Ever since its inception 100 years ago, the Rolls-Royce name has been held in high regard, representing the absolute highest quality. In fact, when designing his first car, Henry Royce was quoted as wanting "to turn out the best car in the world regardless of cost, and to sell it to those people who could appreciate a good article, and were able and willing to pay for it."
Almost 100 years later, the idea behind Rolls-Royce remains the same. This philosophy explains why the car that we drove through the beautiful Tuscany region of Italy can only be described as the Rolls-Royce of convertibles.
The Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe is the first completely new vehicle to come from the famed British marque since its "rebirth" in 2003, when the all-new Phantom sedan made its debut. That was five years after Rolls-Royce and Bentley parted ways-the Rolls-Royce name being purchased by BMW AG and Bentley going to Volkswagen AG.
The new Drophead Coupe is an extraordinary convertible, and it just wouldn't have been right to take a first drive in an ordinary locale. So Rolls-Royce brought journalists to the hotel L'Andana Tenuta La Badiola in the town of Grosseto, Italy- a two hour drive north of Rome.
L'Andana was at one time the residence of Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Now a luxury hotel, L'Andana is surrounded by beautiful green hills with olive trees as well as fields of grape vines.
The new Rolls felt right at home.
Classic But Modern Styling
While the new convertible is built on a shortened Phantom platform, it is clearly not a chop-top version of the luxury sedan. Rolls designers looked at this possibility-even built a prototype-but the style just didn't translate well.
"Simply removing the Phantom's roof could have made a great convertible but it wouldn't have made a perfect one," said Rolls-Royce Chief Designer Ian Cameron. "With the Phantom Drophead Coupe we had the chance to think about the very nature of convertible motoring and, in particular, what it means to Rolls-Royce."
So without a single body panel carried over from the Phantom, designers created a stylish body that seems less staid than the big sedan, but is still easily identifiable as a Rolls with classic Rolls-Royce proportions.
The Drophead Coupe started out life as a concept called the 100 EX that was first shown at the Geneva Motor Show in 2004. The concept convertible featured a unique brushed-steel hood (or bonnet, in Brit-speak), teakwood trim, rear-hinged coach doors and a "picnic boot"-a tailgate that opens out of the boot (trunk) to provide seating for two.
To help shape the convertible from concept to production form, Rolls-Royce took the concept on two world tours visiting 30 countries to get feedback from current and future owners. From a visual standpoint, very little was lost in the transformation, including the aforementioned unique features.
Customization and BMW-Like Features
After a delicious breakfast of fresh-baked breads, local cheeses and fruit grown on the estate, we walked out into the sunny courtyard to choose our Drophead Coupe. The only color car we had previously seen was blue, which was the color of the vehicle that made its debut at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show earlier this year.
Here before us was a beautiful palette of colors shining in the bright sun. Ensign Red, Jubilee Silver, Metropolitan Blue, Diamond Black and English White-some with the brushed steel hood, some without. Rolls-Royce will initially offer the Drophead Coupe in these colors, plus two more blues, Woodland Green and a color that could be quite stunning, Semaphore Yellow.
Six different color tops are available to match, and there are ten different interior leather colors as well as six wood trims to choose from. It was surprising how different the car looks in depending on its color. We opted for the black with the brushed steel hood-easily the most elegant of the color combinations.
However, Rolls-Royce will customize the Drophead Coupe to match any color request.
In fact, Rolls-Royce has an entire department dedicated to bespoke features that has the ability to personalize a vehicle to just about any request, as long as it doesn't interfere with the mechanics or safety equipment in the car. In one of the more interesting examples, a Phantom buyer wanted the wood trim of his car to come from a tree on his land. So Rolls-Royce representatives went in, took down a tree, and made it into a dashboard.
Even without the bespoke options, the Drophead Coupe is still quite unique. One of the most unusual design elements of the new convertible is its coach doors. These are rear-hinged for easy access to both front and rear seat. However once you're in the car it's impossible to reach the open door to close it. But that's OK. When you don't have a butler to close the door for you, just simply push the button labeled "Door" ahead of the door opening and the door closes hydraulically.
As we pushed the start button to fire up the powerful V12 under the hood, we were reminded of the fact that Rolls-Royce is indeed part of the BMW auto group. Take the engine-this is a BMW-built V12 similar to the one found in the BMW 760Li, however with 453 horsepower it is a bit more powerful than that used by its German cousin.
The transmission is a 6-speed automatic that uses the same unusual electronic gear shift as that used in the 7-Series-down once is Drive, up is Reverse, and you push the button on the end of the lever for Park.
We were further reminded of the BMW connection when we tried to bring up a list of songs on the MP3-filled CD in the 6-disc changer. This was when we realized that Rolls-Royce uses iDrive, which is a system created by BMW by which all audio, climate, navigation and vehicle setting controls are operated by a single knob that can be moved in any direction, pushed or turned. There has been much bad press about this system because of its complicated nature, which was evident in our Rolls.
We were given instructions on how to bring up the requested list on the display screen, however we couldn't help but think if a customer had just paid more than $400,000 for this vehicle, the control systems may be more than just an annoyance.
But we had the music playing, sounding quite good coming out of the excellent sound system's 15 speakers. The top was down and we were off.
The Drophead Coupe is about 10 inches shorter than the Phantom, but it is by no means small. In fact, it's only two inches shorter and one inch narrower than a Chevrolet Suburban. And as we drove off, that classic "Spirit of Ecstasy" hood ornament seemed a great distance away.
So it was a little unnerving when we headed out on the very narrow Italian roads in our very large convertible. But the more we drove it, the smaller it felt.
With 531 lb-ft of torque available at just 3500 rpm, the near 3-ton car really gets moving quickly. Rolls-Royce claims the coupe reaches 60 in fewer than six seconds, and we have no reason to doubt that. Suspension also works extremely well, providing a very smooth ride while still giving the driver a connection to the road. The Rolls stayed very stable on the twisty Tuscan roads, and there was almost no body roll in fast turns. One could almost call it agile, if a 3-ton vehicle could possibly be described with that word.
As we headed to our coffee stop at the beautiful Castello Banfi-a 13th century castle that is now an elegant vineyard estate in Montalcino, we discovered that with the top down and the windows up, even at high speeds, it was possible to carry on conversations in normal tones. Seats are very comfortable-it was almost as nice being a passenger as it was driving.
The Drophead Coupe is a true four-seater with plenty of legroom for rear-seat passengers. But while many Phantoms are chauffeur-driven, we would expect that the Drophead Coupe's owner wouldn't be riding in the back.
After lunch at the Castello di Velona-an ultra-luxury hotel in the hills of Siena-we headed back to L'Andana, but this time with the top up. The convertible top is the largest of any current convertible, raising or lowering in about 30 seconds. Inside was very quiet with very little wind noise until we exceeded 70 mph. This is largely due to the five layers of sound insulation in the top, lined with a cashmere blend. The rear seat still offers plenty of headroom, even with the top in place.
Alas, it was time to give up the keys to this beautiful automobile. And with only 100 of them expected to be built in the first year, we may not see another one for a long time.
With a base price of $407,000, this car isn't for everyone. But our few days in Tuscany with this elegant piece of machinery gave us a taste of what it would be like to be one of the lucky few.