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Rolls-Royce fights the habit of 120 years and launches its first electric car

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It’s a widely held misconception that electric cars are a modern phenomenon, and the new Rolls-Royce Spectre happens to be an excellent subject with which to dispel this myth. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, just as fate was preparing the meeting of well-to-do autophile and car dealer Charles Rolls and mercurial engineer Henry Royce, EVs were very much in vogue. In 1899, the fastest car in the world was electric, central London was abuzz with electric carriages and in 1900 one-third of all new cars registered in the US were electric. 

One of Royce’s first briefs as car designer and co-proprietor of the newly formed Rolls-Royce Cars was to produce an urban combustion-engined vehicle that would be comparably as clean, quiet, smooth and easy to use as an electric one, without the charging and range problems that limited EVs to ‘town carriage’ use. The short-lived 1905 Rolls-Royce V8 Landaulet and ‘Legalimit’ (named for the length of its wheelbase) models resulted.

It was a grounding in electrical engineering that gave Royce the perspective he needed, over the following decades, to make Rolls-Royces smoother, more reliable and more pleasant to drive – superior as luxury cars, in short – than their rivals. (The legendary 40/50 Silver Ghost had the world’s first ‘perfect balance’ straight-six engine.)

Now, having perfected the alternative to EVs over more than a century – and with the world more ready for EVs than it was in 1904 – comes Rolls-Royce’s very first electric car. The industry’s most aristocratic electric car opponent has turned EV gamekeeper – and the oldest independent road test in existence is about to discover what kind of ultimate electric luxury car has been created.

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The range at a glance

Models Power From
Ghost 563bhp £278,055
Cullinan 563bhp £312,855
Spectre 577bhp £332,055
Phantom 563bhp £417,255

There isn’t such a thing as a Spectre derivative range. Rolls-Royce would tell you that it declines to deal with its ‘uniquely commissioned’ models in such prosaic terms anyway.

Even so, it’s interesting to see where the car slots in to Rolls’ wider line-up. Filling the space left by the Phantom coupé, it is priced above both the Ghost saloon and Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV (although both of those also come in higher-output Black Badge form, and both the Ghost and Phantom are offered as EWB stretches), with power to trump its range-mates.


rolls royce sprectre review 2023 02 panning

Rolls-Royce’s modern diversion into EVs dates back to the 2011 Geneva show, where the firm exhibited the 102 EX: a seventh-gen Phantom limo with battery power, created to gauge the reaction of its customer base to a zero-emission model.

Work began on the mechanical basis for its current range of models – the innovative aluminium spaceframe Architecture of Luxury – in 2014, and with electric power as well as combustion engines in mind. So for the Spectre, Rolls-Royce simply had to tap into – and develop – the potential that had been engineered in.

The ‘jewel-like’ detail design in the headlights and tail-lights are very much in fashion, and it’s easy to get carried away with this sort of thing, but the monogrammed, brushed-metal look to the Spectre’s tail-lights is very attractive indeed

Even so, the Spectre’s chassis is quite different from that which underpins a Rolls-Royce Phantom, Ghost or Cullinan. In addition to the double-skinned bulkheads those models have, the Spectre gets a double-layer floor that aids refinement and boosts overall static rigidity by 30%, and within which the 120kWh nickel-manganese-cobalt drive battery is carried.

Rolls-Royce makes 102kWh of that capacity usable: it’s a conservative proportion but chosen with a view to battery longevity over the extraordinarily long lifespans that Rolls-Royce cars so often have. 

The Spectre uses the same fifth-generation prismatic battery cells found more widely in BMW’s electric models, for similar reasons of established quality and longevity. Its electrical architecture is 400V rather than the 800V deployed by Porsche, Audi, Hyundai and Kia, and that does limit DC rapid-charging speed somewhat. Rolls decided the extra complexity and weight of the higher-voltage system wasn’t justified for its customers.

The Spectre has a primary hybrid synchronous drive motor – worth up to 483bhp on its own – on its rear axle, and a smaller one for the front wheels rated at 255bhp. (The same pair appear on BMW’s range-topping i7 M70.) Peak system output is ‘only’ 577bhp, with 660lb ft – figures that, echoing what we have observed elsewhere, speak of a certain conservatism and an eye for battery longevity on Rolls-Royce’s part. (The BMW i7, with the same motors, battery tech and usable capacity, makes more of both.)

Rolls customers aren’t likely to be looking for the most powerful car their money can buy, of course, and the Spectre’s existing statistics are enough to make it the most powerful series-production Rolls-Royce model in the showroom (not counting special Black Badge models, that is).

At each corner, the car uses an adapted version of the Ghost’s planar suspension, with adaptive air springs, adaptive dampers, active anti-roll bars and four-wheel steering all fitted as standard. Alloy wheels are a towering 22in in diameter as standard, optionally 23in as fitted here, and wearing Rolls-Royce’s now-customary noise-cancelling run-flat tyres.

Our test car weighed 2935kg on the scales: 45kg heavier than claimed (easy to explain with fitted options) – and clearly very heavy – yet only 155kg more than the eighth-generation Phantom we tested in 2018.


rolls royce sprectre review 2023 12 interior

The road test has been measuring what we call the ‘door span’ – the width that is occupied when the front doors are fully opened – of its subjects for several years now. In itself, it may be quite a niche dimension to record, but it’s a useful corollary of not only outright vehicle width but also ease of access within tighter confines.

Four metres is a big door span: a Rolls-Royce Ghost has a 4040mm door span, and when we measured the current Bentley Continental GTC Convertible’s door span at the beginning of this year (4180mm), we thought we might not record a larger one for some time.

‘Effortless doors’ sound like a great idea, but in practice I struggled with them: when you want to use your own muscle to open or close a door, it can seem to fight you. A bit of extra intelligence in the control software wouldn’t go amiss.

The Spectre, however, turns out to be something of an automotive albatross, with a remarkable 4600mm door span. The model’s rear-hinged ‘coach’ doors – by its maker’s own claim, the largest anywhere in current global production – would make very effective air brakes.

They’re constructed entirely of aluminium but are also ‘effortless’ doors (ie they are power assisted), so you don’t open them in a conventional way. Instead, you tug discreetly on the huge polished steel door handle and then stand back as the car opens them for you. The driver’s door closes itself, too, once you’re seated and you press on the brake pedal.

Inside, the Spectre seats you a little higher and less recumbently than in some GT coupés, for the sake of convenience. You feel suitably ensconced in the beautifully soft chairs up front; in the two-seater second row, while occupant space isn’t limousine-like, there is still ample space for all but the tallest adult passengers.

The layout of the controls is appropriately conventional. The dashboard and centre console are common with those of the Ghost saloon rather than the larger Phantom. As such, there’s no disappearing infotainment screen here, but you do get traditional-looking digital instrument dials and lots of physical switchgear, into which Rolls-Royce has poured its usual attention to tactile and material detail.

There is very little here that doesn’t feel expensively wrought, from the headlight controls to the old-fashioned-looking ‘blower slider’ temperature controls.

This may be a new-age Rolls-Royce in terms of how it’s powered, but from within it’s reassuringly familiar and as rich and lavish as anything the firm makes. Rolls’ preference for digital technology integrated with restraint will be a greater selling point for some as time goes on, and its gentle touch with the car’s ambient lighting features remains singularly special.

Multimedia system

The touchscreen system in the Spectre is different from the one in the Phantom. It’s not hidden behind a separate glass screen, and it doesn’t retract from view when not in use.

It’s clearly a reskinned version of one of BMW’s later Operating System 8.0 set-ups – but it’s superior to BMW’s own in that it doesn’t integrate the ventilation controls, and it retains both an iDrive-style rotary input device and some user-programmable physical shortcut buttons that are an enormous aid to accessibility.

Rolls-Royce has integrated its own branded voice control on the system. Press the voice control button on the steering wheel and a semi-translucent image of the Spirit of Ecstasy appears on the screen, and the system then responds to natural speech recognition. You can ask it to turn up the cabin temperature,
but it won’t open and close the passenger doors.

Rolls-Royce also offers app-based remote control of the Spectre’s battery charging and preconditioning, among other things, via software called Whispers.


rolls royce sprectre review 2023 02 panning

Defining how quickly, in outright terms, the Spectre might accelerate must have been a question of preference and priority rather than one of sheer possibility. As we already know, the car could have been more powerful, and when you urge it into motion from rest using all of its reserves, you feel as much.

There’s no violence at all to the way the Spectre gets moving, even at full power: little squat, no loss of traction and no sense of a great ‘on’ switch being flicked to deliver 660lb ft. Instead, just a gathering sense of quiet urgency flooding onto the road. It feels a cut above the firm’s habitual V12 standard but no less coiffured or contained.

You get an umbrella hidden in both front wings, colour-matched to your interior trim, for an extra £1350. And yes, they are Rolls-Royce-branded.

No Rolls-Royce is slow these days, but while a Phantom still needs more than 5.0sec from rest to hit 60mph, and a Ghost a little less than that, the Spectre will do it in a whisker over 4.0sec. Like other EVs, it accelerates strongly from low speeds and, with no gears to shift, starts to become less muscular as the needle rises.

But thanks to the BMW Group’s preference for hybrid synchronous motors, it tails off less than some. That means really commanding motorway performance is retained (60-100mph takes 5.0sec to the Ghost’s 5.6sec, and the Mercedes-AMG EQS 53 does the same in 4.8sec).

Smooth drivability is, of course, far more important. The Spectre does without drive modes and variable trailing-throttle battery regeneration settings. It does have a column-shift transmission selector with a B mode, like any other Rolls-Royce, and a beautifully cushioned throttle response that neither feigns latency nor over-indulges in zapping thrust. It’s wonderfully, flatteringly controllable under power.

And while it’s only as moderately well endowed under braking as modern Rolls-Royces tend to be (the pedal is progressive and very easy to modulate, but you really have to get deep into it to make the car haul up with true urgency), the stopping distances we recorded in extremis show there is no problem here at all with outright braking power.


rolls royce sprectre review 2023 32 cornering rear

We have already touched on the sheer width of this car. With the doors closed, it’s less imposing – but this is a big GT that fills its lane and demands greater precision the harder you want to whisk it along.

The striking thing is you can adopt a fast cross-country stride if you choose to – more easily than you could, quite clearly, in a bigger Phantom or Cullinan, but the dynamic comparisons with the Ghost are probably much closer.

Drive selection is simple and genteel: you do it with a column shifter. No regen paddles, Sport programmes or ‘my modes’, just a B mode for a bit more ‘engine braking’.

The Spectre handles without any hyperactivity or gesturing towards contrived agility. But while it rolls a fair bit as it corners and begins to communicate its mass as its wafting ride turns into some heave and float over a testing road, it does corner with poise, assurance and precision.

Whether by the actions of the four-wheel steering or active anti-roll control systems, the car will follow even a tighter line at pace with impressive accuracy. It stays true to a path and a particular cornering posture in a way you wouldn’t expect of a three-tonne luxury idol being driven so hard.

Its lightish steering becomes a little weightier at higher speeds and is marginally more direct (at 2.4 turns lock to lock) than Rolls’ typical standard. It has electronic traction and stability controls that work imperceptibly even in quicker driving, although when on, they do prevent the car from wrenching its way into power-on understeer, as it will ultimately do in steady-state cornering at the limit of grip with everything turned off.

Overall, the way the Spectre takes to flowing faster bends and gently rolling topography is very impressive indeed.

Comfort & Isolation

We will start here with what is truly outstanding about the Spectre, although it is not, by our measurements, truly exceptional. 

The cabin isolation is world-class. That double-skinned chassis floor and 700kg of battery mass held within it do a great deal between them to shut out and dampen road noise from axles. Wind noise is supremely well filtered too.

Our test car generated only 55dBA of cabin noise at a 50mph cruise. On the same surface and in comparable conditions, the Phantom VIII tested in 2018 generated 56dBA, and the Mercedes-AMG EQS 53 some 59dBA (still quiet, even for a modern EV).

Perhaps a little awkwardly for Rolls-Royce, however, the Ghost saloon tested in 2021 matched that 55dBA at 50mph. Rolling on 21in wheels to our test car’s 23s, it also beat the Spectre’s showing at 70mph (58dBA versus 61dBA). So when Goodwood suggests this car represents a new high-water mark for refinement, perhaps it should qualify its enthusiasm just a little. 

It’s the ‘waft’ of the Spectre’s primary ride that Rolls-Royce has taken the most pains to construct, since it knows that few brands have such a recognisably distinguishing dynamic selling point. It is not effort wasted. The car seems to hover over motorway surfaces and faster A-roads with an almost uncanny detachment and is a joy to experience at cruising speed.

Our test car didn’t always repeat the trick at lower speeds or over craggier surfaces, though, when its 23in wheels seemed heavy. They would noticeably – if only rarely – cause the struts to clunk into the extremes of their travel.


rolls royce sprectre review 2023 01 tracking front

We are told there is no such thing as an average Rolls-Royce buyer. But the manufacturer notes that the average Spectre owner will have seven cars to choose from and cover only about 3500 miles in their EV in a year.

That would be fine with the 329-mile claimed range, but would it be served by the 245-mile average we recorded? In most cases, probably. But is that enough to make the kind of uncompromising statement Rolls might have hoped for? In the car’s defence, only Tesla’s Model S Plaid has so far averaged more than 300 miles in our full test. But plenty get closer than this.

What a tonic to retain BMW’s old-style row of numbered shortcut keys under the multimedia display. One through eight, you can nominate your own functions for them – from ‘lane keeping off’ to ‘retract Spirit of Ecstasy’. Bliss.

By Rolls-Royce standards, the Spectre’s £332k entry price isn’t particularly high, and its 400V DC charging potential will most likely meet most owners’ needs.


rolls royce sprectre review 2023 35 static front

The Spectre, its maker says, ushers in a new era for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. It’s a weighty billing, but there’s no doubting the car’s sequential significance. There will never be another ‘first electric Rolls-Royce’.

What this car brings to the Rolls-Royce driving and ownership experience shouldn’t be underestimated: zero-emission modernity, kudos and desirability; world-class luxury, cruising comfort and refinement; and an understated but ever-apparent driver appeal. Yet it’s all packaged with the electric range to make it a usable day-to-day car. And yet it’s always so special as to rise so far above any sense of the ‘everyday’.

But does the application of an electric powertrain here make this the perfect Rolls-Royce? Has Goodwood’s hallowed rulebook on comfort and refinement been torn to pieces? Does the Spectre lay down an emphatic new marker? Not quite.

The Spectre doesn’t move EV powertrain technology on like Henry Royce’s engines did a little over a century ago. Is that reasonable criticism of a car so impressive in many areas and so bold? It’s undoubtedly true, but perhaps only justified because it is a Rolls-Royce.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Rolls-Royce Spectre First drives