The New Rolls Coupé Drives as Good as It Looks

Few people in the world can afford the new $400,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé, but driving one makes you understand why it's worth the price

According to Merrill Lynch (MER) and Capgemini's recent 12th Annual World Wealth Report, there are more millionaires today—10.1 million of them, to be precise—in the world than ever before. The number is confirmed by a wealth research study from American Express (AXP).

To really qualify in such circles, however, a net worth of $4 million or more is required. So, logically, given current financial and economic conditions, it's not just your run-of-the-mill millionaire who can afford a new Rolls-Royce. Not worth at least four mil? Forget it all together.

Marketing interpretation: Never before have so many, with so much wealth, with so much energy, in so many nations, and with so much spirit been able to afford an automobile with a starting price tag of $400,000. But only a few will ever own one. The production is limited, and preference will be shown to those who already have a Rolls or two stashed in their several garages.

Earlier this year, Rolls premiered the new Phantom Coupé ("coupay"), the hardtop companion to the successful Drophead Coupé. But this was a look-only event. No driving was allowed. The situation was corrected only recently, when a small group of auto writers attended the official premiere of the new coupé.

This was not the usual one-day behind-the-wheel event. This was a two-day, 1,111.6-kilometer—almost 700 miles—drive through 72 roundabouts—starting in Britain at the Goodwood Factory in West Sussex, through the Chunnel, and then along the roads of France through Champagne country, finishing in Geneva, Switzerland.

We were forced (ha!) to enjoy the expectations, experiences, and emotions of driving an expensive car with a rich heritage…a vehicle most will never own. It was a mood-altering event without the drugs.

The Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé Experience

While not love at first sight, lust does begin the moment you look at the new coupé. This is not an ordinary car—it's a Rolls-Royce. Perceptions reign supreme. Imposing rather than big. Distinctive, not different. Distinguished, but definitely not demotic.

This is motorcar luxury personified. This not a high-end supercar whose raison d'êtreis merely to go fast. The brash, boisterous, brazen Ferraris, Porsches, Bugattis, and Lamborghinis do that quite well, thank you. Rolls-Royce has created a luxury sports coupé with impeccable road manners.

It is very responsive when you want or need speed. Under the optional stainless-steel hood lies a 6.75-liter V12 engine of 453 horsepower and 531 lb. of torque that propels the 5,700-lb. vehicle along on 21-inch wheels. Awesome, simply awesome.

The coupé's six-speed transmission does the standard 0-60 mph in less time than the Porsche Boxster and just a bit more slowly than the Ferrari Scaglietti. Push the accelerator to the floor and the car moves so smoothly it's hard to realize the car's speedometer has zoomed to exceed the equivalent of 110 mph. And that's an on-the-fly guess, as the speedometer was set in kilometers per hour.

A couple of times (O.K., three times), on an open road and without the company of French gendarmes, who will write a 900€ billet excès de vitesse speeding ticket on the spot, the top speed of 250 kph, or 155 mph, was reached. Honest.

This was achieved in a gentlemanly way. There was no head-snapping when the gas was depressed. The car simply increased speed. The French countryside passed by more quickly and silently even though there was slight wind noise. That was it.

And, of course, it was essential and necessary to see how this luxury car stopped at high speed. Applying full pressure to the brake at 80 mph resulted in a full stop without the front dipping even a little or the seat belt tightening automatically. It just stops.

Handling, steering, and suspension are amazing. Two driving modes are available.

First is regular, which is soft and steady, but rather benign. Then there's a sport drive, which is tighter, sturdy, and can be very aggressive and more responsive. The latter is a direct link to the BMW driving standard—BMW (BMWG) owns Rolls—which is where I'd keep it.

Opening the coach doors is quite an experience. Force of habit takes one's hand to where the door handle usually is located, but it's not there. Oops. Move your hand to the front of the car. Pull the handle and the door opens wide, but entering and exiting takes a bit of getting accustomed to. Bottom in first.

Once inside the spacious, sumptuous cockpit, closing the door is accomplished by just pushing a little button. Smoothly, silently, the door closes automatically. One must, however, pull, adjust, and insert the seatbelt by hand.

Mega-millionaires allergic to fine soft leather, shimmering metal, and warm woods should not consider this vehicle. The coupé oozes with exceptional materials finely handcrafted for visual and tactile senses. And for those with a penchant for starry nights, the headliner (roof) of the new coupé has a 1,000-plus twinkling little LED lights—each hand applied—to amaze all. Optional, of course.

With all this praise, there has to be something that's not exactly right, right? Actually, there is. The rear view mirror is mounted way too high for anyone to see out the rather tiny rear window. And that's picky, picky.

State of the Business Update

Last year, 1,010 Rolls-Royce Phantoms, Stretch Phantoms, and Drophead Coupés were sold worldwide, with about 40% of the sales coming from the U.S. For the first six months of 2008, sales for RR were up by more than 50%, which is why I asked Paul Ferraiolo, president of Rolls-Royce North America: "Can Rolls-Royce continue this growth, given the slowdown for the rest of the U.S. car business?"

His response, "We are on track to sell nearly 20% more in North American in 2008 than we did in 2007. The effects of the weak economy have been offset by two factors. First, the market loves our two new products, and demand for both is strong. Second, a very positive ownership experience has resulted in high repurchase rates."

Tom Purves, the new CEO of Rolls-Royce Motorcars, whose first job was working for Rolls-Royce, and previously was president of BMW USA, noted: "Our anticipated sales of the new Phantom Coupé will be very good, somewhere between 100 and 200 vehicles." And that's very nice number indeed, amounting to between $40 million and $80 million in sales.

Even if you're not a millionaire, visit one of the 32 Rolls-Royce dealers in the U.S. later this fall when the new coupé goes on sale. Look and touch and sit in motoring luxury. Marvel at the choice of 44,000 different colors available. Picture the wood and leather you'd order if you won the lottery.

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