lanes True, the same thing might be said of the big and brutish Phantom sedan that became the first Rolls-Royce produced under BMW ownership. It is technologically up-to-date and endowed with the stoutness one typically associates with high-end German sedans. But with its self-conscious stylishness and a front grille that could double as a scale model of a neoclassical temple, the Phantom sedan has cut a particularly graceless image in the real world.
The Drophead Coupe, which we have just now decided to refer to simply as the "convertible," is based on the Phantom. The convertible uses a shorter version of the same aluminum space frame, although the drop top uses larger-diameter structural pieces in the rockers. And with only two enormous doors instead of four enormous doors, Rolls has managed to chop a full 10 inches out of the Phantom's wheelbase.
The convertible's overall length has shrunk by 10 inches as well, although this car still measures more than 15 inches longer than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan. As we drove this car in Italy across some of the finest goat paths in the Tuscan countryside, the Phantom Drophead felt more than big; it felt out of scale, like a 1:18th-scale model in a 1:43-scale world. Many a Fiat Panda had to swerve into roadside olive groves to avoid us as we came steaming down the center line.
Indeed, we were not used to ushering something quite so massive through a world apparently designed with a unit of measure considerably shorter than would seem sensible to a Rolls-Royce driver. At a width of 78.2 inches, the convertible is every bit as broad of beam as the Phantom sedan and so almost half the width of a Tuscan two-lane road.
A Great Big Slot Car The cornering style we employed, therefore, was more reminiscent of slot-car racing than road racing. With not enough pavement to sweep through corners in the accepted style, we had to keep the center line of the car directly over the center of the lane. This we accomplished most of the time and we apologize to our driving partner for the couple of unfortunate moments when we did not.
That is no small accomplishment, driving as we were at intensely extralegal speeds. And it was made all the more difficult since we were guiding this solid ingot of wealth via a comically large-diameter steering wheel that was mounted too high for us. Perhaps Rolls has taken its nautical theme a bit too literally in this case.
We were impressed that any vehicle of the convertible's size and weight can be hustled so smoothly down a road that curves so torturously. The 21-inch tires provide more than adequate grip. The steering is accurate, although the effort is a bit light. And the Phantom Drophead is never nervous at speed — or at least it's not as nervous as its pilot is at speed.
Power? More Than Adequate Sure we could have simply slowed down, but honestly, we didn't really realize we were going all that fast, at least until we'd arrive at a corner. Thanks to its quiet and smooth 453-horsepower V12 and the near-imperceptible shifts of the six-speed automatic, the Phantom convertible accumulates speed on the sly.
It didn't occur to us until we were finished driving for the day that the convertible doesn't flex or creak as nearly all convertibles do. And long-wheelbase convertibles like this are usually the worst offenders. The Phantom Drophead drives like a hardtop. An absence of vice might be harder to discern than the existence of virtue, but it's more impressive.
The only operational aspect of the convertible that we don't like is the six-speed automatic's reluctance to downshift during passing maneuvers. We understand that Rolls engineers want the transmission to shift as little as possible so as not to distract an owner with his mind on the finer things, but even a car with 531 pound-feet of torque occasionally needs the torque-multiplying magic of a shorter gear. Passing Italian big rigs, the drivers of which take it as a personal insult, is such an occasion.
Cabin Cruiser So the gentlemen who design and construct Rollers under the BMW regime have gotten all those driving-style aspects of prestige-car ownership almost exactly right. There will be no need for owners to make any excuses for the car's performance. But what about the other side of the Roller experience? What about the details that a car must evidence to make a half-million price tag seem like an appropriate measure of value?
The Phantom Drophead Coupe has them. Start with the interior, which is trimmed in wonderfully soft leather, a wide variety of wood veneer choices and possibly more chrome than was applied to a 1959 Cadillac. No plastic buttons here. Every control switch, knob, hinge and assorted doodad has been finished in chrome. And each bit of switchgear feels heavy and pleasantly mechanical, like a well-oiled latch.
How's the 15-speaker stereo? Well, as we played the intro to David Bowie's "Space Oddity," with its two overlapping vocals, we were convinced that it was our driving partner who was singing along. It wasn't until we screwed up the courage to look over and see that his mouth was shut that we realized it was a recorded voice. Moments later, he said, unprompted, "God, I thought that was you singing!" That's a good stereo.
Value vs. Cost For curbside theater, one can't underestimate the Phantom Drophead's rear-hinged doors. If onlookers aren't sufficiently impressed enough just by the configuration of these doors, the push of the automatic door-closing button will surely elicit an eyebrow-raise from all but the most phlegmatic.
And we can't imagine any Phantom Drophead Coupe buyer not opting for the optional stainless-steel hood and teak-covered tonneau, which give this convertible its unique visage. Some might view these elements as gimmicky, and we suppose on some level they are. But, along with the rear-hinged doors and triangulated A-pillars, they are what give the convertible its visual impact, its specialness, and part of the justification for its obscene price. In other words, you just can't get this kind of thing on a Chrysler Sebring convertible.
In its defense, we should note that the Sebring convertible is offered with a retractable hardtop, while the Drophead Coupe is not. This is not really a problem, since the thick five-layer fabric of the Rolls-Royce top perfectly transforms the convertible's interior into a hushed, weather-proof environment. Still, why shouldn't a car that costs roughly a half-million dollars offer the same technology as a sub-$40,000 car? Well, Rolls-Royce tells us, "You don't need a reversible jacket if you've got the money for two jackets." In other words, if you need a hardtop that day, just pick another car from your stable.
As we said, life is different with a Rolls-Royce. And with the 2008 Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupe, it's a good kind of different.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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