The Best Ride Under $360,000

Rolls-Royce's regal Corniche is simply incomparable

The folks at Rolls-Royce & Bentley Motor Cars would have you believe that their latest offering, the 2000 Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible, is a reflection of a drift toward inconspicuous consumption. The softer, curvier styling makes the car look smaller and not quite so tall, and the trademark grill is not quite as large as in years past. Even the hood ornament--the legendary Flying Lady (Spirit of Ecstasy, to the cognoscenti)--is a tad daintier. The all-new car is less a statement of wealth, they say, than a statement of style.

Yeah, right. The fact is, the 2000 Corniche is, at $359,990, the world's most expensive production car and the flagship in the company's line. Even in Rolls-abundant Southern California, that creates a mystique that draws a small crowd no matter where I take it, from the parking garage at my office to the valet stations at Beverly Hills restaurants. "Rolls-Royces are made strictly for status," sniffs Don Wilson. "They are not the greatest driving cars."

SPRITZ BOTTLES. Wilson is my driver. When my boss asked me to review this car, I called We Drive U (800 428-8999), a West Coast chauffeur service, and hired him for a day. I thought it would help me get in the mood, and besides, I needed the help. The cars I normally write about cost about a tenth of the Corniche. Wilson, on the other hand, has driven every Rolls and Bentley in the company's lineup over the years, including the previous Corniche, which Rolls stopped making in 1995.

When Wilson shows up, he pulls the car out of my garage and goes to work with his spritz bottles and terry towels, removing the water spots that I had carelessly picked up the night before. I climb in the back, and we head off for a tour of the horse farms of Ventura County.

The interior furnishings are, frankly, gorgeous. The seats are a creamy leather with deep blue piping for contrast. The deep-pile blue carpeting is covered with matching lamb's-wool floor mats, the kind you want to wiggle your toes in. The controls are simple: Radio controls are hidden behind a walnut panel, two big wheels adjust front and rear temperature, and you open and close ventilation portholes with push-pull chrome globes that look like the stops on a pipe organ.

CHINTZY PLASTIC. The instrument panel and trim are done in burled walnut, surrounded by a straight-grain walnut band set off by a boxwood inlay. Because each car is custom-made--only 200 will be produced this year--owners can specify whatever colors and woods they want. My one nit: The ragtop's plastic rear window seems chintzy.

Wilson is just as impressed with the car's mechanics. The steering is steady: He demonstrates how the previous Corniche required constant, jittery corrections of the steering wheel to keep the car in the lane. He shows me how the 6.75-liter, 325-horsepower engine has plenty of oomph at 70 mph to pass other cars effortlessly. He does a few fast lane-change maneuvers to display the car's stability. "I'm amazed," he says. "This handles better than most of the cars I drive."

I spend some time in the driver's seat as well. The engine has prodigious amounts of torque to allow the car to accelerate smoothly from a full stop. But I find the brakes a little spongy--frightening when you consider that they must halt three tons.

I felt a certain poignancy when I had to give my Roller up. When Volkswagen bought Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in late 1998, it didn't realize that the storied name was owned by Rolls-Royce PLC, the jet engine maker. BMW picked up the name for a song and will begin making the Rolls in 2003. Rolls has always been an owner's car; BMW makes drivers' cars. I'm just afraid the 2000 Corniche will end up being the last of its breed.