Rising above 2,400 metres and packing more hairpins than a coiffeur’s salon, the Furka Pass is the fourth-highest road in Switzerland. Some 80km south of the central Swiss city of Lucerne, it snakes over the mountains between Gletsch and Andermatt, passing close to the Rhône Glacier in a challenging roller-coaster that’s made all the more scary by the sheer drops that menace at each bend and end far below on a rocky valley floor.
Fans of 007 may remember Tilly Masterson’s pursuit of Bond on this very same stretch of road in the movie Goldfinger, she in a Ford Mustang and he driving an Aston DB5. More than 50 years on, however, I’m tackling the Furka in something infinitely more grand and – on the face of it, at least – far less suited to its white-knuckle string of bends. Because I’m at the wheel of the latest and all-new incarnation of the Rolls-Royce Phantom, a model that – though widely acknowledged as the world’s best motor car since the name’s introduction, eight generations ago, in 1925 – would not normally be counted among the most nimble automobiles on the planet.
To compound matters further, the version I’m driving is not the “standard” Phantom, which extends more than 5.75 metres from end to end and weighs 2.56 tonnes even when it’s empty. No, mine is the Full Monty of Phantoms, an Extended Wheelbase (EWB) limousine that’s only fractionally shy of 6 metres long, carries even more kilos than its slightly shorter sibling and thus corresponds to nobody’s notion of a motor car that’s even slightly agile.
At this stage in the proceedings, we’ve covered about two-thirds of a 400km drive through this preposterously wealthy country, on a route that’s taken us around lakes, up and down mountains, through cities, villages and countryside so neat it could have been maintained with lawnmowers – and on every kind of road, from four-lane highways to narrow byways. Normally, I venture no nearer the rear seats of a test car than, well, those in the front, but on this journey (for this is, afterall, a Rolls-Royce I’m riding in) I’ve already enjoyed two lengthy stints in the back, luxuriating in its handcrafted splendour like a true and entitled plutocrat.
Relaxed semi-reclined with head resting on a soft cushion, legs stretched out and feet perched on a rest that’s risen at the touch of a button from the floor; insulated almost totally from extraneous noise by two-layer glazing, and thick layers of soundproofing within the car’s frame, roof, doors and, indeed, every other spot into which it can conceivably be inserted (and that includes the tyres); and wafted by the active Magic Carpet Ride system that controls air suspension and chassis, this has been the most extraordinarily quiet and comfortable journey I’ve ever experienced in a motor car. No living room I’ve ever sat in was as silent as this; in fact, had I found a pin about my person and then dropped it on to the deep carpet, I swear I’d have heard the impact.
But then this new Phantom VIII had to be more than merely extravagant if it were to compete with Maybachs and Mulsannes and even Royce’s own, though somewhat lesser, Ghost. To ensure it remains the Best Car in the World long into the third decade of the 21st century, a clean sheet was essential, not least because the outgoing Phantom had reached 14 years old, an age that in automotive terms can fairly be described as ancient.
The innovations begin with an entirely new “Architecture of Luxury”, an all-aluminium spaceframe that’s stronger, lighter and, crucially, massively stiffer than the older car’s structure, which is shared with no other offerings from the BMW group and will also serve as the basis for all forthcoming Rolls-Royces. There’s new suspension, too – double-wishbone at the front, multi-link at the rear and active anti-roll bars – as well as four-wheel steering that together sharpen this behemoth’s celerity, stability and steering response no end. And there’s a brand-new, 6.75-litre, twin-turbocharged engine, which produces 563bhp and, perhaps more important, a bottomless well of torque that’s instantly available from extremely low revs. This is mated to a satellite-assisted, eight-speed automatic transmission, which reads the road ahead and is intuitive to a fault.
Although on the outside it’s recognisably a Phantom, R-R’s head of design Giles Taylor has wrought a visible evolution to the car’s stately lines, from the slight rearward sweep of the neo-classical grille and the key line that extends right along the car’s body, to the overhangs – short at the front and long at the rear – and the majestic flow of the C-pillars as they merge into the elegantly tapered tail. Viewed strictly in terms of size the Phantom possesses the uncompromising presence of a truck, yet as
that mass – which is tempered by the fluency and integrity of its lines and proportions – softens palpably towards the rear, it also possesses an almost feminine grace. To paraphrase Taylor, the Phantom makes the grandest of entrances, but then departs with a courtly wave.
Back in the driving seat – think of it as an enormously comfy leather armchair – I’m faced not only by a road twisting tortuously up a mountain pass, but also by a dashboard that combines a trio of chrome-ringed virtual dials and what Rolls-Royce calls The Gallery. The latter is a work of art or craftsmanship, either personally commissioned (and, so long as it fits within the space, it could be just about anything you wanted) or selected from a list of pre-existing options, housed within a sealed glass unit. This also incorporates the infotainment screen, which rises and lowers at the centre, and a lovely analogue clock.
The electrically assisted steering is light and the large, leather-covered wheel, which can be guided by the fingertips, places this massive automobile on the road with such control and precision that even on this demanding highway it goes exactly where it’s pointed. Equally impressive is the way the Phantom gathers speed after each corner as the V12 engine takes a deep slug from its vast reservoir of twist and, with the minimum of drama and the merest aural suggestion of activity beneath the bonnet, thrusts our 3 tonnes smoothly and inexorably over the Alps. There’s no tachometer here, just R-R’s idiosyncratic power-reserve gauge, but even if there were you’d rarely need more than an indicated 2,500 revs to keep this monster moving briskly, no matter what kind of road you were driving on. No previous Phantom was ever so wieldy or responsive.
Much the same goes for the brakes: powerful and progressive, they refuse to bite, even when I hurriedly floor the pedal as the lowering barriers of a railway crossing hove rapidly into sight. Instead, the Royce simply stops – firmly, yes, but also surprisingly gently.
For something so massive and heavy, this is indeed a remarkable car to drive. As for its opulence, I’m fast running out of superlatives – whether it’s to describe the hectares of soft leather stretched across its interior, the gleaming wood veneers sourced from far corners of the planet, the rear-hinged coach doors that courteously swing open to receive passengers and then close themselves just as obligingly, the roof lining that twinkles like a newly discovered galaxy, or simply the great swathe of real estate it occupies on the road.
So does this latest iteration reaffirm the Phantom’s credentials as the world’s best car? While it was a given that, in its efforts to create the most luxurious automobile ever, R-R would come up with something as spectacularly sumptuous as this, less to be expected was that it would endow its newest offspring with such impressive dynamic abilities. Judged on the astonishing evidence of this drive through the Alps, Rolls-Royce can consider the job not only done, but also accomplished more successfully than they could ever have dared hope.