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Car reviews - Rolls-Royce - Phantom - sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Presence, performance, luxury, equipment, comfort, noise supression
Room for improvement
Price, overly-light steering, no sequential gearshift, turning circle

23 Mar 2004

HISTORICALLY, Rolls-Royces have never been the biggest, the fastest or the most powerful – instead they have claimed to "offer the optimum balance of all attributes".

And the same is true of the first Roller produced under BMW ownership.

Yes, Phantom is big, but it isn’t the biggest. Yes, it’s fast too, but there are plenty of other cars that are faster. Most powerful? That title, or at least the contest of most torque, is won by DaimlerChrysler’s Maybach limousine – a car aimed directly at Rolls Royce customers and which produces a staggering 900Nm of torque from its twin-turbocharged 5.5-litre V12. To date, it’s believed three confirmed orders for Maybach have been taken.

So, by a slim margin, Phantom appears to be the front-runner in the race to be the most popular super-luxury limousine in Australia – and after a brief morning’s drive encompassing metropolitan Melbourne and rural Victorian roads, we can see why.

While it’s difficult to define what a million dollars should drive like, Phantom is quantifiably better than BMW’s own premium limousine, the 7 Series. Whether it’s over five times better than the entry level $174,100 735i (or five times better than the range-topping $332,400 760Li, for that matter) is debatable.

But such a simplistic approach to the Phantom’s worth is unlikely to made by potential customers. Indeed, Phantom’s million-dollar pricetag itself gives the model an exclusivity factor that’s matched by only a handful of exotic supercars.

And if that’s not enough of a guarantee you won’t run into another Phantom at the local drive-in, there’s always solace in the fact only 1000 will be built every year – Holden builds more in a couple of days.

There’s no doubt Phantom is the vehicle for the person who has everything, and no car better exemplifies the addage "if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it".

But what do you get for a million bucks?

Apart from the unmistakable shape, the undeniable presence and the voluminous space inside, the first most obvious answer is ambience. Designed by Germans it may be, but the newest Rolls-Royce’s interior is far removed from the Teutonic austerity of the 7 Series.

The fact Phantom is hand-built in traditional coach-building style is obvious. The interior oozes quality and craftsmanship, and where there’s no wood or leather, there’s carpet. In fact, so thick is the plush-pile rear carpeting that I promptly lost my pen in it.

Look beyond the carpet and the front seat rails are finished in polished alloy, look up and the cashmere wool headlining looks expensive, look ahead and the oak burr dashboard is made from 40 layers of oak veneer sandwiched between aluminium wafers. If sir chooses, the entire dash and instrument panel can be had in option woodgrain too.

Of course, if it’s wet outside one can employ the Rolls-Royce umbrellas that reside within each rear door cavity, and if convenient privacy is your bent then perhaps the electronic curtain activation option is for you.

Rolls-Royce says between 15 and 18 cow hides are sacrificed for every Phantom interior, with no less than 450 pieces of hand-stitched "cornsilk" leather adorning the finished product.

There are three lighting modes to choose from within the art deco-styled central overhead lighting consoles both front and rear, while the four-zone climate control has perfectly positioned ventilation for the face via B-pillar outlets. The air-conditioning system itself is eminently efficient, but does get loud at full fan speed.

While the rotating rear footrests are optional, at least the unbelievably brilliant 15-speaker CD sound system is standard, as are the airline-style woodgrain folding tray tables and illuminated mirrors in each rear corner. Double door sealing, super-quick and quiet power windows and the massive 450-litre boot go without saying.

Goes without saying, too, that Phantom’s interior is a special place to be, offering an amazing sense of occasion that leaves a lasting impression. Even next to the flagship 7 Series, it’s a lesson in serenity.

Up front, unlike 7 Series, all the major functions are accessible via the dashboard and, although Rolls-Royce does adopt BMW’s controversial i-Drive control interface unchanged (eschewing the simplified version found in 5 Series), this time round it’s called the Rolls-Royce Control Centre and the central controller hides behind the centre console.

There’s no doubt Phantom offers an unrivalled, unforgettable experience from either the driver’s seat or the back seat

Driving controls are not unlike those in the Seven, including the wand-type gearlever on the right-hand side that selects reverse by pulling forward and down, drive by pulling forward and down, and park by pushing the end of it.

There is a Low button on the steering wheel to select a low gear, but without the 7 Series’ sequential manual shift function (like that found in a Ford Falcon) the big Roller always lacks engine braking and required constant braking to traverse even mildly steep descents at highway speed.

The lack of such simple transmission technology took the gloss of an otherwise memorable driving experience.

Similarly, there is a push-button electronic park brake, but in Phantom it lacks the automatic function that sees it activate itself and is such a boon at traffic lights and the like. A clever lift function to raise the ride height when required is a welcome feature, however.

The two-and-a-half-tonne Phantom accelerates with a ferocity that such a heavy vehicle shouldn’t allow, made all the more unbelievable by the almost complete lack of engine, wind or road noise. The story is different outside, however, with the rapidly approaching Phantom sounding more like a roadtrain than a car.

Apart from overly light steering which picks up every road camber and the huge-diameter, thin rimmed tiller that never quite inspired the confidence to get overly ambitious with someone else’s 2500kg, million-dollar Roller, Phantom impressed with super-responsive power delivery that never felt lacking, regardless of engine or road speed. Despite the too-light steering, composure and stability was never in question.

In fact, there is no tachometer (or engine revolution counter, as the Phantom’s minder put it). Instead, on the left of the instrument panel, is a Power Reserve gauge, with measures – in percentage terms – how much power is left in reserve at any given. Looked strangely like an inlet manifold vacuum gauge, just like that released famously on the VB Commodore in 1978.

Another complaint is that the long doors aren’t the easiest to open, with the rear coach doors requiring a stretch to push open from their rear hinges from the inside, and the front doors are so long it’s difficult to reach far enough forward to gain adequate leverage to open them comfortably. Oh, and we’d prefer the door mirrors a little further forward, too.

At least the doors and boot are soft-closing, meaning they’ll close themselves if left slightly ajar – but, disappointingly, the optional self-closing boot and fridge as found in top-line 7 Series is not yet available.

A final whinge concerns the lack of a spare wheel, which seems incomprehensible for such a large vehicle with such a large boot – especially when contemplate traversing a country like Australia without one.

Instead, Phantom claims to be the first car to offer run-flat tyres as standard, but the system malfunctioned during our time in the Phantom, revealing warning lights that insisted all tyres were flat when they weren’t. Travelling at a maximum of 50mph for 100 miles is not a good look for anyone, let alone Rolls-Royce owners.

There’s no doubt Phantom offers a unique experience, both to drive and to be driven.

The lack of some basic functions found in vehicles many times less expensive than the Phantom – especially the absence of manual gear selection – is an oversight for a car that should contain every technology available and then some. And for a car that’s being touted as the first real driver’s Rolls-Royce.

But we’re prepared to overlook this omission given the level of luxury offered here, and the exclusivity that’s gauranteed in Phantom ownership.

There’s no doubt Phantom offers an unrivalled, unforgettable experience from either the driver’s seat or the back seat – an experience that few could sincerely feel short-changed about.

Certainly, the tall poppy attitude so commonly expressed by those who sneer at expensive cars was completely absent during our drive, with all and sundry giving the unmissable Phantom a big grin and a wave.

But it seems that, even for a million dollars, the world’s best car has room for improvement.

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