As a brand, Rolls-Royce carries weight all on its own. It represents the best of the best.
We'll never own one.
Words: Karl Peskett Pics: www.OzCarSightings.com
It was a different story a few decades ago when Bentleys and Rolls-Royces were almost the same car. They were built alongside each other at Crewe, England, with Rolls eventually going into receivership in 1971. It recovered, barely, though in 1998 its saving grace was the split of the two brands when Bentley was purchased by Volkswagen, and Rolls-Royce was bought by BMW.
A blank canvas and plenty of money meant that when BMW announced an all new Rolls-Royce by 2003, it was an unsure time for Rolls-Royce aficionados, especially those with memories which stretched back to World War II. A German company owning the quintessential British brand? No wonder the doubters in tweed coats were vocal. But the Rolls Royce Phantom, released in January 2003, laid all fears to rest. Here was a motor car like no-one had ever seen before. Its sheer size, quality of finish and its engineering were worlds apart from anything ever built. Even dyed-in-the-wool, one-eyed fans of British cars had to put parochialism aside and acknowledge that BMW’s allocation of budget and staff to the brand had done wonders – finally, here was a true Rolls-Royce.
Phantom, despite its cost, sold in droves, and on the same platform spawned three extra models: Phantom Extended Wheelbase, Phantom Drophead and Phantom Coupe. Each of these cars had a unique character and feel, but maintained the Rolls-Royce core values. Thus, Phantom was acknowledged as the ultimate Rolls-Royce, a true ambassador for the brand. It was not a car built to a price, but rather a price built to a car. So in 2006, when the automotive world learned that work had begun on an entirely new vehicle – a smaller, more lithe Rolls-Royce – the news was met with anticipation, yet speculation mounted as to whether it would still remain true to the brand; after all, the Spirit of Ecstasy isn’t just bestowed on any old car.
Obviously people believed that it would - over 1600 potential customers lined up before they had even driven it. Ghost, as it came to be known, was drip fed to the market when design sketches of the project, codenamed RR4, began appearing online in 2008, and a year later, the 200EX concept car appeared at the Geneva Motor Show. Looking back, the Rolls Royce Ghost is as faithful to the 200EX concept as you could get.
“Ghost is one of the most revered names in automotive industry,” said Tom Purves, then CEO of Rolls-Royce. “It evokes adventure and technical innovation. The first cars to bear the Ghost name were known not only for impressive dependability and refinement but also great flair and style.”
The styling constitutes a great portion of the appeal, but also keeps it true to the Rolls-Royce theme. With its matte-silver bonnet, echoing the brushed stainless steel of the Phantom Coupe and Drophead, the Ghost looks every inch a Roller.
Dan Balmer, the Ghost’s product manager, is a softly spoken man, very passionate about his product, but also very tall. As he sits in the Ghost’s back seat, you get a feel for how much room there is, with his full head of dark brown hair nowhere near the roof line. His polished shoes sink deep into the plush pile carpet, yet he still has space to recline the massaging outboard pew. In his very British baritone, he smiles as he talks about the design of the Ghost.
"Our cars follow similar principles to yacht design. In fact our designers call it 'yacht line design,'" said Balmer. "The pronounced shoulder line of Ghost represents the deck, the long front end is the start of the hull, the cabin is pushed back rather like the cabin of a yacht, and then the body tapers down to a long rear overhang. It’s all about conveying the elegant graceful gliding experience you get when driving a Rolls-Royce. With Ghost the brief was to take that ethos but in a more contemporary view, which meant a little less presence – but more dynamism and subtlety in the lines of the car."
Balmer's quip about presence is true. The Ghost is less ostentatious than the Phantom. It’s more sculpted, more flowing and when optioned in a single colour (rather than with the matte-silver bonnet) it blends into the crowd a little more. Phantom has ridiculous amounts of presence; it’s the car to be seen in for a grand event. At 5.4m long and nearly 2m wide, the Ghost is no shrinking violet, but for daily driving, it’s the better pick. It’s less costly, quicker, more nimble but it’s the most powerful car Rolls-Royce has ever made.
With a 6.6-litre, twin-turbocharged V12 nestled under that silver bonnet, the Ghost makes a whopping 420kW and a staggering 780Nm from just 1500rpm. What's more remarkable is that the torque curve is pancake flat all the way through the rev range. It results in a 0-100km/h time of just 4.9 seconds.
But starting the engine gives you no impression of what potential lies beneath. Press the start-stop button and, like the Phantom, it whirrs for a few seconds before blending into idle which is virtually silent. There's no shudder or vibration, just a transition from off to on, and unless you've actually pressed the start button yourself, you would never know if the engine was running. If you think that it's going to be all fire and brimstone when you set off, think again. Using the unbelievably smooth ZF eight-speed-automatic, the Ghost never starts in first gear, to ensure all those ponies don't end up wasted as wheelspin.
The engine stays smooth all the way through the rev range, sounding quite bassy, but never has the V12 bark that is so common to the configuration. Rather it's more metallic whirr, almost sounding like an electric servo motor spinning up, to the point where unless you knew it had 12 cylinders, you wouldn't be able to pick what kind of engine it was. For a car enthusiast, it's a little too quiet, but then, that's how Rolls-Royce wanted it.
“As a Rolls-Royce you have to ensure that the huge power reserves are delivered in a ‘gentlemanly’ way. On paper this car is quicker than a few notable sports cars yet it still must behave like a Rolls-Royce: cool, calm and effortless,” Balmer muses. “That means no drama, a quiet confidence, dynamics and performance when required. Those attributes would have made Henry Royce proud, but the performance element would have pleased Charles Rolls, who was an Edwardian entrepreneur with a passion for speed.”
It’s best described as a whoosh, which gently moves from standstill but steadily accelerates with more and more speed, pushing you from behind. It keeps accelerating, hurtling you down the tarmac, like one continuous gear (you cannot notice the ratios changing), piling on speed without let up until it reaches its electronically limited 250km/h. The effortlessness almost takes you by surprise until you realize what speed you’re doing, where you’ll back off and just enjoy the ride.
In the wet, the ESC will keep you out of trouble, but as it’s not a sports car, there’s no staccato on-and-off sensation while it brakes individual wheels like a jackhammer. It just halts proceedings for a moment - imagine a butler dusting off your dinner jacket – makes sure you’re okay and then resupplies the power gradually. But it’s the rolling acceleration that really blows your mind. On the move, the Ghost overtakes with such forceful velocity, but such a minimum of fuss and effort that you’ll appreciate the Head Up Display so you can keep an eye on your speed and the road at the same time.
This is no luxo-barge which wall fall over at the first sniff of a bend in the road, though. To the contrary, a Rolls-Royce technology called Active Roll Stabilisation engages the sway bars when you’ve turned in, keeping the car remarkably flat. For a 2.5-tonne car, the Ghost is surprisingly agile, and while you’d never punt it like you would an Aston Martin, it’s still engaging and rewarding.
Initially the steering seems too light, but feedback still comes through at all speeds, making parking a breeze, while the faster you go, the more direct and responsive it gets. It turns in with a bit of lock needed – it’s not as direct as its speed potential portrays – but never do you feel disconnected from the road; there's no free play in the steering at all.
It’s balanced, too; while you feel the weight when mid corner, it maintains a neutral stance. What’s strange is you’re aware of its width, but never does it feel like a handful, even on Sydney’s narrow, twisty, ribbon-like bitumen. You simply drive it like any other car, with the long fenders easily visible from behind the wheel so you can see how to park it.
The thicker, high-quality leather wrapped steering wheel feels beautiful in hand, however if we're being picky, the wheel mounted buttons are too hard to read in their all-chrome appearance. The addition of some black inlays to the lettering would go a long way to making the fuctions easier to find. There are no paddles, either. Just a column mounted gear selector for Drive, Neutral and Reverse. Washing off speed is also done with a minimum of fuss, too, thanks to enormous 410mm disc brakes, which never seem to fade.
Dynamically, the Ghost is extremely accomplished, but never at the expense of comfort. “Ghost is about fingertip control while still enjoying a dynamic connection with the road,” says Director of Engineering, Helmut Riedl. “Equally, passengers need to be cosseted from the physical sensations of acceleration, braking and cornering. Our chassis set up keeps Ghost stable and flat, preventing it from wallowing or pitching in the corners or imposing undesirable forces on those inside.”
That’s the beauty of the Ghost: it satisfies your need for speed, while maintaining a luxuriating atmosphere. When you’re moving straight ahead, the sway bars unlock and you’re back to the perfect ride Rolls-Royce is known for.
The ride is firmer than the Phantom (which is probably the best riding car in the world), but combines a level of compliance to deliver on what Rolls-Royce’s engineers set out to achieve – the best ride/handling balance on offer today. Severe jolts will still make it through to the cabin, but for the most part the road is ironed out flat. Staggeringly, the air suspension makes load calculations every 2.5 milliseconds, following the road’s undulations with mercurial speed. If a rear passenger shifts seats to ogle the view from the opposite window, the car will realise and re-adjust the ride settings on each individual wheel to compensate.
So why not just use the same suspension as the Phantom? Balmer explained that new customers would be used to more expensive sports cars, such as Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Aston Martins. “These customers are looking more to the hard performance attributes of their cars. So the skill was in blending the contrasting needs of best in class ride comfort, with a surprising level of dynamism in the handling,” Balmer said. It also explains why the Ghost is so powerful.
But despite the drivetrain and chassis, it’s the interior that really sets the Ghost apart from anything else in the price range. You get a feel for the quality by simply grabbing the chrome handle attached to the tray tables mounted to the back of the seats. The hinge mechanism is heavy. The metal used is thick and chunky. The wood is polished to a mirror finish and the whole thing clicks once it's been extended with a satisfying metallic din.
Attention to detail doesn’t stop there: the way that the soft leather armrest curves across the centre console, the chromework around the interior lighting, the exquisite woodwork, the bulls-eye air vents, the comfort of the seats, all echo the Phantom and indeed Rolls-Royce’s heritage. There's rear coach doors which rotate through 83 degrees, and which close at the touch of a button, making entry and exit a breeze. However it’s the blend of modern technology with timeless tradition that truly makes the Ghost special.
Instrumentation in front of the driver contrasts new with old, splitting the two into an upper analogue dial display with a lower LCD readout (there’s also a head-up display for your speedometer). The high-resolution screen in the centre stack provides crystal clear information on all interior preferences but it can be hidden behind a wood panel if you prefer. It also displays satellite navigation and an overhead view of the car which uses several cameras to give a near 360 degree view of the surroundings, which prevents kerbing the wheels.
There are nice little touches like motion-sensitive light in the door pocket activates when you put your hand in so you can see what’s there. The Harman/Kardon stereo is unrivalled for depth and clarity, while the massive boot has been maximised without encroaching on the cabin. The seats seem to be based solely around offering the best lower-back support possible. They're impossibly comfortable with torso bolstering keeping you in place, yet having plenty of squab length and width. Of course, the seats are adjustable in all directions electrically, including the headrest. Everything that could have been thought of has been.
Night vision, lane departure assistance, radar-based cruise control, high beam assistance – there’s plenty of gadgets to be had. Or you could just forget all about the electronics and relax in the back seat with its colossal legroom and just fall asleep while it massages you.
There’s twin screens in the rear headrests while each rear passenger can individually control the sat-nav by simply pressing an access button in the centre rear armrest. Four zone climate control ensures things stay pleasant – would you expect any less?
Bringing the Ghost to life was no easy task. Up until the first production car rolled off the line, around 1,000 people had been involved with the project. The factory in Goodwood, England, was used to building Phantoms, but to keep up with demand for the new car, the existing production line of 20 stations for Phantom was reduced to 11. The Phantom line then had to be moved, with Ghost taking its place. The leathershop, analysis centre, offices, logistics and main production areas were shifted around to suit the Ghost’s production – the Goodwood plant’s footprint couldn’t be expanded due to its potential impact on the surrounding environment.
It wasn’t cheap to do this. Quizzed about how much has been invested in bringing Ghost to production, Rolls-Royce remains elusive, but delving into company figures, you’ll find £40 million was invested in structural plant changes alone. BMW Group’s capital expenditure in 2009 was Euro 3,471 million with the main focus on product investments for new model start-ups (such as the new BMW 5 Series, the 5 Series Gran Turismo, the X1, the MINI Convertible and the Rolls-Royce Ghost) and on infrastructure investments.
Yes, the Ghost may borrow some components from the BMW 7 Series, but looking at the two cars from the outside, you’d never guess. Inside there are some similarities, such as when you look at the menu controller (it’s a version of iDrive), but it has its own Rolls-Royce feel, as well as having a completely different layout both on the console and on the screen. Rolls-Royce calls it smart business sense.
“Creating a new car from a clean sheet of paper involves huge resources, while Rolls-Royce can provide and sustain the majority of resources, there will always be specialists who work on a variety of BMW group products,” explained Balmer. “They will divide their time among all group products as required, although the engineers involved in Rolls-Royce projects will normally have been involved with previous ones, such as Phantom Coupé /Drophead Coupé.
“This is because experience with high quality, low volume, hand built production may be essential for the area of specialism concerned. Also, certain shared chassis and electrical components will be developed by Group 'centres of competence' for roles in both Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and BMW products. So we blend the skills of both brands together, in terms of development it’s regarded as a jointly resourced project, rather than separate companies, which is a more efficient set up.”
Some technologies remain exclusive to Rolls-Royce, though. For example, the matte-silver finish on the bonnet of the Ghost is not your standard paintwork. Said Sir Henry Royce: “Strive for perfection in everything you do. Take the best that exists and make it better. When it doesn’t exist, design it.” So that’s what the company did. Rather than using a standard paint, a specially developed metallic coating is finely sprayed on to the bonnet in such a way that the small particles in the paint lie perfectly flat and only reflect light in one direction. The effect is a perfectly uniform matte surface no random clouding that often affects other matte paint applications.
Asked what makes the Ghost so special, Balmer looks to the hoodlining and thinks for a moment. “It’s the way the designers and engineers have captured the very essence of a Rolls-Royce in a smaller, contemporary package,” he says. “From the way the car looks, to the way it drives – everyone who I have met who has experienced this car comes away smiling.”
It’s no wonder. True to its name, the Ghost is eerily quiet, yet possesses a depth of capability that almost seems supernatural. Its blend of traditional and contemporary craftsmanship and styling is so harmonious that one never overtakes the other. And that’s exactly how Charles Stewart Rolls and Frederick Henry Royce would have wanted it.
There’s no doubt, Ghost is a true Rolls-Royce.
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