True luxury isn’t rushed. It takes Patek Philippe nine months to make a basic watch and more than two years to finish one of its more complicated timepieces. Pedrazzini builds just six of its exquisite mahogany launches a year, each boat taking 6,000 hours to handcraft. And Rolls-Royce designers and engineers took almost three years just to figure how to make the unique glass-covered dash, called The Gallery, that’s the centerpiece of the spectacular interior of the all-new Phantom sedan.
The 2018 Phantom is only the eighth car to carry Rolls-Royce’s flagship nameplate in 92 years. More critically, though, it’s the second Phantom to have been designed and developed under the aegis of BMW. As the follow-up to the imposing sedan unveiled in 2003, there’s a lot riding on Phantom VIII. This is the car that must prove BMW truly understands what it takes to keep Rolls-Royce at the very pinnacle of automotive luxury.
One look at The Gallery ends all debate: BMW gets it. Placing a sheet of glass right across the dash—real glass, not fancy plastic—requires serious engineering commitment, both in terms of meeting crash safety regulations and creating a manufacturing process. But the genius here is not so much the how but the why; The glass allows customers to put decorative artwork of their choosing in the void behind it, turning their Phantoms into truly one-of-a-kind automobiles.
“We are taking bespoke to a new level,” says Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös. He says the idea for The Gallery came after a Phantom customer sat Rolls-Royce design director Giles Taylor and him down to admire a painting the customer had recently acquired. “All our customers are collectors,” Müller-Ötvös says. “Many asked if there was any way they could bring their favorite artist into the commissioning process.” Now they can.
Rolls-Royce offers a number of ‘standard’ artworks for The Gallery, including designs made from intricately folded silks, architectural metalwork, and, yes, wood. Customers wanting something unique behind the glass can work with Rolls-Royce experts while commissioning their cars to ensure the materials meet durability requirements. To show what’s possible, Rolls-Royce commissioned a series of works that range from an abstract oil painting inspired by autumn leaves to roses sculpted in black and white porcelain to a swathe of more than 3,000 meticulously arranged bird feathers.
Creating the ultimate wow factor for customers with the money to buy anything hasn’t come cheap. In addition to the investment in designing and engineering The Gallery, money has also been spent on an expensive new clean room—similar to that in which microchips are made—to ensure no dust or condensation can form on the inside of the glass once the dash unit has been assembled and sealed. But BMW has learned there are customers who will pay plenty for a one-of-a-kind Phantom. And they’ll happily wait the year it will take for it to be built.
“We are not really in the car business,” Müller-Ötvös says. “We are in the business of selling luxury.” He’s exactly right, of course, but The Gallery only makes sense because it’s surrounded by singularly impressive, luxury-focused automotive design and engineering.
Imposing, imperious, and in your face, the Phantom VII looked exactly the way BMW’s first ever Rolls-Royce needed to look. More than 14 years after its launch, it still has fantastic presence on the road. For the Phantom VIII, Taylor decided to maintain the extravagant dimensions of the Phantom VII but inject just a little more emotion into the styling.
It starts at the front, where in place of the iconic, rectilinear, Greek temple Rolls-Royce grille of the Phantom VII is one that’s slightly laid back, with a gently curved horizontal surface up top that falls through a generous radius to the vertical. At its highest point, the grille sits 2 inches higher than that of Phantom VII while the rear fenders finish 2 inches lower. These two points set up a bodyside that flows gently downward toward the rear, which, combined with front wheels pushed as far forward as possible to give a long dash-to-axle ratio and a C-pillar that sweeps down onto the trunk in an unbroken line, gives the Phantom VIII an impeccably classic British luxury car stance.
The Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, built between 1955 and 1966, is one of Giles Taylor’s favorites, and you can see distant echoes of that car’s studied elegance in the new Phantom, particularly in way the line off the top of the front fender now runs down into the rear door. The Phantom VIII is a subtly more modern car than its predecessor, but it’s still imposing, still imperious, and still in your face. Which is exactly what Phantom customers wanted, Müller-Ötvös says: “They were relieved we didn’t do a bigger Ghost.”
The Phantom VIII is underpinned by an all-new, highly flexible aluminum space frame structure dubbed “The Architecture of Luxury,” not the least because versions of it will underpin all future Rolls-Royce models, including the forthcoming Cullinan SUV and next-gen versions of the Ghost sedan, Wraith coupe, and Dawn convertible. Body rigidity is up 30 percent compared to the previous Phantom, thanks to the increased use of glue, screws, and rivets to hold the structure together—the new space frame has one-third the welds of the old one—and massive aluminum castings for the suspension mounting points.
A much stiffer structure helps deliver a foundation on which engineers can work to improve ride comfort and lower noise levels. As such, Phantom VIII rolls on self-leveling air suspension with air springs that Müller-Ötvös says are the biggest money can buy. A stereo camera system reading the road ahead is used to preconfigure the electronically controlled spring and damper rates, and the active anti-roll bars, at speeds up to 62 mph. Rear-wheel steering is standard, countersteering the front wheels at speeds up to 37 mph, primarily to help the 227.2-inch long Phantom—and the 8.6-inch longer Extended Wheelbase model—feel more agile around town.
The Phantom VII wasn’t exactly noisy, but to make Phantom VIII even quieter, sections of the floor and firewall have been double skinned and packed with felt and foam layers, part of a total of 286 pounds of sound-insulating material that’s been strategically placed throughout the car. The windows are double glazed, and foam has even been placed in the tires to reduce transmitted noise from the tread and resonances within the tire cavity itself.
Rolls-Royce claims the new Phantom is 10 percent quieter at 62 mph than its predecessor. We won’t argue. Phantom VIII cocoons you in a cone of silence as it wafts down the road. If the clock on the dash had a mechanical movement, you could probably hear it tick.
Rolls-Royce chose to give us the first opportunity to drive the new Phantom in Switzerland. A strange choice, perhaps, given that speed limits on Swiss freeways are ruthlessly enforced, and all the fun roads, which wriggle relentlessly through the chocolate box mountain scenery, are best suited to sports cars, not limos almost 20 feet long. But Switzerland, home to ultra-luxury brands such as Patek Philippe and Pedrazzini—along with the discreet banks that have traditionally handled the financial affairs of the world’s über-wealthy—is Rolls-Royce country. The Rolls-Royce dealer in Geneva sells more cars each year than any other in Europe.
The new twin-turbo V-12 under the Phantom’s massive hood spools into life and settles down into an inaudible idle. As with Phantom VII, the steering wheel looks large enough to helm a yacht, though the rim is slightly thicker than before. Tug the stubby shift lever into D, and lift off the brake, and the big Rolls-Royce oozes into motion.
Although Rolls-Royce still calls it a 6.75-liter, the Phantom VIII’s new V-12 is a bespoke variant of the 6.6-liter engine fitted to the Ghost, Wraith, and Dawn models. It makes 563 hp at 5,000 rpm and 664 lb-ft of torque at just 1,900 rpm. “Phantom customers are not after peak power,” says Rolls-Royce engineering director Philip Koehn. “They want torque.” And what the Phantom customer wants, Rolls-Royce delivers. This new engine develops the same torque at idle as the Phantom VII’s V-12 did at its peak and 50 percent more torque below 2,500 rpm. The extra grunt is immediately noticeable, delivering an effortless, elastic surge of acceleration from standstill.
Nail the gas, and the V-12 growls softly like a well-fed lion settling down for a nap. The 5,644-pound Phantom lifts her skirts and swooshes to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds (the 5,754-pound Extended Wheelbase is just a tenth slower), en route to a majestic top speed of 155 mph. But such unseemly haste is not what this car is all about, though it is so quiet and so smooth you can find yourself accidentally loafing along the freeway at 110 mph if you’re not paying attention. No, the Phantom does its best work with modest inputs to steering, brake, and throttle, gliding through shoals of traffic with the imperious grace of a cruising tiger shark, the eight-speed ZF transmission working with the sat-nav system to preemptively select the right gear for the road ahead.
Rolls-Royce execs wax lyrical about the Phantom VIII’s magic carpet ride, and for once the cliché is apt. The ride truly is magical. Roll and pitch motions are beautifully controlled, their velocities gently tamed as if the Phantom has been captured in a giant velvet glove. On sharp bumps there’s a distant noise, like a butler discreetly clearing his throat to get your attention at a dinner party, and then maybe you’ll sense a gentle thunk through the cabin. Compared with the Phantom VII, the VIII’s suspension unquestionably delivers a better primary ride, but the real improvements are in the more precise wheel control and reduced impact harshness through the tire, both of which are key to the preternatural calmness of this Phantom’s demeanor. Standard wheels are 21 inches, but switching up to the optional 22s barely ruffles the calm.
That’s not to say the new Phantom drives like a sensory deprivation device. There’s slightly more heft to the steering than in the previous car and slightly more feel, too. You’re much more aware of what’s going on at the contact patch of the front tires, which helps you place the big sedan much more accurately through corners. The brake pedal delivers great feel, allowing you to bring the Phantom to perfectly smooth stops even from slow speeds. The four-wheel steering means the Phantom feels surprisingly light on its feet on tight and twisting roads should you—as we did—choose to take one over the Furka Pass in Switzerland, across which Auric Goldfinger was driven in his black-over-yellow Phantom III in the 1964 James Bond classic, Goldfinger.
Rolls-Royce says 80 percent of Phantoms are driven by their owners. The Extended Wheelbase versions, however, are almost all chauffeur-driven. In either car, riding in the rear seat is an experience. You sit higher than those up front and have a commanding view through the windshield at the Spirit of Ecstasy riding point atop the grille 12 feet ahead of you. The seats are electrically adjustable—with extendable footrests in Extended Wheelbase cars—and the tables in the backrests of the front seats now deploy at the touch of a button on the controller hidden in the central armrest and each bring a 12-inch screen that allows users to surf the web, watch movies, or follow progress on the sat-nav to make sure the chauffeur’s not taking the long way home.
Müller-Ötvös says many owners claim they don’t engage with technology while riding in the back of their Phantoms. They say they tend to put their devices away and simply enjoy the astonishing serenity of the experience. And you only have to ride a mile or so in the new Phantom to understand. The chaos and frenzy of the modern world is still out there, but you’re somehow apart from it all—cosseted, comforted, and relaxed.
Time seems to slow down when you’re inside the Rolls-Royce Phantom VIII. And that’s what makes it the world’s ultimate luxury car. Because true luxury isn’t rushed.