Motoring: The people's car for toffs

Road test Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph, by John Simister
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A Rolls-Royce, they say, is the best car in the world. Nonsense, I say. A Rolls-Royce has always been a desirable and lovingly created thing, but the best car in the world? Hardly, especially when the standard Rolls-Royce offering has barely changed since 1980. The motor car, as Rolls-Royce always calls it, has become out of date, off the pace, a state of no one's art but its maker's. Such was the status quo until now. But something momentous has happened. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars has produced an all-new Rolls-Royce motor car, and it proves that the Rolls engineers have listened well.

Rolls-Royce saloons are usually called Silver somethings, and this time it's the turn of a seraph to be silvered. Its looks are an amalgam of the just-deceased Silver Spirit/Silver Spur, the earlier Silver Shadow whose side creases are echoed in the Seraph, and the grandiose Silver Cloud.

The result is a car which looks modern, but which couldn't possibly be anything other than a Rolls-Royce. The nose is still high and proud, but the grille is squatter, less sharp-edged and more like an ancient Greek temple than ever.

Rolls-Royce was about to be bought by BMW, although this is not cut and dried. VW has made an offer, and a final decision will be made by shareholders in June. If successful, the bid would be the ultimate in ironies: the makers of the People's Car owning the Toff's Car.

Up to now, Rolls-Royce has been leaning heavily on BMW for components and expertise, which is why the old Rolls-Royce V8 monster-motor, 6.75 litres of low-tech, low-revving history, has gone in favour of a BMW V12 of "just" 5.4 litres. That may change in a year or so's time if the VW bid succeeds.

A German engine in the ultimate British car. The idea is hard to take, but it certainly works on the practical level. Power is up from the old Silver Spur's 300bhp, achieved with the help of a small turbocharger, to 322bhp, achieved through being modern and efficient. The engine is practically identical to that used in the BMW 750iL, apart from the badges on the cam-covers and the calibration of the management system to suit its new surroundings. The transmission comes from the same source, as does the air-conditioning system.

There is absolutely no doubt about the provenance of the interior, though. The dashboard is gentler and curvier in shape, and the switchgear is much more modern than before, but lustrous wood and taut, rich leather are as all-pervading as ever, the air vents are still enormous and you still don't get a rev-counter because exact engine speed should be of no concern to the Rolls-Royce driver.

To drive, the Silver Seraph is a revelation. It sounds different from before, thanks mainly to its four extra cylinders, and it is both faster and quieter, but the major transformation is in the way it copes with bumps and bends. The body structure is a 65 per cent stiffer than before, so there's none of the groan and shudder of old.

This extra body stiffness together with new suspension allow the Seraph to soak up bumps without heaving and floating. They also make this vast car feel agile and eager in a way its ship-like predecessor never could. Never has a Rolls-Royce felt so all-of-a-piece, such fun to drive, yet so comfortable for all its occupants.

The Silver Seraph has caught up with current capabilities, without losing the feeling of being a Rolls-Royce. In fact, it's closer to its maker's ideals than ever. The best car in the world? Now, it's not such a daft idea after all.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price: pounds 155,000. Engine: 5,379cc V12, 24 valves, 326bhp at 5,000rpm. Transmission: five- speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 140mph, 0-60 in 6.9sec, 11-16mpg.

Rivals

BMW 750iL: pounds 75,050. Similar engine to the Seraph's, half the price and it comes complete with a TV. Delightful to drive, but nothing like the presence.

Daimler Super Eight: pounds 62,775. Supercharged V8 from the Jaguar XJR, in a longer and more luxurious body. The closest you'll get to a Rolls-Royce ambience without buying a Rolls-Royce.

Mercedes-Benz S600: pounds 102,490. A V12, like the Rolls and the BMW, but bigger and more powerful. A huge car, beautifully built but hardly beautiful. New model due in the autumn.

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