To describe the Rolls-Royce Phantom as a mere car is to do it a grave disservice. It is more like a stately home on wheels, both in size, grandeur and heritage. If automobiles were listed buildings, this would be a Grade I.
This latest model — unveiled last year — is the eighth incarnation of the original, first produced in 1925. And I cannot tell a lie: it is an absolute beast of a machine.
A twin-turbocharged 6.75-litre V12 engine, eight-speed automatic transmission and for the first time four-wheel steering to improve stability at high speeds. And boy does it need it: otherwise — at nigh on two-and-a-half tonnes — it would be like trying to drive a wardrobe.
One arguably needs an HGV licence to stay on top of this behemoth, not to mention a pretty sharp sense of spacial awareness. Not only is it huge — twice the length of my Fiat 500 and about half the width again — it is also very boxy (unattractively so in my humble opinion), especially on the front end. This is not a car that’s designed to be parallel-parked outside the school gates.
In fact, there is not a lot that is practical about it at all, save for the utterly brilliant sensors in the wing mirrors, little orange lights that wink at you when someone enters your blind spot. It is completely uncompromising in its commitment to total luxury which — given the kind of person who is likely to purchase one — is exactly as it should be.
Think of the Phantom more as a work of art like a Fabergé egg or a set of Sèvres porcelain. You don’t buy one because you need to get from A to B, but because it is the ultimate symbol of automotive extravagance — and because you absolutely must have a champagne fridge in your back seat.
The range of reassuringly expensive comforts on offer here is never-ending. Take the dashboard: you can have it made in anything from Carrara marble to gold; you can commission an artist to do it for you, or stuff it full of your own significance.
Each car is built to the exact specifications of the owner, and no whim is too outlandish. The roof of the car is studded with tiny pinpricks of light, a constellation of stars that can, once again, be customised. The body contains 130kg of soundproofing, and even the tyres are specially insulated to reduce road noise. All to make sure the Phantom driver sees the rest of the world from the ultimate bubble of privilege.
But what makes this car so much more than just a rich person’s mobile lounge (prices start at £360,000) is the spectacular engineering that underpins all this luxury. Because that’s just one side to the Phantom. The other is something else entirely.
Sure, you can roll along at a leisurely pace, sipping your champagne in imperial splendour as your chauffeur negotiates the bends. But get behind the wheel properly, and it quickly becomes clear that this Rolls-Royce is not quite as much of a lady as it might at first seem. A fact that I discovered when I took her for a spin along one of my favourite tracts of road, the Hog’s Back near Farnham.
Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing sporty about the Phantom whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean she can’t have a little fun now and then — especially if you happen to find someone to play with.
A red Toyota Mark II, it was. I didn’t quite catch the driver as he roared past in the fast lane and cut in front, but he was definitely asking for it. I’ve never raced anyone in a Phantom before, nor I suspect will I ever get the chance again. I couldn’t resist. And besides, it would have been a dereliction of my duty not to put that four-wheel steering to the test.
She went from majestic to magnificent in seconds, those two-and-a-half tonnes suddenly light as a feather as the V12 engine delivered its 563 horsepower and 664 lb-ft of torque. We were the very embodiment of the dancing Spirit of Ecstasy on the bonnet: fast and free.
Delighted, my new friend gave chase, and we cut a swathe through the Surrey hills for an exhilarating few minutes until finally I remembered myself, and conceded. His car sped off into the late afternoon light, hazards winking, and I glided on, breathless from our encounter.
0-60 mph, 5.1 seconds
318 g / kmz