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Aug / Sep 2012
The Second Act

Writer: Nicolas Shammas / Photographers: James Lipman & Barry Hayden

As anyone who has read ‘David Copperfield’ will tell you, even a writer as great as Charles Dickens can lose his audience after the halfway point. So with the launch of round two of the Phantom Series, has Rolls-Royce done enough to avoid the dreaded Second Act Syndrome?


Nature dictates that the second act is nearly always pants. Crass but true. When Act One is magical – revelling in creative freedom, unpredictability, originality and mystery – Act Two arrives burdened with the expectation that it can’t possibly outdo the first. Add to that the dominant ethos of our business management/marketing-driven world, which tries to convince us that replication rather than innovation is the mark of true success and you usually have a follow-up that fails to live-up.

So how does this apply to the Phantom? Well, when it was launched back in 2003 (at the time, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars had just joined the BMW stable) it redefined the pinnacle of automotive luxury. It was less a car than a 21st century country house on wheels. Nine years later, the curtain has come down midway through the Phantom’s life-cycle. The crowd is on its feet and the applause is deafening but Rolls-Royce has also realised that surpassing expectations a second time is going to be damned near impossible. What to do?

Apparently, follow a quote by Mr. Henry Royce (yes, he of the Rolls). “Strive for perfection in everything,” he exhorted his workers back in the Roaring Twenties. “Take the best that exists and make it better. If it doesn't exist, create it. Accept nothing nearly right or good enough.”

That’s all well and good when you’re starting from scratch but the trouble is, the Phantom Series I was already at the top of its class. How do you improve on perfection? If the Phantom II was really just going to be a Phantom I with a tweak here, a tweak there and the job’s done, you’re going to disgruntle your audience. Our verdict? Listen closely. Can you hear them boo?

So it will come as no surprise when I say that the vast majority of automotive journalists, flown in from far and wide to Le Cap Estel, a hidden gem of a hotel in the South of France for the Series II’s launch, were distinctly less than whelmed. “Only Rolls-Royce could go to such lengths to showcase a new set of headlights," mocked one of my fellow writers. Ouch. Second Act Syndrome, indeed.

But wait. Let’s not be too hasty in our judgement. I’m happy to admit that I was still a bit excited by the launch. Perhaps that had as much to do with being on the Côte d'Azur as anything else but still, it's a hard heart that isn’t at least a little thrilled about being handed the keys to four spanking new Phantoms - the saloon, its extended wheel base sibling, the drophead coupé and the fixed head coupé.

Of course, my momentary thrill aside, the question remained as to just how new these cars really were. I’ll be honest. A first, cursory inspection suggested that they weren’t and so it may be that ultimately, the real winners in the Phantom stakes are those who forked out for a Series I. Why? Because the Series II changes are so subtle that the general public will never be able to tell them apart, let alone grasp that the Series 1 owners are driving an outdated model. Still, there are changes for those who know what to look for.

Visuals first. The front end of Series I was deemed too convoluted, so the round headlights (that many used to mistakenly presume were fog-lights) have been replaced by two new rectangular LED light strips. Round the back, there’s been a subtle but very affective gluteoplasty - which like any good butt-lift is damned hard to notice unless you compare the before with the after. Inside, the dash is a touch flatter and now features a number of pre-programmable speed dial buttons. Where previously there were five cushioned panels on each seat back, there are now a more contemporary three.

On the technological front, there’s a brand new infotainment system, which makes sense as technology has obviously progressed in leaps and bounds since 2003. Consequently there’s now a huge 8.8-inch screen (previously 6.5) and the connectivity with external devices has been considerably improved. The sound system has been upgraded by Harman Kardon and the gps has been overhauled with a far superior system featuring 3-D topographical maps. Also - and this is a lifesaver for those who have to manoeuvre this behemoth in tight spaces - there’s now a 360-degree top-view camera that’s viewable on the navigation screen.

Overall, the single most significant improvement is the replacement of the old 6-speed gearbox with a ZF 8-speed automatic transmission. Not only does it afford the Phantom ever more “waftability” (as the Rolls execs like to say) but the new box helps lower fuel consumption by a good 10 per cent. So how does the Phantom II behave in the real world? Dare I say it? Almost exactly as it did before. But don’t let that put you off because the Phantom range never left you wanting in the first place.

So, with about nine cars lined up outside, my first pick had to be a Phantom Coupé. Naturally. This is, after all, the most driver-oriented Phantom. What’s more, Rolls has supposedly improved it further with a ‘Driver’s Pack’ that includes braces front and rear stiffening the ride a tad, while the brakes are also supposed to offer more feel. There were two to decide between but I opted against the Great White with the Bordeaux interior as I found it a little too, how should I say this delicately, Dubai. Instead, I chose the more sophisticated blue version with the camel-coloured interior.

First things first. Open the rear-hinged door, sink into the wonderfully comfortable seats, grab hold of the thicker-rimmed steering wheel and take a moment to cherish the elevated driving position from which you peer out over the long bonnet to the Spirit of Ecstasy ahead. Besides a superyacht and a private jet, there really can’t be many purchases in life that make you feel as special as sitting in your own Rolls-Royce. It’s an instant declaration of status. What’s more, owners of the two-door Phantoms (the Coupé and Drophead Coupé) will cherish the fact that they’ll never be confused for a chauffeur.

The Coupé is a wonderful car. It has more than enough room for four proper-sized adults to travel across continents. And happily too. It’s equipped with the same engine and chassis as the rest of the range but its slightly shorter wheelbase and Driver’s Pack of improvements help it feel more suited to driving than cruising. The only area that they could have focused on further is the steering, which still doesn’t really communicate enough, but it’s not a deal breaker. Is it the right Phantom for you? Well, if you don’t require open-air motoring (the Drophead by the way is probably the single most amazing convertible on the market today), don’t need four doors (or prefer not to sit in the back) and like to drive yourself, then it surely is. A couple of hours of gobbling up winding mountainous roads and I was loathe to hand back the keys. Well, until I was presented the chance to be chauffeured in the pinnacle of the range: the extended wheelbase saloon. I know, it really is dirty work but someone’s got to do it.

At 1m95, I’m a tall man and let me tell you that in the back, even with my legs stretched out, I could only just touch the seat in front. This car not only lends exclusivity a whole new dimension - it’s even better than First Class air travel - but it should probably be considered a class unto itself. In fact, if you were to allow each member of that audience I mentioned at the beginning of this story to enjoy one of these beauties for a day, I think the ensuing applause would be so protracted and so deafening, it would render null that old chestnut about the show having to go on because frankly, the show abruptly stops right here. Not getting me? Okay, if you think of the Phantom range as a play, then the Extended Wheelbase would be the equivalent of your own private performance. In Buckingham Palace. With me now?

One word of warning though, don’t allow your driver to think he can drive an EWB briskly along winding French roads or else your lunch may threaten to come back and haunt you. In other words, don’t be fooled by the powerful V12. None of the Phantom range should be thought of as sporty, in any way. These are cars made to cruise boulevards or to be masters of motorways. Classy, sophisticated and as delightful to ride as they are to drive, the Phantom II cars are just like their older siblings, only better. Second Act Syndrome? Who cares! Carry on driver.

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