The Phantom VIII has an insanely tough act to follow. Does Rolls-Royce really have anything left to teach us about luxury?
LUCERNE, SWITZERLAND — It’s been 14 years since the last Rolls-Royce Phantom made its debut, and here at last is its successor, the eighth car to wear the nameplate.
Mind you, the Phantom name goes back 92 years, making it the oldest in motoring history, so there have been some exalted people in the owners club along the way. Fred Astaire had a Phantom I in the roaring 20s, while Queen Elizabeth occasionally tooled about in a Phantom IV when she was still Princess Elizabeth. Even John Lennon, who implored us to “imagine no possessions”, found himself unable to resist the lure of a Phantom, nor the urge to have it painted in psychedelic colours by a Dutch art collective known as The Fool.
Whatever it is, the Phantom has always been a car for the highest of high achievers. Given that it costs S$1,778,888 (without Certificate Of Entitlement) for a standard model, and S$2,088,888 for an Extended Wheelbase version, it’s not exactly something you might have had in the driveway today if only you’d studied that little bit harder for your O’levels.
Could any car be worth that much money, however much you have burning a hole in your pocket? You might as well ask if a Renoir is truly worth tens of millions.
The comparison to art isn’t a spurious one, either. Some Phantoms are ordered as part of a fleet, but those bought by individuals tend to be customised to such a degree that no two are alike.
The car itself certainly catches the eye. Rolls-Royces tend to elicit a uniquely positive reaction from bystanders, and during our time in the Phantom we were on the receiving end of any of the following: open-mouthed stares, the mobile phone salute, broad smiles and the occasional thumbs up.
It’s arguable whether all those people knew they were looking at the latest Phantom, but while the car’s looks seem to have gently evolved, the new car is easily recognised. Giles Taylor, the design director for Rolls, says he considers the previous car slightly glum in appearance, so he’s given this one details with lines that sweep upwards, almost like a smile.
For the first time, the Pantheon grille is ever so slightly swept back, too, as part of an effort to gently smoothen the car’s looks.
Surprisingly, the new Phantom is slightly smaller than before — we hear you need a bus licence to drive anything longer than 6m in China, and the Extended Wheelbase Phantom now sneaks under that mark.
Diminishing its size has not diminished its stature, however. Wherever it rolls up, the Phantom has an imposing and notable presence.
And though the looks have been gently updated, the skeleton of the car is all new. The Phantom is built on Rolls’ “Architecture of Luxury”, a new aluminium platform on which all the brand’s future cars will be built.
It’s generally more rigid than the previous car’s platform and slightly lighter, providing a bit of weight allowance for a huge amount of sound insulation to be added — 130kg, to be precise. That’s not the only measure taken to muffle those decibels; the windows are all of 6mm thick and are double-glazed (which also prevents heat from penetrating), and even the wheels each have 2kg of sound-insulating foam inside them. Better to kill noise than block it, after all.
The result is an astonishingly silent car. On the highway you do hear the wind as a hushed rustle, and the clamour of other vehicles’ engines does manage to make its way into the cabin, but the Phantom itself is utterly mute.
The engine only ever pipes up if you’re willfully plumbing the depths of its 900Nm reserve of peak torque, and even then its voice is never more than a distant murmur. Otherwise it does its work as unobtrusively as a good butler.
While Rolls-Royce has obviously declared war on noise, the suspension leans on technology to do the same to surface irregularities. There’s a camera-based system that allows the car to scan the road ahead for bumps so it can prime its air springs for them. This is a car that prepares itself for a lumpy tarmac instead of merely trying to react to it as calmly as possible, in other words.
It’s a nice idea (borrowed from BMW), and it works a treat. It’s not that you feel nothing at all of the road, but being in the Phantom is like driving over a plush, endless carpet that has been laid out in front of you to smoothen your passage.
Each air spring apparently has twice the capacity of those in the previous Phantom, and their control system works much faster than before. The result is a car that rebuffs the road’s attempts to molest it.
It all adds up to a car that offers a glimpse of what heaven must be like; you ride on clouds, with nothing to bother you on your journey.
What is slightly more ineffable about the car is the sense of occasion that accompanies being in a Phantom. It begins from the moment the door is opened for you with that uniquely rear-hinged mechanism, allowing you to slide gracefully into seats set far back enough for the C-pillars to obscure you from view.
Test cars vary in their specification, of course, but your Phantom would be tailor made to your liking. In the new car’s case that means you could specify new “Sleeping Seats”, akin to the fold-flat items they have when you turn left on the plane.
Customers tend to do their best work here, of course, and Phantoms have had humidors built into the rear centre console. We found the coolbox with champagne flutes to be a fairly popular item in the test fleet. One car had whisky glasses and a decanter, though cruelly, it contained nothing but air.
A theatre system with electric fold-down picnic tables was another item Rolls-Royce seemed eager to showcase, and of course the persons in the back have their own iDrive controller to play with.
But if there’s a feature of the Phantom VIII that really fires the imagination, it’s the “gallery”. It’s essentially a space behind a broad pane of safety glass, behind which owners are invited to commission works of art. You can have off-the-shelf pieces from the factory, but it provides a way for customers to show off their artistic tastes.
“We know that a huge number of our clients are patrons of art and indeed have their own private collections,” says Giles Taylor. Essentially, the gallery allows you to display a work of art within a work of art.
Even if you have little instinct for art, though, there is no shortage of reasons to take a Phantom VIII home with you. Mind you, most customers will probably only need one: you commission a Phantom because nothing less will do.
That probably explains why a dozen new Phantoms were apparently booked in Singapore before customers had even had a chance to see or touch the car, or learn of its price. 14 years is a long time between new models, after all. And while it’s impossible to say if it’s worth a couple of million, the new Phantom has certainly been worth the wait.
NEED TO KNOW Rolls-Royce Phantom Extended Wheelbase
Engine 6.75-litre, 48 valve, V12 turbocharged
Power 571hp at 5,000rpm
Torque 900Nm at 1,700rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic
Top Speed 250km/h (limited)
0-100km/h 5.4 seconds
Fuel efficiency 13.9L/100km
Price S$2,088,888 without Certificate Of Entitlement
Agent Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Singapore
Rock and Rolls: What the new Phantom is like behind the wheel
Apparently there are Phantom buyers who occasionally take the steering wheel, and why not? The Rolls-Royce may tip the scale at 2.6 tonnes, but it still has a mighty V12 engine for you to play with.
There are now twin turbos, too, which gives this car enough horsepower to rival a supercar. Of course, the grunt is all there for the sake of effortlessness. Simply brush the accelerator, and the Phantom picks up speed with little more than a whispered wuffle somewhere between you and Eleanor, better known as the Spirit Of Ecstasy.
There’s no rev counter — instead there’s a power reserve meter, a hangover from the brand’s aviation days — and you can haul along at a fairly smart pace with little more than 20 to 30 percent of the engine’s power.
Floor it, and the engine can actually be heard, although it’s still muted as it accelerates the Phantom like a monster.
Beast Mode aside, the previous Phantom was a delicate car to drive, with light controls and a thin-rimmed steering wheel, and this is little different. A gentle touch is all that’s needed to guide it along, and the effort needed at the wheel never changes when you’re adding lock.
But one massive and obvious change has to with the car’s agility. It actually has some now. Standard on Phantom VIII is a rear axle steering system that can pivot the rear wheels in either direction by up to three degrees.
Up to 60km/h the system steers them in the opposite direction to the front wheels, which tightens its turning circle. Beyond that they steer gently in the same direction, resulting in smoother land changes on the highway.
Whether or not you can picture what’s happening at the back of the car, the new Phantom feels far more maneuverable than its father. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was a breeze to drive it through some of the twistiest, narrowest sections of the Swiss alps, but for a giant car the Rolls-Royce is surprisingly easy to place in corners, and it can be guided along fairly briskly with full faith from the driver.
It’s engaging enough to drive that it’s actually a bit of a conundrum whether the best seat in the house is still one of the ones in the back. This may be the eighth Phantom, but that is certainly a first.