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« Free Range | Main | Lone rider »
Wednesday
Jul042012

Royal blue

WORDS SIMON DE BURTON

The Côte d’Azur makes for the perfect setting to test the new Rolls-Royce Phantom II

The Rolls-Royce Phantom II on the Côte d'AzurOne of my favourite features of the modern Rolls-Royce Phantom has always been the largely pointless but utterly beguiling power reserve indicator. The Phantom doesn’t have anything so vulgar as a rev counter, but the power reserve indicator gives you an idea of how hard the 6.75-litre, V-12 engine is working.

Driving the latest Phantom up the winding roads of the Route Napoléon, which stretches from Antibes to Grenoble, it was amusing to observe that, at 50mph, a mere five per cent of the available grunt was being used – according to the gauge, at any rate. That means there was approximately 430 horsepower in reserve and that the Phantom Series II makes progress in exactly the way that Sir Henry Royce would have demanded: effortlessly.

The Phantom caused a mild sensation when it was first unveiled nine years ago, with its rearward-opening ‘suicide’ back doors and an appearance that was simultaneously refined and somewhat aggressive, with the legendary radiator grille dominating the front and, for a 2.9 ton car, a strangely neat and squat rear end. For many, it remains the best-looking car in the ‘super premium’ segment, bar none.

So it must have been with a certain degree of trepidation that the Rolls-Royce design team set about trying to make it better.

Understandably, the changes are not so radical as to be instantly apparent. The most obvious is that the distinctive, round lamps set low in the front wings (which I’ve always rather liked) have been replaced by a set of rectangular, full-LED headlamps with fully adaptive functionality, meaning they point around corners and get brighter or dimmer according to the conditions.

The very observant might even pick up on the fact that the lines of the body are slightly softer and that there is a new, one-piece radiator grille on the drophead and coupé models, in place of the multi-part one of old.  The saloon, meanwhile, gets a revised rear bumper and there are three upgraded wheel designs across the range. Inside, the old and decidedly archaic satnav has been replaced by a state-of-the-art version with a huge, 8.8in screen with 3D views. It’s linked to a sophisticated all-round camera system which takes some of the trauma out of manouvering the mammoth, 19-foot barge.

There is also Wi-Fi connectivity and a Harman Kardon sound system which, if you close your eyes, is good enough to fool you into thinking that you’ve exchanged the Phantom’s interior for the Royal Box at the Albert Hall – albeit with rather more comfortable seating.

The new, adaptive LED headlamps point around corners and brighten or dim according to conditionsBut the most important change is hidden beneath the car’s skin. It’s the substitution of the old six-speed gearbox for the very latest eight-speed ZF transmission, which is linked to an all-new differential specifically designed for the Phantom II.

The main question, however, is what’s it like to drive? It’s certainly a valid one since, in the grand scheme of things, only a tiny fraction of the world’s population will ever find themselves behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce - which is why I felt doubly lucky not only to be given the opportunity to try one, but to try one in exactly the sort of surroundings where such a car seems most at home: the Côte d’Azur.

For its launch base, Rolls-Royce chose the suitably high-level Cap Estel hotel in Eze which, over the decades, has hosted the great and the good ranging from The Beatles to David Niven. Its one drawback for automobile purposes, however, is the long, narrow, steeply sloping and serpentine driveway which, when one is put in charge of £300,000-plus worth of Phantom for the first time, presents itself as something of a challenge.

Having made my ascent at a record-breakingly slow speed – but with wheel rims and paintwork unscathed – it was time to head north towards the perfume-making town of Grasse to experience that Rolls-Royce cliché of ‘waftability’ to the full. And I can confirm that it’s definitely still there.

This car, as you might expect for the money, is simply delightful to drive. I chose to stick with the coupé version for the day, largely because I love the two-door look and because this particular car was fabulously finished in Azurite blue with a plain aluminium bonnet. Just so Côte d’Azur, wouldn’t you agree?

From the inside, it’s easy to feel utterly invincible thanks to the superbly appointed cabin, which really is uncannily quiet. Yet, despite its plutocratic overtones, the Phantom is strangely quaint and endearing with its old- fashioned gear selector mounted on the steering column, its thin-rimmed, large-diameter wheel (which annoyingly obscures the gear indicator), and heavily overstuffed seating which can be adjusted to such perfection that, at one point, I felt an overbearing desire to pull over and have a snooze in the Riviera sunshine.

The antidote to this was to wind down the window, notch-up the Harman Kardon stereo and drive in a manner for which Rolls-Royces were probably never designed: hustling fast between the Route Napoléon’s many switchbacks as though it were a sporting two-seater of half the size. And, to my surprise, the Phantom performed superbly.

The handling seemed absurdly sharp for such an enormous machine and, although a degree of body roll was evident, it was far from being the yacht-like yaw one might expect from a car ostensibly built for comfort over speed. Gear changes from the new eight-speed box are smooth and almost imperceptible – although there did seem to be a momentary lag between applying the accelerator and initial take-off. This was explained by the fact that the amount of torque applied to the gearbox is deliberately limited from standstill to protect its anti-friction coating.

Such tiresome mechanical details are, however, unlikely to trouble the average Phantom buyer, who will probably be more interested in the optional extras, which are extensive: a choice of 44,000 paint colours,  ‘night sky’ head lining, a cocktail cabinet beneath the boot floor. If you can name it, you can probably have it (although Rolls-Royce does employ a team of uncompromising taste police).

But even if you go for the ‘standard’ model, you can still be assured of relative exclusivity – the entry price of £283,750 will see to that.

The Rolls-Royce Phantom Series II is on sale now, with first deliveries due in September. Saloon, £283,750; Coupé, £333,130; Drophead Coupé, £352,720; Extended Wheelbase, £357,850; rolls-roycemotorcars.com