Manufacturers often tell us their cars don’t have any competitors, trying to persuade us that their babies are so much better than the competition that there’s no contest. But, with the Rolls-Royce Phantom, it’s true.
Anyone rich enough to buy the new Phantom could have a Bentley Mulsanne instead. Or a Mercedes-Maybach S-Class, if they didn’t mind the snide comments from fellow attendees at the next Bilderberg Conference. But to describe such alternatives as rivals misses the point, suggesting an either-or choice that just doesn’t exist in the stratosphere where Ultra High Net Worth individuals hang out (people with access to more than $30m US in liquid assets.) These are guys who can scratch any itch the moment they have it, and buy anything they want – whether a car, a private jet or a work of art. Appropriately, the Phantom is a combination of all three.
Yet, with a few notable exceptions, the ultra-wealthy aren’t stupid. They are happy to pay, but demand the best. According to Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös, the vast majority of the company’s customers have made their fortunes rather than inheriting them, 80 per cent running their own companies. These are people who know the value of things, which is why so much effort has been spent on making the new Phantom vastly better than the previous one.
Rolls has been using the Phantom name since 1925, but there have been some long gaps between some of the generations. The new eighth-gen model (which we’re instructed to refer to as the Phantom VIII, as if it’s a monarch) is relatively unusual in that it directly replaces the previous Phantom, which was the first new-era Rolls-Royce developed under BMW’s ownership, and launched as long ago as 2003. The fact the old duchess was still selling strongly after 14 years explains why much about the new car carries on where its predecessor left off. Existing owners certainly aren’t going to be scared off by any radical changes.
The design has been softened very slightly, with less angular styling, but it’s still big on shock and awe, especially in some of the eye-catching two-tone hues the company had chosen for most of the cars taken to the launch in Switzerland. It’s not got the visual menace of its predecessor, but it’s still an imposing thing. Overall dimensions have actually decreased slightly, but even in standard-wheelbase form the Phantom is an imposing 5762mm in length, with its 1646mm height rivalling smaller SUVs.
Underneath sits an all-new platform, Rolls-Royce’s own and unrelated to the BMW-derived architecture that sits under the company’s lesser models. This will go on to underpin all of Rolls’ future models, including the production version of the Project Cullinan SUV, but we’re assured the Phantom will continue to sit at the top of the pile. While the new platform, which Rolls-Royce calls the Architecture of Luxury, uses aluminium this has been chosen to add strength rather than reduce weight. And, while the new Phantom’s bodyshell is lighter than its predecessor’s, total kerbweight has barely changed thanks to more standard equipment and a substantial increase in sound insulation.
Our first experience is in the back of the extended-wheelbase version, 220mm longer than the standard car. Rolls reckons that four out of five Phantom buyers will take the wheel at least occasionally, but the majority will also have a chauffeur on call – and with the EWB likely to only be experienced from the back seat. It’s properly special back here, accessed through a rear-hinged door and with ankle-deep carpeting, wood and leather covering every other non-opaque surface and with supremely comfortable multi-adjustable seats. Our test car also had a refrigerated compartment in the centre console containing two clip-in glasses and a drinks carafe, although sadly empty.
The interior feels deliberately old-fashioned. The Phantom still has mechanical rotary controls for heating and ventilation rather than digital displays – red for hot, blue for cold. The instruments are displayed on TFT digital screens, but look pretty much exactly like traditional dials with round screens and bezels. Look deeper and there’s more tech – a key demand from existing Rolls owners – with USB and HDMI ports hidden behind a slide-down flap. The infotainment system incorporates two screens that motor out of the backs of the front seats when powered up. These look like iPads, but aren’t touch sensitive – which is going to confuse some well-heeled kids – being bossed by an iDrive turn-and-click controller running a Rolls-ified version of BMW’s familiar system.
The rear seat is also carefully positioned to have a good view of the dashboard, where the passenger side incorporates a glass panel. Behind this, buyers can choose to put their own uniquely commissioned artwork, with Rolls happy to hook them up with artists working in everything from oil colours to textiles. Müller-Ötvös reckons that a well-chosen piece by an up-and-coming artist might ultimately become worth more than the car enclosing it.
Once underway, the first thing that strikes from the rear seat is the absence of sensation. There’s a great view out; and the reaction of pedestrians and other road users as they catch sight of the land yacht provides plenty of entertainment. But distraction from inside the cabin is minimal, unless you want it. The Phantom is almost freakishly quiet, thanks to its combination of double glazing, around 130kg of acoustic insulation and tyres containing noise-cancelling foam. If you suffer from tinnitus then a gentle cruise in the back of a Phantom won’t create enough background volume to drown it out. Even at a faster clip on the Swiss Autoroute the twin-turbocharged V12 engine only produces the faintest of hums from the front. According to RR engineering boss Philipp Koehn the Phantom has the quietest cabin of any car in the world, a 5 dB reduction in volume over its already quiet predecessor translating to a 75 per cent drop in perceived volume. There are louder crypts.
Fun though it is to be chauffeured, it’s time to move up front. The seat position is naturally high, but even drivers of above-average height will have to motor it further upwards to properly see the front of the car. The steering column lacks the range of adjustment you’d expect to find in a sports sedan, forcing a chauffeur-like straight-arms posture rather than a slouch. The seat is definitely one that you sit on rather than in, and is noticeably lacking in lateral support. It soon transpires that’s for a reason.
You can hustle a Phantom, and it takes a thrashing in good spirit, but short of trying to escape from kidnappers there’s no reason to drive it at more than a scant percentage of its capabilities. Despite the claimed 5.4-second 0-100km/h time, this is one of those rare cars that can deliver a full experience without ever breaking a speed limit, the challenge from behind the wheel being to keep everything as smooth and stately as possible.
The engine is born to be mild. The Phantom packs a development of the 6.6-litre twin-turbo V12 fitted to lesser Rollers, with capacity increased to 6.75-litres. Peak power of 420 kW is identical to the Ghost, but there’s more torque, with the peak of 900Nm available from just 1700 rpm and representing a 100 per cent improvement on what the atmo twelve in the previous Phantom could muster at the same speed.
Under very gentle throttle applications, it’s possible to detect the briefest of pauses as the turbos and engine internals gather momentum, but beyond that it provides effortless urge. The eight-speed ZF auto has been programmed to keep the engine under 2500rpm whenever it can, and there’s more than enough low-down urge to deliver respectably brisk progress without breaking a sweat. (You can’t tell what revs the motor is pulling anyway, as Rolls persists in fitting a “Power Reserve” gauge instead of a proper tacho.) The engine note is often muted to near-nothingness, the Phantom feels entirely ready to become an EV already, and it takes a hefty shove on the accelerator pedal to produce some pleasantly creamy noises from the sharp end.
Even on the few rougher road surfaces that the Swiss Alps threw up, the Phantom’s ride quality earns comparison with a big, soft bed. There is movement over bumps, and the Phantom feels its 2610kg kerbweight when crests leave its mass briefly hanging, but body control is outstanding as the pillowy air springs and adaptive dampers – backed by an optical road-reading system at speeds of up to 100km/h – work to keep everything serene. Other dynamic tech includes active anti-roll bars to fight cornering lean and rear-wheel steering to improve manoeuvrability, but these do their work quietly and without calling attention to themselves. The steering is light and short on feedback, but yields impressively accurate front end responses. Cruising stability is excellent, with the lack of noise meaning it’s predictably easy to find yourself going too quickly: 180km/h feels like 120 in something with normal quantities of road and wind noise.
While no part of the Phantom is sporting, the fundamentals are all good and clearly designed for what it’s meant to do. The brake pedal is firm and gives good feedback, making it easy to modulate to a seamless stop. There is no way to manually override the gearbox and choose ratios for it, although a “Low” button integrated into the column mounted gearchange “wand” switches to a more aggressive map, designed to maximise engine braking. As for the usual battery of sport modes and different dynamic settings there are precisely none; similarly it does without semi-autonomous cruise control or even a stop-start system. It’s nice to find a car with such self confidence.
We don’t need a full comparo to know that the Phantom remains at the top of its rarefied segment. But it’s more than just a plutocratic express; a day spent with it creates the strong impression that it’s been engineered to a higher standard than it needed to be for the gentle duty cycle it will mostly be called to perform. That’s because it’s more than just a range-topper, it’s also a manifesto for the whole future of the Rolls-Royce brand.
It might be set to cost just shy of seven figures when the first deliveries start in here next year - and more for the extended wheelbase - but buyers aren’t going to be feeling short changed. It might be possible to make a better luxury car, but we suspect we’ll have a long wait before we see one.