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Under BMW ownership, the Rolls-Royce Phantom is now back on top as one of the most luxurious cars in the world.
Currently the last word in ultraluxury cars, the Rolls-Royce Phantom encompasses everything a luxury car should be. Unveiled in 2003, it was the first all-new model to debut since Rolls-Royce was bought by BMW in 1998. It manages to simultaneously be a very modern and technologically advanced car while still capturing the spirit of RR's previous Phantom models. The Phantom name dates back to 1925, when the model was introduced as a replacement for the Silver Ghost.
Subsequent generations were numbered (Phantom II, Phantom III, etc.) as part of their model name until the Phantom V was discontinued in 1991. BMW decided to drop the numerical naming system when they revived the nameplate in 2003. BMW dumped huge amounts of money into the storied marque when it became theirs, and most of this went to the development of the Phantom. RR's time under BMW ownership has been exceedingly profitable, with their most recent sales record being set just last year, at 3,538 units. The car is built party in Germany and partly in England.
RR's facilities in the UK are small, relatively speaking, and much of the more complicated manufacturing work is handled at bigger BMW facilities. But don't make the mistake of thinking that this means BMW simply applied the same formula which Mercedes-Benz used to make the Maybach. The Phantom doesn't share a platform, or anything else with which customers will actually come into contact, with any other BMW model. The cars are shipped to the UK facility, where things like the paint, wood and leather are worked on, almost entirely by hand. In short, the Germans handle the mechanics of the car, and the Brits handle the luxury aspects.
BMW had originally planned to use a V16 engine in the Phantom, a bespoke and all-conquering engine for the king of ultra-luxury cars. A few prototypes of the massive 9.0-liter unit were built, but a last minute decision replaced the V16 with a V12. A shame, as some people see it, but it can hardly be denied that four fewer cylinders haven't kept the Phantom from becoming a hit. The engine is not bespoke. It is derived from BMW's N73 engine, and displaces 6.75 liters and produces 453 hp. One V16 prototype was built in 2006.
Dubbed the 100EX, this prototype can be seen in action in the movie "Johnny English Reborn", thanks to the efforts of known gearhead Rowan Atkinson. A coupe version of the car now exists, as does a convertible version, although the sedan is still the strongest seller by far. The list of standard features is extensive, and their Bespoke program adds a theoretically infinite list of options as well. Customers have some 44,000 paint colors to choose from, and a similarly huge selection of leather colors. The attention to detail on the car is staggering. The rear suicide doors ("coach doors" in Rolls-speak) can be opened and closed with electric motors.
This eliminates any chance of resorting to an undignified reach for a far-away door handle. Contained within these massive doors is a pair of umbrellas (one per rear door), which are coated in Teflon to reduce the chances of stowing a still-wet umbrella. The Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament is even equipped with motion sensors and will retract into the car if it detects that someone is trying to steal it. On paper, it can be difficult to see the difference between the Phantom and its nearest competitor, the Maybach. They are similar in size, price, luxury appointments and even power plants. But what RR offers is that sense of something special.
The handcrafted interior, the bespoke platform, the separate facilities in which the cars are completed, and even the fact that management for the company remains in the UK and separate from that of its parent company. All of these help BMW to gloss over the car's less unique features in a way which Mercedes was never able to do with the Maybach. The results are obvious when you look at sales figures. The Phantom outsold the Maybach nearly two to one in its first year on the market, and the gulf between the two sales figures has increased every single year since then.
BMW first met their annual sales goal of 1,000 units for the Phantom in 2007, and have stayed above this number ever since, recession notwithstanding. When Bentley decided to build a new large sedan, the Mulsanne, they knew better than to try to take on the Phantom, and anyone who has spent any time in both cars can tell you that they are indeed quite different. The Phantom remains the king of its segment even nine years later, and it is likely to stay that way until its planned retirement in 2016. Hail to the king.