The perpetually skint Kevin Hackett gets a taste of the high life in what's come to be recognised as the finest car in the world, driving through the south of France.
Rolls-Royce Phantom Series II demands the finest playground
For car manufacturers, the venue of any press launch for a new model is usually of paramount importance. The roads have to be right, the hotels and airports suitable for tired hacks arriving from all over the world and the weather should be at least predictable. In my time as a motoring writer, I've been to some spectacular locations and stayed in some incredible hotels, all in the name of work, which usually involves driving a brand new car through some of the world's finest scenery. When people tell me I have the best job there is, I tend not to disagree.
Why do car companies do this? I've heard it stated that a media launch saps around 10 per cent of a car's development budget and, when you consider the vast sums of money that new models cost to bring to market, that's a lot of dosh to throw at some (often) unappreciative journos. While it's true there's some attempt at coercion going on with some manufacturers, when I found out that Rolls-Royce had chosen the glamorous world of the South of France to showcase its new Phantom Series II, it made absolute sense. This, more than anywhere else on the planet, is where these cars belong. It's their natural habitat and cars like this turn even fewer heads here than those cruising up and down Dubai's JBR Walk at night.
A playground for the rich and famous, the Côte d'Azur positively reeks of money - new and old. It's populated by famous rock stars, actors and Formula One drivers who love the beauty of the place, as well as its history and the fact that nearby Monaco is a tax haven. This is one of my favourite places anywhere in the world, despite the fact that I feel penniless whenever I'm fortunate enough to visit, but this time I certainly won't look strapped for cash because I'll be inside possibly the ultimate luxury car.
I can vividly recall the shockwaves created by the Phantom back in January 2003. BMW had spent five years developing a new car from scratch, alongside a brand new factory for the Rolls-Royce brand it had bought while VW was busy snaffling its former stablemate Bentley. The heritage was a heavy burden but at least the designs of the new cars would not be hamstrung by old engineering or body shapes. It was a bold new start and the Phantom was nothing if not a bold design, though I always thought the front end was too challenging. Not so the new one; the Phantom Series II isn't a radical departure but the small detail improvements combine to make the big Rolls much easier on the eye.
Updating any car as iconic as the Phantom was never going to be an easy task because, for what it was, there wasn't much wrong with it. To call it a car was to do it a disservice somehow because it's always been so much more than that. The company's co-founder, Sir Henry Royce, famously encouraged his staff to take the best that existed and make it better. This constant striving for perfection is what makes its cars stand out as peerless, but times change, customer demands change and technology is always evolving. So surgery for the Phantom was unavoidable.
Unusually, Rolls-Royce has chosen to launch all the new Phantom derivatives together. When Porsche unveils its latest 911, we're drip-fed various models over a period of months, if not years, which must make sense to somebody. But it's nice to get everything out of the way sometimes, and at my disposal for two days are the regular Phantom, the gargantuan Extended Wheelbase (EWB), the Coupé and the Drophead Coupé (DHC). Visually, the updates, inside and out, are subtle but underneath there have been some significant improvements.
The external changes amount to a cleaner looking front lamp arrangement - incorporating full LED clusters that now adapt to your driving, redesigned bumpers, a new tail lamp design and new wheels, while the Coupé and DHC have a revised single piece front grille surround. Inside, there's a larger centre display screen on the dashboard, new and more simple controls, a new reverse camera system, a new telephone cradle to house smartphones and extra connectivity for all manner of electrical gadgetry. It would appear that even the world's wealthiest want to update their Twitter feeds while on the move.
Under the skin, there remains an aluminium spaceframe structure, but it's been further reinforced to enable the offering of a "dynamic package" that should appeal to those who fancy getting out of the back and behind the wheel. The masterpiece of a V12 engine remains at 6.75L but fuel economy has been improved by 10 per cent and emissions are down from 385 to 347g/km, and there's also a new, smoother eight-speed automatic gearbox as well as a redesigned rear differential.
These are not Earth-shattering updates to be honest, but combined they should keep the Phantom relevant to the great and the good and today I'm one of them. It's a perfect day, the sun is out and the sky is a deep blue as I step outside the glorious Cap Estel hotel, which sits on its own rocky peninsula just a few kilometres west of Monaco - and straight into the (really) big one; the 6,092mm-long EWB.
Negotiating the narrow and twisting drive up and out of the gates is a challenge, requiring several three-point turns, but the ease with which I'm able to manipulate this behemoth is extraordinary. The revised 3D sat/nav has its route already mapped out and, after some brief motorway driving, I'm politely instructed to peel off and head for the surrounding mountain roads.
Naturally, the EWB seems enormous from behind the wheel. The car's extremities are difficult to gauge and its almost two-metre girth seems even wider than it is. As open as these stunning roads are, whenever an oncoming motorist homes into view around a corner, I cringe, half expecting us to swap paint. My appreciation for the way chauffeurs pilot these things around narrow city streets has just hugely increased. I don't know how they do it.
But get to a long enough straight stretch and floor the throttle and the Phantom gathers pace with almost supernatural ease in near total silence. The lightest Phantom model weighs 2,560kg and in EWB guise it's positively obese at 2,670kg - it's like being inside a stately home that's just sprouted wheels, but with 720Nm of torque on tap, it's still capable of surprising pace.
Those 12 cylinders, which serenely glide up and down their respective pistons, help generate a relatively puny 453hp but, even working against the EWB's physical mass, it's enough to propel it to 100kph from rest in 6.1 seconds and onto a governed top speed of 240kph. You really wouldn't want to go any faster than that in a car this big but the Coupé is good for another 10kph and a 5.8 second sprint to 100.
Heading into corners at a far greater speed than is necessary, the big Rolls takes them in its considerable stride with no fuss, no drama, no histrionics or screeching tyres. In fact, it's scarcely believable that there's anything mechanical going on at all.
Being owned by BMW, it's a given that Rolls-Royces are fitted with run-flat tyres (a pet hate of mine) but the ride is so finely damped that here it doesn't matter. Granted, it's no sports car, even with that handling pack fitted, but that doesn't mean you can't hustle a Phantom down the road at speed. It's the sheer effortlessness of everything that deeply impresses, every single time you're in one of these incredible motor cars. If the crazy pace of everyday life is stressing you out, a few hours whiled away in a Phantom could be just what the doctor orders.
Most owners will spend the majority of their time ensconced in the palatial rear quarters, that's obvious, and the technical updates are likely to go largely unnoticed. However, it's extremely gratifying to know that, if and when the mood takes you, you can give your chauffeur the day off and enjoy motoring on a totally unique level.
All four Phantom models, as I experience them throughout the day, offer the most sublime experience but I still don't understand the point of the Coupé. In the right colour scheme it can look impressive but surely if you want a two-door Phantom the DHC would offer that, along with the added benefit of a folding roof (as well as that stunning teak rear decking). Here, in the beautiful French Riviera, the DHC would be my Rolls-Royce of choice.
But whatever Phantom you choose (and plenty of UAE residents will), take it from me that there is still no peer, no rival to this magnificent mode of transport. This, ladies and gentlemen, is as good as it gets.