Rolls-Royce Phantom: rich and richer

Imagine choosing the colour of your car from 44,000 available options. Now, imagine requesting the interior leather be dyed to match your family crest, your china or a flower from your garden.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

SAN FRANCISCO – Imagine choosing the colour of your car from 44,000 available options. Now, imagine requesting the interior leather be dyed to match your family crest, your china or a flower from your garden.

Such are the hard decisions facing the prospective owner of a Rolls-Royce 2009 Phantom Coupé, a luxuriously, deliriously, ridiculously beautiful sedan. It is fastidiously crafted at a brand new facility called Goodwood in Sussex Downs, England. There appears to be no detail too tiny to acknowledge, and no request too outlandish to consider.

Who are these people who have $440,000 for a car? Well, they live rather well, if my dip into the lifestyles of the rich and richer was any indication.

Imagine leaving the first-class section of a plane in San Francisco to be met by a uniformed driver holding a sign discreetly displaying the RR logo.

Settled into the back seat, you are whisked to the St. Regis, where doormen anticipate each move you make, and the concierge asks which spa amenities you might like to avail yourself of.

It is distractingly easy to forget you drive a minivan back home, or that you have two teenage sons who would pounce on the mini-bar food and dispatch 14 bucks’ worth of cashews in seconds.

And then, those wonderful, wonderful words: “Cocktails and dinner in the penthouse.” Miniature Kobe hamburgers, microscopic shrimp tacos, champagne on a silver platter. Dinner courses matched to wines, desserts that look like art, and a small artisanal chocolate left on your pillow. You realize you haven’t even driven the car, and yet you love it already.

For this press trip in San Francisco, the offered rides were in classic colours: diamond black, English white, jubilee silver, Madeira red. I instantly gravitated toward the black. This car has a strong feline presence about it. Perhaps it is the elongated front paired with the relatively compact rear, but the word pounce came to mind more than once.

Even when standing still, the car is fluid. The Coupé has the strong, elegant bonnet you associate with Rolls-Royce. I spent a disproportionate amount of time popping the button that made the classic Spirit of Ecstasy (you know – the flying lady) ornament tuck in for safety.

The trunk (or the picnic boot, to keep the lingo intact) features a flip-down platform that can support the weight of a couple of picnickers. The 395-litre boot can hold four sets of golf clubs, we are told. By the end of the day, I, too, am measuring in golf clubs rather than groceries. Why not dream?

First hesitation? How to get into the thing. The Phantom features something called coach doors, hinged to the rear, putting the handle by the side mirror.

While it’s initially odd, you realize how quickly you could start feeling all princess-like entering a car this way. We are subtly, yet strongly, reminded they are not called suicide doors – picture British cabs and the Bonnie and Clyde-mobile. Yes, I asked. And I was told.

As you snuggle into a cocoon of leather softer than butter, you touch a small button and the door silently shuts. Driver and passenger never touch anything that isn’t leather, wood or chrome. The leather features a perfect continuity of colour, yet changes in texture depending on where it is used. It is the first time in my life I have remained aware of a steering wheel, even after driving all day with it in my hands.

The interior is as sleek as the exterior. Handcrafted veneered wood panels are layered with aluminums for strength and stability. In a sea of opulent leather, the wooden fascia interrupts nothing. Controls are discreetly tucked behind panels that open at a touch – my driving partner and I alternated discovering new treasures each time we took the passenger seat. The operational features of this car are so discreet, so refined, I don’t think we ever did figure out the air conditioning.

How do you put a Rolls-Royce to the test? The Phantom Coupé has a 453 hp V12 under that bonnet. They advertise 0-100 km/h in 5.7 seconds. That kind of power never gets old, but our travel for the day was mapped through the twisting, turning topography of Hwy. 1 along the Pacific coast. The road is narrow, there is virtually no place to pass, and the posted speed limit of 88 km/h is almost never an option, as there are so many hairpin turns and sharp curves.

The Phantom features self-levelling air suspension. You never feel a correction and, for a rear-wheel drive with enormous power, you never feel anything but sure-footed balance. There is a Sport option, and depressing the control provides longer gears and tightens up the steering. Moving the transmission from park to drive or neutral is achieved by merely a touch of your finger. Nothing clunks in this car.

Carved through towering eucalyptus and redwood trees, the road dropped ominously away to Bodega Bay, where herons perched on rocky outcroppings in a fog that changed continuously. One missed turn, and my partner and I realized we were lost.

With the other cars nowhere in sight, we dialled in the navigation system to get help. At the same time, our walkie-talkie squawked into life. We persuaded our hosts we hadn’t run away with a half-million bucks’ worth of car, or performed a Thelma and Louise over the cliffs.

“At the first available place, perform a legal U-turn,” said our satellite navigation lady. I gulped. The fog was as thick as proverbial pea soup; the road was winding upwards, and in nearly five kilometres we hadn’t seen another roadway, only some narrow shoulders barely the length of our car. To the right, I could hear the ocean thundering away; to the left, a rocky wall looked most unwelcoming.

Not wanting to delay lunch for the others, I did a neat three-point turn. Back we went, again going through a small town that had drawn stares the first time. We waved.

After lunch, the president of Rolls-Royce asked how the drive had been, and where we’d gone off course. Apologizing for the delay, I told him where I’d done the U-turn. He went a little white and, for some reason, personally followed us all the way back to San Francisco after lunch. Talk about service.

There are many fabulous cars that draw a great deal of attention for a variety of reasons. I’ve been in a lot of them, but nothing creates the reactions I experienced this time. The Phantom whispers by; every head turns. I now know this car is very real, even if the experience rides on vapours. I think you really do earn this car, as opposed to purchasing it.

With only a few hundred being sold on this continent each year, even seeing one is noteworthy for most of us. We were told that the Rolls-Royce customer is special. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “… the very rich … they are different from you and me.”

So are their cars.

Travel was provided to freelance journalist Lorraine Sommerfeld by the auto maker.

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