Notes for the Rolls-Royce chauffeur: this is a big and heavy car, so your employer will require you to be gentle with the controls, particularly the steering, brakes and accelerator. Ensure the correct attire and a mannered demeanour at all times and remember, this is about your passengers, not about you.
These requirements haven’t been completely attainable in the last decade’s worth of 7,000 Rolls-Royce Phantoms, however. Delectable piece of kit it might be, but the Phantom’s six-speed ZF gearbox, although state-of-the-art at the launch, occasionally found itself lost for an appropriate gear.
And while Rolls-Royce never talks about its customers by name (you get the feeling that this car is a lot classier than the people who buy it), it’s a comforting thought that even plutocrats, dictators, game-show barons, crowned heads and oil sheikhs have to wait in line just like the rest of us. For Bentley got its order in first for the new ZF eight-speed automatic transmission and Rolls-Royce came second – and we understand that Aston Martin’s replacement DBS is third.
So this Mark II Phantom, on sale now for delivery in September, is really a change of transmission, but as well as the eight-speeder it also gets a new beefed-up differential to replace the BMW 7-series unit, which was wearing noisily in high-mileage Phantoms. While the Phantom Coupé and Drophead Coupé also benefit from the transmission swap, the saloon gets some additional strengthening to the aluminium spaceframe chassis.
To make this revamp worthy of the name, there are new electronics, with a spiffy new satnav system complete with a massive 8.8in screen and a 360-degree camera system to help guide this huge barge into the chief executive’s parking spot. Did I mention the Harman Kardon stereo? Well, it’s loud. There are a few cabin changes to incorporate the big screen and sadly the old centre layout, which was as charming as an old radiogram, has been swapped for arriviste chromium switches which store memory functions.
The coachwork has received a lot of very subtle changes, which soften the lines without drastically altering the overall appearance. “Our customers don’t want a new car coming to market too often,” said Richard Carter, Rolls-Royce’s communications director. Or rather, after stumping up more than a third of a million pounds, they don’t want their cars looking out of date when the Mark II version is launched.
Well, if you stood both cars side by side, you’d know there was a difference (mainly because of the new rectangular LED headlamps), but only just. Creases are softer, there’s a combined badge/indicator repeater, a new rear bumper and chromium around the rear window, but none of it shouts “new model”.
Inside, the rear cabin is largely untouched. It’s best enjoyed without the myriad toys that are available, when the simple space and carefully planned window lines allow a perfect view out while retaining a sense of privacy. In the front, the old Phantom bugbears remain, with an adjustable steering wheel that remains slightly out of reach and a centre boss that obscures the gear selector quadrant so it’s impossible to know which gear you’ve selected.
The push-button starter sits in a panel designed to recall the old Lucas charging display. Push it and BMW’s 6.75-litre V12 purrs into life. A rev counter would be useful as the engine’s so quiet you barely notice it turning over.
First impressions are of near-silent, effortless torque, or “waftability”, as Rolls-Royce excruciatingly puts it. At slow speeds you don’t hear much of anything, just a bit of a whirr from the tyres and a wind-in-the-pipes moan from the engine when you pull away. Stand on it, however, and you’ll get a tiny delay in response and not quite the silver-teapot-full of performance, because the Rolls has to limit torque on getaway to protect the anti-friction coatings on the gears in the new transmission. Similarly, the software is distinctly indecisive at times, which we are told is being addressed already with rewritten software.
The rest of the drive experience is pretty much as it always was, with such an uncanny ride quality that you would barely notice running over a member of the proletariat. There’s lots of body roll, but it’s well controlled and while the steering’s slow, it’s also delightfully accurate. True, in tight corners, you have to pile on lock like coal on a locomotive, but the Phantom always draws short of feeling like a runaway train. And never let anyone tell you this car can’t be driven fast; it can, but in those leather armchairs you lean into the corner like a dinghy sailor. Fortunately the massive brakes will survive a lot of abuse.
In the end the Phantom is just such a damn good-looking car and so beautifully made, it gets away with stuff that would be unacceptable on any other car. And it now has the quantity, if not quite yet the quality, of gears to keep the title of the finest car in the world.