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The Rolls-Royce Phantom comes with opulence befitting its huge price tag. It is the benchmark for ride quality

The Rolls-Royce Phantom was never going to be the best car in the world. To merit that title today, a car would have to display practical virtues irrelevant to a Rolls. In any case, the firm stopped making that claim for its cars half a century ago. 

But BMW was never in any doubt about the kind of car it had to build to bear the grille, mascot and name it bought in 1998. Rolls-Royce has entered the lexicon as shorthand for refinement and craftsmanship regardless of price.

It's testament to the purity of the original that it looks and feels as good as it did in 2003

BMW and its factory at Goodwood had to build, from scratch, literally and figuratively, the Rolls-Royce of motor cars.

Rolls-Royce would rather you not compare the Phantom to anything else in the motoring world. It is a luxury good, it says, more comparable with a Swiss chalet or a piece of fine jewellery.

That’s not the stretch it seems. It’s hard to rationalise such a purchase, when objectively, a Mercedes S-Class could do 99 percent of the job for much, much less money.

But buyers with this much money to spend have likely got an S-Class or two tucked away already, and enough cash in the bank not to have to worry about finance packages.

The Phantom is about ultimates, and that’s why it appeals to the super-rich.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Rolls-Royce Phantom side profile

Even though the Rolls-Royce Phantom launched in 2003, and received its first raft of major revisions in 2012, it is still one of the largest cars on the road.

Its aluminium spaceframe and panels aid stiffness and lightness. Air springs are obligatory on a car of this size and weight where ride comfort is paramount. The brakes are vast; 374mm diameter discs at the front and 370mm in diameter at the back. 

The attention to detail in the Phantom is beyond reproach

The engine is a 6.75-litre development of the direct injection, all-alloy, 48-valve, 60deg V12 fitted to the BMW 760iL. Peak power is 453bhp and peak torque 531lb ft; it goes to the rear wheels through a new eight-speed automatic gearbox.

Save for its size and rear-hinged rear doors there’s little novel about the Phantom’s design and engineering but it’s a very modern luxury car.

Changes made in 2012 ensured that it stayed looking that way. The Series II sees the awkward round main headlights replaced by two rectangular LED units, two new alloy wheel options and a new rear bumper. Only the biggest Rolls enthusiasts will notice the minor changes to the brightwork.

What remains is Rolls-Royce’s astonishing attention to detail: the paint you see is the result of at least five coats of colour, each sanded by hand before the next is applied. If you specify coach stripes, they’re applied by hand using a squirrel and ox-hair brush. 

INTERIOR

Rolls-Royce Phantom interior

So you approach your Rolls-Royce Phantom for the first time. You tug the thick, solid metal doorhandle and climb in the front, noting the almost oily leather and the driving position which eyeballs off-roaders.

Switchgear is simple and kept to an absolute minimum. The whole vertical edifice is built of thick blocks of beautiful and entirely appropriate veneer and rolls of leather, beneath some of which hide the controls a modern luxury car demands but you might seldom use; the chromed rotary controller for the iDrive, the cordless phone and the seat controls.

The interior is palatial – you'll struggle to find anything better

Immediately the Phantom’s cabin feels decisively different to any other, an impression the car must muster to justify its price and which a Maybach, its only real rival until the company's demise, failed to.

Yes, the rear-hinged doors are unique and dramatic but whether they’re actually any easier to negotiate seems a matter of personal preference. 

Look around the Phantom’s interior – taking in the curved and immensely comfortable rear bench – and you’ll see that everything has a quality of construction that simply goes beyond the automotive.

The outdated sat-nav and communications systems have both been upgraded as part of the Series II revisions, and the dash has been made a touch flatter. The dash was one of the finest parts of the Phantom, so Rolls-Royce has been careful not to spoil it.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Rolls-Royce Phantom front quarter

The Rolls-Royce Phantom’s 6.75-litre V12 is one of the smoothest engines in production. More like a turbine than a four-stroke engine.

And the new eight-speed gearbox, with its virtually imperceptible shifts, makes even better use of the huge reserves of power.

The Phantom will give a Boxster a fright in a straight line

The figures allow you to gauge the effortlessness of the Phantom’s performance. It will hit 60mph in 5.8sec and 100mph in 14.7sec – a little quicker than a Porsche Boxster

Even under full acceleration its mechanical refinement is superb; there’s just enough of the V12’s baritone to reassure you that it’s fully extended but there's no vibration or harshness whatsoever. Nor is the Phantom particularly challenged at very high speed

On Millbrook’s high-speed circuit it ran easily to the soft limiter at 149mph. The ‘power reserve’ gauge – there’s no rev counter in a Rolls – was showing 11 per cent still available. The brakes hauled it down from 70mph to a standstill in a startling 49.1 metres.

That’s all very important. Rolls-Royce's American and European customers typically prefer to drive rather than be driven.

RIDE & HANDLING

Rolls-Royce Phantom cornering

The Phantom rides beautifully, but you always knew it would; it’s a quarter-million pound car whose overriding dynamic aim is to do just that. 

It moves over cratered roads in a near-perfect state of calm and composure. The Rolls-Royce Phantom’s magical ride is matched by impressive body control for such a big, soft car, although its softness leaves it with some roll-rock

Despite its size, the Phantom is a pleasure to drive

The steering is oily smooth, direct and with precisely judged control weights. It rolls, but not excessively, and keeps its vertical composure until you’re driving faster than is prudent.

We did pick up on some wind noise and a little tyre roar over 50mph, but that was because everything else was so quiet. We were being spoilt.

In recognition of the surprisingly high propensity of owners to sit up front, rather than lounge in the back, a Driver’s Pack is offered. It features additional bracing front and rear, a thicker diameter steering wheel and more feel through the brakes.

But there’s no escaping the Phantom’s girth. It is very fast, but at 2670kg, it is also very heavy. That issue can rear its head at speed, but with the Phantom measuring 1990mm wide and more than six metres long in Extended Wheelbase guise, the car’s exterior cameras are more necessity than nice-to-have gadget.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Rolls-Royce Phantom

With a list price approaching £300,000 – or almost £340,000 if you fancy the extended wheelbase version – the Rolls-Royce Phantom is a car few could afford or justify. In fact, if you’re a serious buyer, you’ve probably skipped this page completely.

Emissions may have dropped with the Series II model’s gearbox revisions, but it still registers almost 350g/km so you’ll pay full whack for road tax. Fuel consumption is rated at 19mpg, but in practice you’ll see figures in the mid to low teens.

The Phantom is priced in a league immune to financial pressures

Little of this will appear to buyers, who likely have a long history with the brand. The good news is buyers will want for little from the options list.

Leather, wood and electrically operated everything all comes as standard in the interests of offering occupants both supreme comfort and the all-important wow factor.

That said, it is still easy to push your Phantom’s price into the stratosphere. You might not need those hand-painted coach lines, gold-plated Spirit of Ecstasy or a humidor in the glovebox, but they’re all there for the taking.

And yes, the Phantom will depreciate, but it’s a rock-solid place to put your money.

VERDICT

4 star Rolls-Royce Phantom

So can the Rolls-Royce Phantom come close to justifying its price – even its existence – when the best conventional luxury saloons cost a third as much? 

Objectively, probably not. But perhaps it doesn’t really have to. It is priced apart from other cars, doesn’t really compete with other cars and buyers will expect an experience apart from other cars.

It offers refinement and a feeling of well being, something that's important to Rolls buyers

Its rival’s failure in this final, critical measure throws the Phantom’s success into focus; it’s an imposing, beautifully-made – if not beautiful – object, a real Rolls-Royce.

The Phantom also offers impressive performance, a cosseting ride and an impeccably comfortable cabin. Little else can touch it for that feel-good factor and little goes about its duties in the same prestigious and refined fashion.

Admittedly, those looking for the ultimate in technology or engagement may be better served looking elsewhere – at the new Mercedes S-Class or Aston Martin Rapide S, for example – but the Rolls-Royce has its own distinct qualities and it will deliver what the brand's devotees are looking for.

As an event, a piece of theatre, few other cars come close.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Rolls-Royce Phantom 2003-2016 First drives