Ignore the adjectives, just listen to the silence | by Andrew Frankel
Sensuous I understood, even sensual in its most literal application. My eyebrows only started to head north when sexy entered the vocabulary. Where, I wondered, would it go from here? How far would Rolls-Royce top brass go to impress upon an audience of hacks that its new Dawn was also a new dawn for the company? Raunchy, that’s where.
I could have spilled my Hendricks. Briefly I thought of my home town of Monmouth, and an image of the statue of Charles Rolls in its Agincourt Square dropping the primitive aircraft held in his hands to stuff his fingers in his ears. Raunchy? A vision of Sir Henry on the rev-limiter six feet under swam before my eyes.
Welcome to the brave new world of Rolls-Royce, where of late the average age of ownership has been reduced by an entire decade to just 45 and, its executives insist, not just because of the number sold to Chinese and Russian teenagers. With cars like the Wraith coupé and this Dawn upon which it is based, Rolls-Royce is in very real danger of being perceived as ‘cool’. From the brand whose only product 15 years ago was the superannuated Silver Seraph, that is some turnaround in fortune.
Actually, the practice is somewhat different to the positioning and I guess there’s no great surprise in that. True, Rolls will paint your Dawn in colours that would have induced heart failure at Freestone & Webb and elsewhere back in the great coachbuilding days (there’s an interior hue called Mandarin that should definitely be offered with an optional defibrillator), but despite the sexually charged pronouncements and provocative palette, the Dawn remains a pure and proper Rolls-Royce from stem to its elegant stern.
This was not always a given. Making a Porsche 911 Targa structurally sound isn’t a very difficult task because the wheelbase is short enough to limit flex and you’re not actually making that big a hole in the structure. Removing the entire roof system of a car that has more than three metres between its wheels is a rather different proposition.
What most manufacturers would be tempted to do, when faced with such a challenge, would be to accept that optimal torsional rigidity could not be achieved, at least without adding an unacceptable number of kilogrammes to the kerb weight. Not Rolls-Royce. It added the weight, figuring that owners are unlikely to be concerned by a hit on fuel consumption, and when your embarkation point is 2.4 tonnes, what’s a few kilos between plutocrats? Or even a couple of hundred?
The result is the 2.6 tonne Dawn, a convertible like no other and so clearly the quietest, most comfortable open car on sale that it seems barely worth saying. Indeed and astonishingly, so good is the six-layer hood at soaking up sound that, after a couple of glasses in the evening, its engineers were admitting that, roof up, it’s actually quieter at all normal speeds than the Wraith. If there has been another case of a convertible making less noise than the coupé upon which it is based, I’ve not heard of it.
By all accounts and by the usual glacial Rolls-Royce development process, the Dawn (note – like the Ghost and Wraith there is no ‘Silver’ qualifier) was done if not quite in a hurry then at least at a decent clip. The engine is the 563bhp version of its 6.6-litre twin-turbo V12 as found in the Ghost, not the gutsier 623bhp tune found on the Wraith and, no, Rolls will not do a Wraith-engined Dawn for even its best client, and I have that on the authority of none other than the Rolls CEO Torsten Muller-Otvos.
Otherwise, it’s all almost Wraith under the skin. Surprisingly even its suspension settings were left unchanged: Rolls naturally wanted a more pliant ride than that provided by the more sporting Wraith but discovered that the additional 200kg acting on the standard air springs provided precisely the desired effect. Other than what is visible and the massive under-body bracing that’s been added, the only significant variances are slightly bigger rear brakes to cope with the additional mass, and weirdly, thicker glass in the tiny front quarter lights.
As for the hood – which alone weighs a mighty 90kg – its most immediately noticeable feature is not the refinement it provides, the fact it will open or close at up to 30mph or the use of six bows to provide an almost entirely seamless roof line: it’s that it’s operation is all but silent. By swaddling its two electric motors in insulating material and mounting them in such a way they
don’t create vibrations through the body, they make the most distant whirr if the car is at a standstill and you’re listening for it, but once you’re on the move with a little ambient noise, its operation is effectively inaudible.
Often what trips up cars that nobody actually needs to buy is the disparity between how you want to drive them and how they want to be driven. For example, you might very understandably feel the urge to find a track and really hoof your BMW M4, but you might also find the M4 is less keen to reciprocate with flawless on-limit behaviour as a result. But pedalling the Dawn hard is the last thing in the world either of you wants to do. I did rather cruelly lob it into one corner just to see what happened next, an action it met with squeals of dismay and no small amount of understeer. It just wants to waft and, if you have any sense, you’ll let it.
For like the Land-Rover Defender, Smart ForTwo, Ariel Atom and McLaren 675LT, this is a car with only one job on the worksheet. And by simply not trying to do anything else, it reaches a standard of excellence beyond the imagining of those cursed with the requirement to multi-task.
I could spend the rest of this test telling you how well it rides, about the railway lines it crossed without my passenger even being aware of their existence, about how the ability to control its body movements yet also absorb the merest imperfection in the road reaches a new level for an open car. Indeed what is so clever about this car is that because it actively discourages you from driving fast by being so damn pleasant to drive slowly, even the traffic that lies between you and the open road is no longer problematic. And if this car can make me content to go with the flow because there’s so much pleasure to be had just feeling the way it addresses the road, then it’s not likely to fall short with many others.
I have some issues with it, easily the biggest being that wind management for those in the back is adequate but no more. But I’d also like longer seat squabs in the front, a less obviously previous-generation BMW nav screen and a greater reaction from the transmission on those occasions you do choose to squirt past a truck. And there is of course the price, about which Rolls-Royce is being a touch opaque, but I believe to be about £255,000 for a basic car with a few essential options. It’s a lot, especially when you consider the average customer will bump that up by £50,000 to £60,000 with additional goodies.
Nevertheless, while I admired the Wraith more than I liked it, because I remain uncomfortable with the idea of a sporting Rolls, to me the Dawn is the very embodiment of everything an open Rolls-Royce should be. Which to me is not really sensual and certainly not sexy, let alone raunchy. It just needs to be beautiful and very, very good at its job. Which it is.
Engine – 6.6 litres, 12 cylinders, twin turbo
Power – [email protected]
Torque – 575lb [email protected]
Transmission – eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Weight – 2600kg
Power to Weight – 216bhp per tonne
0-62mph – 4.9sec
Top speed – 155mph
Economy – 19.9mpg
CO2 – 330g/km