The new Rolls-Royce: A snip at £260,000
The famous marque is about to launch an even more exclusive version of its flagship. Just don't forget to get the teak decking polished when you have it serviced. Sean O'Grady is impressed - by everything except the car's looks

Just in case the standard Rolls-Royce Phantom saloon isn't quite expensive or exclusive enough (£220,000 a pop, and a mere 800 sold per annum), you can now order one where less is more. Less because they've taken the roof off, and more because it commands a considerable premium over the saloon: your new Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé will set you back £260,000. Then again, as they always used to say, if you need to ask the price....

If you do put your name down for one you have the right to expect something a little bit special. Obviously there's the flying lady on the end of that long bonnet, and the knowledge that, with sales projected to be between 100 and 200 per year, you're going to be part of an even more exclusive club than if you'd gone for the saloon. Then again, you can probably afford both, plus a Bentley, a Range Rover and maybe even a Maybach.

Still, there ought to be something special, even gimmicky to justify a price like that. But there are a few special features to surprise and delight.The fabric hood (rather than metal, the norm nowadays) is the largest of any modern convertible car, and five layers of insulation and cashmere lining ensure serenity. When the hood goes back, you'll notice the teak decking that is used for the rear cover. This has been treated with oils to keep it in good nick, and the maintenance of it is a regular garage service-schedule item, which is unusual, to say the least.

You'll also notice that the bonnet is brushed steel, machine-finished to give a uniform "grain" before it undergoes hand-polishing to achieve a remarkable sheen. The finish extends to the windscreen surround, and lends a two-tone air to the car. Rakish, perhaps, and maybe not to all tastes, but then again Drophead Coupé buyers are supposed to be buying a more "informal" Rolls-Royce, according to the firm.

Inside you get the usual combination of shag-pile carpet, wood, leather, chrome and brushed steel that can be found on the Phantom limo, and built to your own specifications. Sensibly, the wonderfully slim steering wheel, long a Rolls-Royce trademark, has been retained. It is so much nicer to hold.

Underneath, the car is pretty much standard Phantom as well, which is to say bang-up-to-date BMW underpinnings.

One reason why production of such a small-volume car makes sense is its very high price, but the aluminium space-frame, shared with the Phantom limo, also keeps costs down. Power comes courtesy of a 6.75-litre V12, delivering no-doubt adequate power and a 0-to-60mph time of 5.7 seconds.

For my money (which isn't much) the new Bentley Azure convertible, which is based on the classic Arnage saloon, has the edge on this Rolls-Royce. The Phantom is more modern, and is more striking in many ways. Yet, even if I could afford both, I'm not sure I'd want the Rolls-Royce. I just can't get used to those slitty rectangular sidelights. Rolls-Royce ought to have taken the opportunity with its new model to experiment with a friendlier "face ". Still, I'm never going to be able to buy one, so why should they care what I think about it?

Big baby, difficult birth

The Phantom started the modern Rolls-Royce revival, though revolution might be a better term. After the British defence group Vickers decided to sell the company in 1998 an unseemly wrangle ensued between BMW and Volkswagen about who could have what bits. BMW, you see, had a say in who could use the Rolls-Royce trademark, which is owned by Rolls-Royce plc, the aerospace firm with only an historical connection to the cars (they separated in 1972). Thus VW was left with the Crewe works and the Bentley name (itself swallowed up by Rolls-Royce in 1931).

So Rolls-Royce and Bentley went their separate ways. VW took Bentley into record production levels, with the new Continental GT proving a hit.

BMW took Rolls-Royce upmarket with the imposing Phantom and constructed a new factory to build it in Goodwood, Surrey. It was launched in 2003. The hope was to eradicate the brand's slightly tarnished image, as Rolls-Royce had become the victim of its own success in selling Silver Shadows to the likes of Bernard Manning and Jimmy Savile.

Soon, though, there will be smaller Rolls-Royce models. Then Bentley and Rolls-Royce really will go head to head, a proxy fight between VW and BMW. Should be an interesting contest.

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