- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

Imagine sending your favorite nail polish to a car company and asking that your new car be painted the same color.

It’s happened at least twice at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars over the past two years, and yes, the well-heeled and well-groomed women buyers each got her wish. As did the man who sent in a tree cut from his own forest and asked that the carmaker use the wood to trim the dashboard and other interior pieces on his new luxury car.

This is the rarefied world of Rolls-Royce, where it can take a year or so for a buyer to get his or her new luxury sedan, depending on the special — some might say unusual — custom touches.

But be assured, when the car arrives, it has the craftsmanship — not to mention the stately presence — that delights the world’s wealthiest car owners.

Indeed, with just one model offered — the V-12-powered Phantom sedan, which has a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including delivery charge, of $329,750 — Rolls-Royce set a 15-year record last year with 796 sales worldwide.

It’s an understatement to say that the carmaker builds and sells luxury vehicles.

With a 100-year heritage of catering to the rich and powerful around the globe, Rolls-Royce produces sizable, powerful and luxuriously appointed cars that make regular folk stop and stare.

A Rolls-Royce “is almost like a piece of art that’s commissioned,” spokesman Graham Biggs said.

Testing the 2006 Phantom was unlike any other test drive.

Doors on this more than 19-foot-long car open wide for easy access, and passengers sit up higher than they do in other cars, though not as high as in tall sport utility vehicles.

Inside the Phantom, there’s cashmere in the car’s ceiling material, which makes it feel like the upholstery on a living room chair. Touch and tap on the shiny silver trim parts — for example, control knobs for the ventilation system — and you feel solid metal. It’s chrome-plated. No cheap plastic here. Likewise, wood trim inside the car is all real wood, and a typical Phantom uses 16 to 18 animal hides for the leather seats and other interior trim. Glass in the doors is thicker than in any production car that is not armored and contributes to an amazingly quiet interior. The rear seat in the test car looked like a couch, with the seatback curving around to the door openings in a stylish fashion.

But the experience really begins when the Phantom’s accelerator pedal is touched. There’s a strong, yet silky smooth surge of power from a 453-horsepower, 6.75-liter, double overhead cam V-12. This is a BMW engine that can produce a whopping 531 foot-pounds of torque at just 3,500 rpm, and it does exceptionally well in propelling this 5,500-pound car. A driver scarcely realizes how fast he or she is going because the power comes on so seductively and the interior remains isolated and quiet.

The transmission is a six-speed automatic, and the estimated 0-to-60-mph run takes a respectable 5.7 seconds, according to company statistics.

Fuel economy is akin to that of some big SUVs at 12 city/19 highway.

The Phantom’s steering wheel is large and spindly, which seems a bit old-fashioned. But taking this stately sedan through a back-and-forth slalom showed impressive suspension work. While weight shifted noticeably in the Phantom, the car held its line and behaved in a controlled manner.

Yet, on regular roads, passengers aren’t jostled or bothered, because the suspension seems to keep them floating above the road imperfections.

Perhaps the most memorable feature, though, is the stereo. Premium speakers are carefully arranged and separate different tones and sounds, while subwoofers under the front passenger floor are so powerful they can make the floor vibrate.

Though Rolls-Royce motor cars continue to be built, as they have since the beginning, in England, the company now is a BMW operation. BMW bought the rights to the Rolls-Royce name after a bidding battle with Volkswagen in the late 1990s.

Oddly, though, some things don’t seem to fit with the image of Rolls-Royce as the quintessential luxury car. For example, rear parking sensors have less-than-attractive and visible sensor circles on the car’s bumpers.

The United States is the single largest Rolls-Royce market and accounts for about half of global sales, according to the company. The top-selling U.S. area is Beverly Hills, Calif.

Company officials decline to give specifics about buyers, citing the need for buyer privacy. But it is known that some 85 percent of Rolls-Royce owners are prominent people of industry. The rest are entertainment and sports celebrities or members of governments. They have, on average, six other cars at home.

By late this year, Rolls-Royce will expand its line to include an extended-wheelbase Phantom, with 10 additional inches of rear-seat room. A Rolls-Royce convertible is due in 2007.

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