First Drive: The Electric Rolls-Royce Spectre Is a Rolls in Its Purest Form

The new EV from the 118-year-old brand, so well-known for its V12 combustion engines, actually enriches what it means to be a Rolls-Royce.
Rolls-Royce Spectre EV has traits of the Wraith with a slim front grille flanked by a split headlight units.
Rolls-Royce Spectre EV has traits of the Wraith with a slim front grille flanked by a split headlight units.

Not many cars can convince my editor to buy me a rather expensive plane ticket and send me 10,000 miles around the world to drive it for one day.

But when Rolls-Royce said I could be the first driver outside the company to test its first-ever electric vehicle, I started looking for my passport.

That’s how I ended up in Cape Town behind the wheel of the 2023 Rolls-Royce Spectre. After rolling around South African wine country, I found the estimated$500,000 coupe to be smoother, more silent and more powerful–not to mention better looking–than any of its V-12 predecessors. The 118-year-old brand has tied its mythology to its famously huge combustion engines, but this first step into electrification is bold and surefooted.The firstborn in a planned line of electric vehicles, this two-door titan saturates its passengersin indulgence.It signals a smooth transition ahead

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Spectre is by far the most expensive-to-develop,and most agonized-over, vehicle Rolls-Royce has ever produced, according to the brand. (A spokesperson declined to say how much money the company spent making it, but it has undergone five phases of testing and 1.5 million trial milesin Sweden, Africa and the French Riviera.) I had to hustle all the way from Los Angeles to South Africa for a first crack at driving it, because engineers had it down there for final hot-weather testing. The car I drove is a preproduction prototype.

When I first saw the car parked on grey cobblestones in an immaculately manicured vineyard near Cape Town, its grand stance–nearly 18 feet long and more than six feet wide–communicateda significantsense of occasion. This is the ultimate luxury vehicle, where no expense is spared forcreature comforts and ease of driving. It’s what you get when money is no object, but you still have a good British sense of restraint and refinement. Its long fastback shape most approximates the rare Phantom Coupe made from 2008 to 2016 rather than the smallerWraith, although this is a vehicle designed from scratch, not one derived from anything else. (Rolls-Royce co-developed the battery and motors with parent company BMW AG, then further refined them over months of testingto comply withRolls-Royce standards.)

I first explored it in the streets aroundFranschhoek, about 50 miles outside of Cape Town. Chartreuse paint flecked with metallic flakes glittered in the African sun, and the yawning front nose and23-inch wheels looked regal enough for King Charles. The two doors are a whopping 1.5 meters (5 feet) long, so big that an electric motor closes them when you press the brake,because you can’t reach the handle. An elongated and illuminated grille looks hungry enough to swallow an elephant. Speaking of trunks, there isn’t one in the front, as there is in other EVs. The consensus at Rolls-Royce seems to be that it wouldn’t have been dignified.

But it was the cumulative details cocooned insidethat made Spectre feel both outstanding—when compared with the interiors of any other EV on the market today—and familiar, since it offers the same level of handiwork as every other new Rolls-Royce. To wit:Spectre’spolishedwood and silver inlays blow away the interiors of the likes of Tesla or Rivian but will feel unremarkable to fans of the brand. Just don’t expect huge new entertainment monitors and virtual displays spanning the interior; you buy a Rolls-Royce because it’s a sanctuary, not a moving screen.

“There is no need for some outstanding unseen super funky digital features" in Spectre, Torsten Müller-Ötvös, chief executive officer of Rolls-Royce, told me in Cape Town. “We, by intention, didn’t encapsulate a monstrous screen. Youhave other cars for that in your garage."

Instead, my favorite interior touchis very old world indeed: the steel air vents got so cold when I ran the air conditioning during my drive that condensation formed on them like the droplets on a bottle of champagne. That’s a deliberate effect, by the way. It has lived in Rolls-Royces for decades, long before even the 1975 Silver Shadow I own, which does the same thing. Rolls-Royce owners love the continuity.

You’ll recognize plenty ofother touches: the umbrellas in those massive doors, lambswool carpeting so thick it’ll hide your toes, and thousands of pins of LED light covering the ceiling for the signature starry night headliner. (Now they appear on the doors of the car as well—as you’re sipping electricity, you’re wrapped in the stars.)

It also had the single most important thing Rolls-Royce owners expect: A powerful, smooth and hushed ride, made even more sobecause it’s electric. After navigating it up vine-laden hills and across red-dirt countryside, my take is that Spectre is actually more Rolls-Royce than any previous Rolls-Royce. Its electric powertrain has only enhanced what company co-founder Charles Rolls set out to create. Its motor, with577 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque, surged seamlessly as I pressed the accelerator.At 6,558pounds the car is indeed heavy, but it remained firmly planted around corners and behaved with balanced control when I asked it to sidestep slow-moving trucks and work rigs—and I passed plenty of those as I zoomed up the hills around Franschhoek. Zero to 60 mph is 4.4 seconds; top speed is 155 mph. Asking it to accelerate felt like asking some sort of heavy gilded coach to levitate and fly; but then, it almost feels like it does. The only danger here is that of unwittingly speeding, since those three-digit speeds sneak up on you in a car this quick and quiet.

I credit the active anti-roll bar system, dampers and air suspension for creating the deception that Rolls-Royce calls its “magic carpet ride." The trick,of course, is that making such a huge machine feel so effortless requires immense effort on the part of engineers and designers. Crawling through the narrow streets of Franschhoek, holding my breath as I squeezed past towering commercial trucks and agricultural machines using side roads, I never questioned where exactly the car ended, never sweated navigating the tight confines of sunbaked alleys. I did wonder,Is Rolls-Royce crazy to have me piloting this Very Important Thing through farmland?It definitely felt out of place. But the feedback through the steering wheel and brakes, the four-wheel steering, and visibility through its pillarless cabin told me precisely where we were in relation to the road.

That said, I did lose my sense of place once, when I pulled out of the vineyard and took a hard right, down a hill, to leave the entrance gate. The hood of the vehicle is so long that turning down steep inclines leaves you feeling like you’re looking out into thin air at the top of the roller coaster; you can’t see over the hood. My best advice: Use the parking cameras liberally and proceed with caution.

I didn’t drive Spectre far enough to use much more than a small chunk of percentage points ofits battery life–total range is 260 miles, according to EPA estimates. Spectre will be able to charge from 10% to80% full in 34 minutes on a fast-charger, according to preliminary data from the brand.That’s slightly less range than what is offered by the excellent EVentries from Mercedes-Benz,but most Rolls-Royce owners don’t drive their vehicles more than 5,000 miles a year, which equates to roughly 400 miles a month and just over 20 mileson anygiven working day, says Müller-Ötvös. Plus, most will have someone else to worry about things like keeping the car charged.

According to Rolls-Royce’s research, the majority of prospective Spectre buyers already own an EVor three anyway. Theyhave the necessary at-home charging equipment and, in some locations, generators needed to sustain electric power. There’re plenty of posh peers from which to choose, too: Besides electric offerings from Porsche, Audi, Mercedes and BMW, smaller makers such as RimacandPininfarinaare taking orders on some alluring EV hypercars. (Ultra-luxurycompetitors Bentley, Aston Martin, Ferrari and Lamborghini, however, have yet to offer a fullEV.)

If I sound effusive, it’s because when you operate at this level of expense, timeand labor, the results earn respect.That’s what I want to underscore.Many consumers will accept misaligned body panels, finicky software and plasticky components on a new electric vehicle if it makes them feel like they’re doing something to save the planet. (Rivian, Lucid, Tesla, I’m looking at you.) But the kind of folks who spend half a million dollars on anything tend to expect perfection regardless of what is underneath the hood.This newly raised bar will filterits way down to more reasonably priced offerings, I hope. The battery technology we have these days is increasingly thrilling; the comforts and craftsmanship should match.

“We have the most demanding customers ever," Müller-Ötvös told me.“You can’t say ‘It’ll be a better version later; we are going to give an update.’ We must deliver."

The irony of driving an electric vehicle around a cityunable to provide enough electricity for its inhabitants for even one day hung heavy during my drive. (The city is enduring a longstanding and sweepingenergy crisis, with multiple scheduled blackouts every day affecting all its residents, in order to manage the lack of power.)Cape Town is not the test case for an EV future; it highlights the distance we have yet to go.

In the meantime, I predict the excellent Spectre will do well for Rolls-Royce. If you pay a $20,000 deposit now, Müller-Ötvös said,you can expect the car by 2024. Special-order clients can godirectly to the factory in Goodwood, England, to pick it up—there are more than 44,000 exterior paint combinations alone to sort through. Start looking for your passport.

First Published Date: 08 Feb 2023, 10:06 AM IST
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