Phantom of the Road

PAUL OWEN
Last updated 07:10 18/02/2013
Rolls-Royce Phantom.

ROLLS-ROYCE PHANTOM: Gone are the old circular auxiliary lamps, replaced by strip-like running lights. The car is all the better for the change.

Rolls-Royce Phantom.
LUXURY INTERIOR: The traditional design values of the brand have been gracefully placed into a more contemporary context.

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Troubled American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald once noted that "the rich are different to you and me; they have better bathrooms". The same can be certainly said of their cars when judging them by the incredibly plush standards of the new Rolls-Royce Phantom Series II. Unlike Fitzgerald, this high-end Roller is a survivor.

AT A GLANCE
Drivetrain: Longitudinal, front-mounted rear-wheel-drive with eight-speed ZF automatic transmission.
Output: 6750cc DOHC direct-injection petrol V12 producing 338kW at 5350rpm, 720Nm at 3500rpm.
Performance: Maximum speed 240kmh (governed), 0-100kmh 5.9 seconds, 14.8L/100km, 347g CO 2/km.
Chassis: Front Double wishbones with adaptive air springs, rear double wishbones with adaptive air springs. Electro-mechanical power steering. Vented disc brakes front and rear. 21-inch alloy rims with 255/40 front tyres and 285/40 rear tyres.
Dimensions: L 5842mm, H 1638mm, W 1990mm, W/base 3570mm, Fuel 100L, Weight 2560kg.
Pricing: As tested: $780,000.
The writer with the anguishing yet enchanting prose style drank himself to death in 1940, but not before leaving us two of the greatest books ever written in The Great Gadsby and Tender is the Night. The BMW-led revival of Rolls-Royce kicked off in earnest with the first new Phantom in 2003, and Mercedes-Benz also tried to breathe new life into the historic Maybach brand around the same time. Ten years later, the 21st-century Maybachs are no more, leaving the Phantom firmly entrenched as a car without peer at the top of the automotive pecking order.

So why did BMW succeed in building the ultimate luxury car and Mercedes-Benz fail? In one word: brand. Rolls-Royce has been a globally recognised symbol of decadent indulgence ever since the mistress of an English lord first posed for the "Spirit of Ecstasy" statuette that still graces the grille of the current Phantom more than 100 years later.

Our memories of Maybach aren't quite so glamorous or titillating. The Teutonic brand is remembered as much for its weapons of war as for its cars, and the diesel engine of the German submarine that sank the SS Persia in 1915 and killed the mistress who posed for Rolls-Royce's mascot could well have been one of Wilhelm Maybach's creations. Daimler AG's resurrection of a little-known German luxury-car brand after BMW and Volkswagen (Bentley) had already snapped up the more recognised British ones always smacked of desperation.

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It didn't help that the new Maybach badge looked like a child's drawing of an underfed tarantula, and that the cars looked as if rock stars had already driven them into swimming pools.

The decision by Mercedes-Benz to cease all its Maybach operations this year underlines the fact that ultra-luxury cars need something more than just sophisticated engineering, a historic back-story, and plush, richly furnished interiors to succeed. They need elegance and romance, and the new Phantom II has both qualities by the whisky-cask-load.

Witness how the traditional design values of the brand have been gracefully placed into a more contemporary context with the Phantom on the outside, or climb into the lounge-like rear seat and turn on the 1600 tiny fibre-optic lights that create night-sky effects in the roof, and you're left in no doubt that this car has romance as its core value. The latter filled me with the same sense of wonder that

I felt as a kid during my first visit to Auckland's starry-roofed Civic theatre.

There is an undeniable presence to the Phantom, and it is about as subtle as a low-level fly-pass of a formation of fighter jets, yet it has elegance as well. That's an element enhanced on Series II version by the removal of the goofy-looking foglights of Phantom I and the new grille, which is now of single-piece construction instead of three-piece. There's less of a connection visually to a railway locomotive with the new front end, the added horizontal strips of daytime running lights add width to the proportions, and you appreciate the flowing hip-line of the car more. Inside, something of a revolution has occurred with the assimilation of more electronic control interfaces for both driver and passengers. Yet the iDrive controllers and screens can all be hidden away quickly after use if you desire usual calming interior ambience of a wood/leather/ostrich skin-lined Roller.

For propulsion, the Phantom II uses the same 6.75-litre direct-injection V12 as the preceding model, now driving ZF's eight-speed automatic instead of the transmission-maker's previous six-speed. If there's a smoother, more refined powertrain on the market, I've yet to drive it. Quick, near-silent progress is always available after a little initial hesitation as the torque converter builds up enough hydraulic force to shift 2.5 tonnes of palatial luxury car. With the adoption of the new gearbox, the Phantom evidently uses 10 per cent less fuel than before, but few owners will give a damn.

However, ordinary Kiwis certainly did give a damn about the Phantom II's appearance on the export-market frontier. For them, it seemed to confirm our status as a developed civilised nation, and they constantly flashed smiles and salutes of approval in its direction.

I have also never received so much courtesy on our roads. In his books, Fitzgerald was obviously aware that a culture of glamour would inhibit a shared sense of wealth. However, my experience of driving a Phantom Series II would appear to refute that.

- Sunday Star Times

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