I thought I'd misheard. An electric Rolls-Royce? Surely you jest. This is probably the least likely marquee to plug in, not least because these are big, heavy luxury cars — the antithesis of the ultra-light carbon-fiber-heavy "hypercars" it makes the most sense to electrify.
But it's true, the venerable firm
produced by the meeting of Mr. Rolls (the engineer) and Mr. Royce (the businessman) in 1906 has indeed plugged in for the first time in its more than 100-year history, with the Phantom 102EX, also known as the Experimental Electric. And, believe it or not, it's fairly credible, if not exactly a commuter car for the middle class. Rolls has no intention of producing this or any other EV anytime soon, but David Archibald, president of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars North America, told me, "We expect a debate with our owner body, and this car starts that." Indeed it will.
Traditionalists ("the world's most discerning customers," the company says) shouldn't worry, because RR didn't make all that many compromises in building the car. It looks and drives like a Rolls-Royce
. Indeed, since these cars are legendarily quiet, the silent advantage of electric drive isn't readily apparent. Owners aren't supposed to worry about what's under the hood, as long as the fold-down walnut picnic tables with the Grey Poupon dispenser is in place.
Actually, there's a change. The acres of burled wood veneers you might expect in this bespoke luxury vehicle have been replaced with "aluminum foil weave" that looks like the engine-turned dash in a supercar. It's kind of sporty, and it sets off the 100 percent Corinova vegetable-dyed leather (cured in wooden barrels!). Even the floor is leather, replacing the traditional deep-pile carpet (at right).
I like the language they use in RR press releases. The copywriters must be well paid. How's this for size: "Atlantic chrome-finished dashboard dials echo the exterior colour, providing a sense of interior-exterior balance and their analogue displays maintain the timeless architecture that every Phantom interior commands."
I met up with the car's bubbly British product manager, Emily Dungey (that's her below), and my comrade in arms Starre Vartan
, in Manhattan at the suitably upscale Ink48
, where the croissants were fresh and the USB stick in its own personalized box. Starre is going to offer her own take on the car next week, but she left me with these impressions:
Having never driven a Rolls before, I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew it would be a big, heavy vehicle, and that, paired with an electric engine had me thinking it would be a bit slow and pokey. But it wasn't at all — even negotiating backed-up NYC traffic, I had a pretty easy time of it, squeezing from lane to lane much as I would in my own (much smaller and older!) Saab hatchback. I didn't feel like I had to change up my driving much at all. Loved the veggie-tanned leather interior and shiny silver everywhere.
The 102EX is a one-off, as Dungey put it, and that means it's unique in the world. She said it has been to 28 cities, including Beijing, since being unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show last March. Out came the 6.75-liter V-12 "petrol" engine and six-speed gearbox, and into that cavernous space went a 71-kilowatt-hour battery pack using Korean Kokam cells packaged by the Scottish Axeon company. Two electric motors, 145-kilowatts each, are mounted on a rear subframe, and the net result is 389 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque. Zero to 60 takes eight seconds, compared to 5.7 seconds in the standard Phantom this car closely resembles. The top speed is governed at 100 mph, not that I had a chance to test that premise on the West Side Highway.
Unlike Starre, I have driven Rolls-Royces and Bentleys before, and what surprised me was how little this one deviated from the standard playbook. Ultra-quiet operation? Check. A living room on wheels? Check, and the picnic tables doubled as multi-media screens. Magisterial handling? Check. It's a bit like driving the Queen Mary, but the big battery pack up front doesn't change much — the car only gained about 440 pounds in the translation to electric drive.
Like Starre, I didn't find the car hard to drive, even in congested midtown Manhattan. You're conscious of the hood stretching out into infinity, so you slot it carefully, but the steering isn't vague and it goes where it's pointed. The brakes are very good. Not everybody loved this car
, but it impressed me — and not the least for its 125-mile range. That's more than the Nissan Leaf, and pretty good considering the car weighs 6,000 pounds.
An interesting aspect of this new entry to the EV stable is inductive charging. This plug-in car doesn't actually have to plug in, since it can get charged up wirelessly from a pad embedded in a parking lot, with 90 percent efficiency. No messy cables!
Rolls-Royce is owned by BMW, which explains the Mini camera car that followed us around. BMW is no stranger to electrification, having introduced the battery-powered Mini E, and is now fielding the ActiveE (based on the Series-1 Coupe). Soon to roll out are the i3 Megacity car and the ultra-fast i8 plug-in hybrid. Some of that tech may have migrated to the 102EX, but what's more likely is that BMW's interest in EVs made itself known in RR's hushed boardroom. Thus, I get to drive a very unlikely but oddly satisfying car, an all-electric Rolls-Royce.