Under the Tuscan sun: Take the long way back to the villa
As we guide the newest Rolls-Royce’s proud visage through the lush Italian countryside, we feel as much the captain of a custom-built motor yacht as the driver of a uniquely crafted motorcar. The “six and three-quarter-liter” (not 6.7 or 6.8, thank you; it’s 6 3/4, just as Rolls engines have been for decades) V-12 woofles softly. The naturally finished, oiled teak decking glows in the afternoon light. What seems like acres of soft, drum-tanned leather is supple to the touch and adds its own aroma to the sea-scented Tuscan air. Sisal floormats feel good underfoot, and, with the top down, we have a view of this breathtaking yet tranquil region that is unparalleled. The Winged Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament leads the way, as a soft wind ruffles hillside vines, heavy with Sangiovese and Merlot grapes that’ll someday become wines labeled Toscano Superiore. So this is what that whole La Dolce Vita thing is all about.
Who’ll be fortunate enough to buy such an automobile, especially at the typically optioned price of $440,000-$450,000? Merrill-Lynch calls them Ultra High Net Worth Individuals — UHNWIs, for short. In plain terms, really rich people. These are folks who have $30 million or more in investments and disposable income — not including the value of their home(s) or business(es). There are more than 85,000 UHNWIs in the world, but Rolls-Royce is building the hyperexclusive Phantom Drophead Coup for just a few hundred of them per year.
Dismissing the DHC as a two-door ragtop version of the Phantom sedan would be a mistake. The powertrain, suspension architecture, electronic systems, and some elements of its aluminum structure are shared, but an impressive amount of work, much of it unseen, went into engineering the DHC into far more than a variant of the four-door.
Consider the design itself, inspired by the 100EX concept car that rocked the Geneva show in 2004. Starting right up front, the DHC is the first production Rolls-Royce that breaks from the traditional Parthenon-inspired grille shell. It’s curved, angled rearward, and finished in brushed stainless steel instead of polished. Every body panel is new. In the tradition of the finest 1930s-era coachbuilt automobiles, the Drophead boasts rear-hinged, front-opening doors in the name of style and to make entry/exit a more elegant proposition.
An open roof is the natural enemy of structural rigidity, so considerable effort went into making the handwelded alloy body/chassis as stiff as possible. Forty percent of the structure’s aluminum extrusion work is new, including massive sills that are larger and thicker than the closed car’s. More rigidity comes from the windshield/A-pillar structure. There are alloy triangulation braces in the engine bay. Altogether, more than 1300 parts are different from those in the Phantom sedan.
Why not a retractable metal roof? Rolls officials cite three reasons: It wouldn’t have allowed the styling profile they desired. It would’ve compromised trunk space. A cloth top-a hand-assembled, five-layer, one-touch piece in this case-just looks so much more romantic. We agree.
Could there be a more inviting cabin? Everything you see and touch is wrapped in sublime leather (more than 450 pieces, stitched together by real people with sewing machines), lustrous wood of varying finish, and thickly chromed metal. The only plastic stuff is what’s required for crash safety. Some of the switchgear, such as the seat controls and the iDrive controller, is hidden by panels or in cubbies. They may seem a pain to access, but the idea is to reduce the number of buttons and switches for a less cluttered cabin. There are a few ergonomic flubs, such as seat-heater buttons that are deeply recessed and hard to reach and illegible lettering on some of the controls. However, once the owner has mastered the car, it won’t matter. The rear seat is easy to access and coved into the sidepanels for comfort. It’s all a very social environment.
A word about tunes. The DHC’s 420 watt, nine-channel, 15-speaker audio package may be the best ever factory-engineered into an automobile. Subwoofers make the most of the cavity in the space frame below the seats, and the imaging, clarity, and channel separation of this system must be heard to be believed. The sound is powerful, yet crisp and transparent. You’ll be a hit at the next tailgate party with this.
The 453-horsepower Rolls V-12 shares its basic makeup with that of the BMW 760 sedan, but it’s larger, more powerful, and retuned for even greater refinement. It even sounds different from a 7 Series V-12: dead silent at idle, but with soft intake and exhaust moans when you’re really on it. It’s backed by ZF’s superb six-speed automatic transmission, which offers a “Low” mode-in reality more like a “Sport” mode-holding the tranny longer in each gear for more spirited acceleration. The 531 pound-feet of torque helps move the car from 0-to-60 in 5.6 seconds, says Rolls-Royce, and it feels at least that quick. Plenty of power for any occasion makes the need for forced induction or more cylinders superfluous.
The Phantom DHC, in spite of its two-door convertible configuration, is first and foremost a luxury car. While its mission in life, dynamically, is a quiet and comfortable ride, it’s sportier than you may think, up to a point. All the controls are calibrated for fingertips not biceps, and the ride defines the term supple. There’s some body lean, but little dive or squat under braking or acceleration. More steering feel would be welcome, but it’ll let you know where she’s pointed. Top down, it’s quiet, allowing normal conversation at 80 mph, and only a bit more volume is required to chat at 100. There is a fair amount of wind buffeting, though; air swirls around the back-seat area, and you can feel it blowing between the front seats. However inelegant, some sort of removable wind blocker would be welcome. Top up, it’s appropriately quiet, so much so as to again make you forget any notion of a retractable metal hardtop.
This is one car that, even though it’ll cover distance at great pace, doesn’t like to be manhandled. Go past about seven-tenths, and the stability controls offer their own brand of assistance. “Perhaps a bit of braking on the inside wheel to get you through that nasty curve, sir?” Hit eight-tenths, and lights and more braking and/or throttle management will step in, although at no time does it feel out of control. The DHC is a sublime driving experience, as long as you respect its size, heft, and purpose. Pushing harder doesn’t do the car justice. If you want to filet corners at max revs, get a Ferrari F430. Many UHNWIs already have one anyway.
The Phantom Drophead Coup is what it should be: The best machine this marque has brought forth in decades and one of the most finely crafted automobiles in the world. For what it costs, there’s no excuse for it being anything but. Commoners will dismiss this 5800-pound convertible as too big, too thirsty, too irrelevant, and too egregiously expensive for words. But that’s okay. They’re not Rolls-Royce’s target customers anyway. The latter, many who fit into that UHNWI category, are proud of their accomplishments, and few are shy about displaying their wealth. The fact that this new model is sold out through 2008 supports this.
What the Drophead Coup, along with the Phantom sedan, accomplishes best, however, is to bring a sense of occasion back to owning, driving, or riding in a Rolls-Royce.
Surprise & delight: This Phantom has tricks to spare
Cars in this strata need special touches to set them apart from the rest. Here are the Phantom DHC’s Top Five:
|2008 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coup|
|Vehicle layout||Front engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door convertible|
|Engine||6.7L/453-hp/531-lb-ft DOHC 48-valve V-12|
|Curb weight||5800 lb (mfr)|
|Length x width x height||220.8 x 78.2 x 62.2 in|
|0-60 mph||5.6 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||Not yet rated|
|On sale in U.S.||Aug-07|