CarAdvice tests the Rolls-Royce Phantom Experimental Electric concept car on its world tour in Singapore.
It’s an overcast and typically humid day in Singapore when we arrive at our home base for the next few days. It’s an exhibition centre called ArtSpace, and it’s where Rolls-Royce has chosen to introduce us to its latest creation, the Rolls-Royce 102EX Phantom Experimental Electric.
Opposite ArtSpace is a busy shipping port, with sea containers stacked 20 metres high, providing a unique contrast to the elegant clean lines of the Phantoms sitting out front. A diesel crane cranks into life and begins its journey down the rail line that runs parallel to the car park in front of Artspace. One of the journalists looks across at the noisy background and complains that he won’t be able to do an introduction piece for a video he was planning.
The answer is simple, though. Just do it inside the car.
You see, hopping inside a Rolls-Royce Phantom and shutting the doors is an experience in itself. Once the electric mechanism has finished bringing the door to its home position, the silence is deafening. It’s like removing yourself from the current surroundings and stepping into a recording studio.
Starting a Phantom is also eerie. There’s a faint whirr and then nothing. The engine has transitioned from off to on with no indication that there are twelve cylinders and 6.75-litres of internal combustion engine up front.
So, this is where it gets interesting. A Rolls-Royce is a car that is as quiet as you can get – it’s by far the most serene experience this side of an electric vehicle (EV).
So what happens when you create an electric Rolls-Royce? Is that not the pinnacle of silence and luxury? Well that’s what we’re here to find out.
The Rolls-Royce 102EX Phantom Experimental Electric was born by taking a normal Phantom, removing the drivetrain completely and replacing it with a fully electric setup. Where the V12 normally sits are 96 Nickel Cobalt Manganese (Lithium-ion) batteries, connected to twin electric motors which power the rear axle.
Rolls-Royce tells us that this is most probably the largest battery pack ever fitted to a road car, and when you see how much room is taken up under the bonnet, it’s hard to disagree. Removing the V12, gearbox and differential has taken a lot of the weight out of the car (the aluminium bodied Phantom is actually lighter than the smaller steel-bodied Ghost), however turning it into an EV has increased weight over the regular Phantom by around 200kg.
With the two linked electric motors producing 145kW each, there’s a respectable 290kW and a massive 800Nm on tap; the electric powertrain certainly seems – on paper at least - like it will motivate the 2.7-tonne 102EX with relative ease.
Slipping behind the wheel, the first thing that strikes you is that this doesn’t feel like a concept car at all. Sure, there’s a bright red kill switch at the bottom of the centre console (just in case of emergencies), but apart from that, the 102EX is all Phantom.
The same quest for perfection is evident in the interior of the 102EX as in other Rolls-Royces. There’s soft, saddle-coloured leather which contrasts beautifully with the glossy white carbon-fibre. Truth be told, there’s no such thing as white carbon fibre; it’s actually an aluminium glass weave. It’s certainly effective, though (we expect customers to be demanding it very soon) and with the textured aluminium dash fascia, the 102EX is a brilliant blend of old and new.
The back seats are the fabulous lounge-like chairs that the Phantom is famous for, but the rear floor is completely flat – the deletion of the prop-shaft means there’s no requirement for a hump to go around it. It gives the impression of even more space inside.
Outside, the Phantom Experimental Electric has been coated with what Rolls-Royce calls Atlantic Chrome. Using ceramic nano-technology, the silver metallic particles are in fact 8000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. The reason for its fabulous gloss finish, though, is sixteen layers of paint – four layers of base-coat and twelve layers of clear.
There are also funky details, like the iconic Spirit of Ecstacy figurine which is translucent and lit by a blue LED to give a massive impact at night. The charging port, sitting in place of the fuel filler cap, is surrounded by LEDs which glow in different colours while charging or when fully charged.
Because this is an electric vehicle, there’s no dramatic startup – starting a normal Phantom is also a non-event. A click or two and the 102EX is ready to go. The instruments have been changed to reflect the battery power – the fuel gauge has been replaced by a full/empty gauge with the symbol of a battery inside. Interesting to note that despite changes to the instrumentation, there’s no feeling of it being a tacked-on piece – it looks production-ready and like it was always meant to be there, such is the attention to detail.
Having driven the petrol Phantom just prior to our drive of the electric 102EX, we were able to clearly compare the two opposing technologies. Thanks to the brilliant work by Rolls-Royce engineers, the divide isn’t the echoing chasm you’d expect.
We roll out of the carpark, coming across several large speedbumps along the way. It’s a perfect initial test because you soon realise that the 102EX’s suspension is exactly the same as a normal Phantom, and despite the extra weight, there’s zero difference in ride between the two. The cushioned damping is still a feature and as the car quite literally glides over the bumps it’s apparent that this Rolls-Royce, like the others, has the best ride of any car on sale today.
The steering is light at carpark speeds and firms up as you increase your velocity and handling feels about the same as the petrol Phantom also. Dynamically, they’re identical.
But the big test is how it responds to your right foot.
Our first opportunity to investigate what the 102EX is really like is a simple acceleration test away from the lights. The engineer Rolls-Royce has sent along is sitting in the back seat and I’m waiting for him to pipe up and clamp down on our fun. No such thing happens – he’s supremely confident in his product.
Punching the throttle and the 102EX moves away in dead silence, initially with mild acceleration and then steadily yet rapidly building speed. There’s the distant whirr of the electric motors behind us but not much else.
The 102EX’s 0-100km/h time is just under eight seconds, which feels about right, but with the main benefit of an EV being its torque is available from zero revs, you’d expect 800Nm to really launch it off the line.
Emily Dungey, Press Officer for 102EX, spoke to CarAdvice and explained why it’s more of a soft take-off.
“The software calibration which controls acceleration was done simply to give the 102EX a Rolls-Royce-like experience,” said Ms Dungey. “Sure, we could give you all the torque from a standstill and you’d launch the car off the line instantly, but that’s not in keeping with the brand.”
“We had a team of engineers who drove this car back to back with a regular Phantom and then settled on this progressive acceleration. Our cars aren’t supposed to upset passengers, and burning off at the lights isn’t exactly what Rolls-Royces are about.”
While that may be the case, what Rolls-Royce doesn’t quote a figure for is the 102EX’s rolling acceleration. The traffic clears and over the CB comes the instruction we’re waiting for: “You can go for it here”.
We’re doing around 80km/h, the foot goes down again, and instantly we’re at 140km/h and still climbing. Because it’s a Rolls-Royce you’d never call it savage, but the torque wave is huge and it would certainly put several sports cars to shame. Once going, this is one very fast beast.
It almost takes you by surprise, how quick it is. But there’s such a fuss-free way in which it goes about delivering all that torque that you would swear this is a production car – the quest for perfection has paid off here.
Backing off, the needle on the power reserve metre drops down to the right, indicating charge is being put back into the batteries via regenerative braking. Buttons on the steering wheel allow you to increase or decrease this function – and you can really feel the difference. On the lowest setting the car still will roll for a distance, but on the highest setting it will decelerate as soon as you lift off the throttle, with the drag of the generators immediately apparent.
As an electric car, the Rolls-Royce 102EX is quite simply the best of its type. It’s such a complete package that you have to wonder why it’s not being sold already. Rolls-Royce tells us that there are absolutely no plans to put it into production. It’s simply a test bed; there are two objectives from the world tour that this car has embarked on – firstly, to gather data from different environmental conditions, and secondly, to gauge customer and media reaction to an alternative power source for Rolls-Royce.
Our impressions are that there are two issues facing the 102EX. Firstly, the batteries get hot. Like very hot. The car is constantly having to be cooled down to ensure the battery life is not curtailed. To be fair, this is as a result of the Phantom never having been designed to be a battery-powered car. If it were, the batteries would have been spread across the floorpan, giving a much larger surface area and therefore more exposure to cool air. Packed into the engine bay as they are, the 96 batteries tend to heat soak, meaning more work for technicians after our drives to ensure it cools down effectively. Given the short time-frame in which the car was created (only seven months) the boffins at Goodwood have done a remarkable job, but there's a way to go yet.
Once the cooling is sorted, the other issue is range. The 102EX currently has a range of just 200km. While that’s more than a Mitsubishi i-MiEV, for example, it’s not exactly suitable for owners who want to use their cars. We’re talking strictly in terms of Phantom here, don’t forget, but part of the appeal of a Rolls-Royce is enjoying a leisurely drive on a Sunday afternoon, enjoying the countryside. To get to the countryside is often quite a distance. A 200km range – and that’s dependent on driving style and whether you've got the air-con and radio cranked – can be severely limiting.
With a i-MiEV, it’s a tiny car, perfect for running around the city. A Phantom is more likely to travel to and from the city rather than threading through CBD streets. This means it’s going to be covering more kilometers than your typical EV.
Increase the range to 400km and it’s a fair bet that it would walk out of the showroom doors. Battery technology is not quite able to allow such a feat yet, but it's certainly on its way. There's even induction charging available to ensure convenience is covered - if you're interested, the efficiency difference between plugging the 102EX into the wall and parking it over an induction loop to charge is around three percent. Induction is extremely effective.
Rolls-Royce set up to gather feedback on alternative drive-train technologies. Considering the other options, an EV looks mighty positive. Diesel? No way. Hydrogen? Too complicated. Hybrid? Possibly, but it would have to be a completely seamless transition between the two.
What we can tell you is an EV certainly suits the brand. It's quiet, ridiculously fast and is delivered in a very Phantom-like way. The ride is perfect, the steering exactly the same and the brakes still work as effective as ever. As it stands, here and now in 2011, an EV is in keeping with what Rolls-Royce stands for.
The 102EX has the quality, torque, dynamics and presence you'd expect from the world's premium automotive creator.
We've never been less scared to see the end of fossil fuels.