Rolls Royce Phantom VIII: Driven
After 14 years Rolls Royce has launched the new Phantom, only the eighth generation of the oldest running nameplate in the automotive universe. We got behind the wheel of the Rolls-Royce Phantom VIII in Switzerland taking in beautiful roads along Lake Lucerne, the heavily speed-regulated Swiss motorways and then up the Swiss Alps over roads made famous in the 1964 Bond classic where James Bond chased Goldfinger‘s Phantom III up to his lair.
Welcome to ‘The Embrace’, as Rolls-Royce now calls the rear quarters of the Phantom. The Rolls-Royce Phantom has always been about library-like silence, about the only thing you can hear being the ticking of the mechanical clock, but even by those standards the hush inside the Phantom VIII is extraordinary. There’s 130 kilos of sound deadening, mundane pursuits like weight saving being reserved for lesser automobiles. There’s 6mm thick double-glazed glass, the thickest on any car in the world. There’s double-skin alloy within the floor and the front bulkhead into which a foam and felt layer is inserted to cut out noise. The roofliner gets 2.5mm of sound deadening foam, as do the doors and boot area. There’s acoustic damping. And to top it all each tyre, 21-inch Continentals (22’s are optional), has two kilos of foam insert to cut down tyre noise by nine decibels.
Unsurprisingly, all the engineers I spoke to were German and the extent they’ve gone to, to isolate occupants, boggles the mind. You hear nothing. You feel nothing. At 100kmph the Phantom VIII is 60 decibels quieter than the Phantom VII. It is three to six decibels quieter than what used to be the quietest car in the world, incidentally another Rolls, the Ghost. Even the air-con vents have a foam insert to cut out the blower noise. Sat in the back of this extended wheelbase example, I stretch out and yet my shoes don’t soil the white leather front seatback – and at five-foot nine inches, I’m not a shorty. I hit the massage function and marvel at the magnificent Starlight roof, hundreds of fibre optic lights twinkling – yes, twinkling! – on the largest such roof to ever be installed in a Rolls. Life’s tough, but somebody has to live it.
“You can now commission art for your car,” says design director Giles Taylor. Not in the ‘art car’ sense of getting an artist to paint your car – of course you can do that too! – but actually installing a piece of art in the Phantom. The traditional cliff-face of a dashboard has been reimagined with a seamless swathe of toughened glass stretching the entire width of a bulkhead. The analogue dials are replaced by a 12.3-inch TFT colour screen with LED backlighting displaying virtual instruments and readouts, at a resolution so high you cannot see the individual pixels. Allied to the BMW Group’s electrical architecture, that is geared up to accept future software updates, it addresses the biggest criticism of the outgoing Phantom, that the tech felt out of date. In the centre of the dash is the infotainment screen operated by a variation of BMW’s iDrive (Taylor baulks at the idea of gesture control) and the rest of the dash is, well, whatever you want it to be. Even the infotainment screen slides out of view for you to admire whatever it is that you installed in The Gallery – porcelain roses, murals on silk inspired by the placid waters of Lake Lucerne, wood work if you’re a traditionalist, your DNA in 3D, printed in solid gold to remind you of your own greatness, knickers of your current muse, you’re only limited by your imagination. Choose wisely though, if you get bored the Phantom will have to be sent back to Goodwood to get rid of all her traces.
Personalisation is but a given and no two Phantoms will ever be alike. In fact there won’t be a thing so mundane as a price list in India – after all there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ Phantom. Of course prices will go up, by around 15 per cent, to start at 9-10 crore rupees but a crore here or there is hardly going to matter when Phantom owners live in their own 40-storey buildings. And speaking of customers, here’s a statistic to wilt the mind – the average Rolls-Royce owner is the youngest in the BMW Group, younger than BMW, Mini and even BMW Motorrad. Over dinner at a two Michelin-starred restaurant (what else?) Taylor reveals the average age is now closer to 39 thanks to newly minted Chinese billionaires. Explains the purple shade of the car I’m driving that almost becomes black depending on the light. Oh, we also discovered that Rolls-Royce makes fewer cars than Ferrari and Taylor wants his cars to become even more expensive, even more exclusive.
The Waft line
At 92, the Phantom is the oldest nameplate in the automotive world and the design director for the very first Phantom was Henry Royce himself. The Phantom is a statement of (immense) power. People who have shaped the world’s history have ridden in the Phantom – our Maharajas, the Queen, Muhammad Ali, John Lennon, Churchill, (allegedly) Stalin, and closer to home (and the time) the Ambanis, though Rolls never reveal the identity of their current owners. Reimagining the Phantom had to be one of the most onerous tasks in the automotive world yet the oldest thing on this eighth-generation car is the name.
The Parthenon grille is now even bigger. Eleanor, the Spirit of Ecstasy, sits even higher. But the Brutalism of the VII has been softened. For the first time ever the stainless-steel grille is faired into the bodywork, keeping step with the times. It is also canted backward ever so slightly while the frosted lights with laser beams give it modernity. As a plus, the lasers are among the brightest you’ll find anywhere, throwing a beam up to 600 metres ahead of the car. The Vee on the bonnet is inspired by the bow of a yacht. The enormous C-pillar is less buff and more coupe-like. And in profile, at the bottom, are waft lines that (visually, of course) push the car forward. You may not call the new Phantom beautiful, but I guarantee it will take your breath away; leave your jaw on the pavement.
Architecture of luxury
The Phantom VIII rides on a brand new, modular, aluminium matrix architecture – ‘Architecture of Luxury’ as Rolls so loftily calls it – that will underpin every new Rolls including the upcoming Cullinan SUV. No more upscaling of BMW platforms though the resources of the group are used for things you don’t see, like the electrical backbone bristling with all the latest active and semi-active tech which, incidentally, is also the single biggest part made by the BMW Group.
This aluminium spaceframe is torsionally stiffer by 30 per cent and in key areas like the suspension and gearbox mounts, the stiffness is up by 100 per cent. The body in white is actually lighter though that was more by accident than intent, stiffness being the overriding priority. And to control the prodigious weight, 2610kg of the EWB Phantom I’m riding in, the air springs have larger chambers, up to four litres now. It’s connected by electrically actuated anti-roll bars and the dampers are also electrically controlled, making millions of adjustments every second, though thankfully there’s no such thing as a Sport mode to stiffen the adaptive dampers. There is also a stereo camera in the windscreen that reads the road ahead so that the dampers anticipate and prepare for undulations rather than react to them. And it delivers a ride quality that, frankly, makes that oft-used magic carpet ride seem a rather inadequate phrase now. My god, it’s plush. No car in the world comes close.
Downsizing? What downsizing?
The all-electric Rolls-Royce is coming, Taylor makes no bones of the fact. By when, he won’t say, maybe in time for 2030 when our transport minister super-ambitiously wants all new cars to be electric and the Ambanis and Adanis have to switch to electrics for their North Block meetings. But till then it’s V12 all the way, with two turbo chargers slapped on for good measure.
A twin-turbo’d V12 ! Good grief!
This new motor is based more on the Ghost rather than the old Phantom, though it continues to displace the traditionally vast six and three quarter litres. Power is up to 563bhp though the figure to talk about is this. 900Nm. Nine hundred! A mountain that peaks at just 1700rpm. And the motor is so smooth it ticks over at just 650rpm.
Rolls has always described performance as ‘adequate’ and there’s no such thing as a rev counter, the space taken by a Torque Reserve gauge. But there’s such a massive store of power it’d be a shame not to quote figures, clocking 5.2 seconds to 100kmph with a top speed of 250kmph.
The Perfect ride
Now here’s the really clever bit. Because the dampers and even the anti-roll bars are electric in theory, it can go to full stiffness before the throttle even goes all the way to the carpet and there is zero body roll. But that would just make everybody sick with g-forces. No, the Phantom has been engineered to squat on the rears and deliver this sensation of taking off for the horizon – you feel the incredible build up of power, a giant hand of torque pushing you along relentlessly and inexhaustibly, but it never makes your stomach queasy. That would not be, umm, dignified. And, once you account for the 2.6 tonne weight and the 6-metre length, the Phantom VIII does handle. New to the mix is rear-wheel steering and by turning the rear wheels (by up to 3 degrees) it literally shrinks the car. Okay doesn’t shrink it to a hatchback size, but it makes it surprisingly easy and eager to drive round tight twisty roads. And the gearbox is GPS-enabled, meaning it knows when a corner is coming up and downshifts in anticipation.
It’s a completely different experience than, say, a V12 supercar, that’d leave you breathless and tripping on adrenaline. The Phantom, you drive it with your fingertips. Rolls drivers are actually taught not to slide their palms on the steering wheel, that’s too noisy! It glides from corner to corner, the 22-inch tyres generating astonishing grip (21s are standard), the almost SUV-like driving position affording great visibility, the Phantom leaving you wide-eyed but also calm, relaxed and astonished at what it can do. The V12 motor emits a faint growl that hints at a nuclear reactor somewhere in the near vicinity. On one of the world’s great driving roads I discover another, and equally enjoyable, side to our oft-used ‘The Thrill of Driving’ mantra.
“No one needs a Rolls-Royce”
And for emphasis Richard Carter, the global communications boss reiterates, “not one single person needs a Rolls-Royce”. It’s true. A hire car will get you to the airport as quickly, if not quicker. But there’s nothing in the world that delivers the sensation of riding, or more appropriately wafting, in the Phantom. The Phantom is not just any car, it is the car. No longer does Rolls-Royce lay claim to making the best car in the world, but I suspect that’s because there no longer is any debate about it. The Phantom is the Rolls-Royce of motor cars. Heading to the airport, gazing at the Starlight, listening to the sounds of silence, I’m struck by a thought that makes me sad. The Phantom VIII has been 14 years in the making. Does that mean another 14 years till the finest luxury car in the world is rebooted?