VISIONS of Cleopatra's barge filled the mind's eye while driving the latest Rolls-Royce Corniche. The world's most expensive convertible lacks such pleasing features as flute-tootling slaves and a poop of beaten gold, but is in a class of its own as a status symbol.

Ferraris and Lamborghinis are low enough to be lost in traffic. Rolls- Royce limousines can be mistaken for stretched Granadas. But there is no mistaking a Corniche as it wafts along with the hood down and its occupants - presumably rich and famous - pretending to ignore the hoi polloi.

Ironically, this is one of the few ragtops that looks better with the lid closed. The hood stands about a foot high when lowered, and its cover hogs a lot of luggage space when not in use. The top goes up and down at the touch of a button, of course, but fitting or removing the big, ugly cover involves fiddling with no fewer than 14 fasteners.

This is Fred Flintstone engineering. Operating a Mercedes hood, which folds away beneath a neat, flush-fitting steel panel, calls for nothing more inconvenient than pressing a button for 25 seconds.

The lack of something as basic as an adjustable steering wheel cannot be excused in a car that costs pounds 62,000 more than its Silver Spirit sibling. The central locking requires enough keys to make you walk with a limp, but does not secure the beautiful leather-and-walnut interior's several stowage spaces. Here, again, Mercedes-Benz is light years ahead.

The good news is that the Corniche features major improvements that run right across the Rolls-Royce and Bentley ranges. Foreign customers can study pages of facts and figures, but the company refuses to quote the car's output in Britain. A little detective work revealed it to be 241bhp, low in relation to the 6.75-litre V8's size. But the engine has been revitalised to provide 20 per cent more mid-range muscle.

Crisper acceleration for overtaking, a more responsive automatic transmission and modifications to the suspension make the Corniche a significantly nicer drive than its predecessor. Unfortunately, the huge Goodyear Eagle tyres squeal badly at even low cornering speeds.

Agility is not a word that springs to mind, but this big car passes the acid test of feeling smaller than it really is, both on the open road and in urban traffic. And I can't recall anything other than a Phantom VI limousine commanding more respect at junctions. Other drivers invariably stopped and waved me across after mentally tugging the forelock. That happened four times in as many minutes while negotiating one little town.

Big reductions in exhaust emissions are to be welcomed, but I am unable to endorse Rolls-Royce's boast that fuel economy has been improved by up to 18 per cent. Official figures support the claim, but real-world conditions tell a different story. Earlier this year I averaged 15.7mpg in the previous model, despite taking advantage of the 80mph limit on French motorways. The newcomer's figure was only 14.6mpg. People who can afford a Rolls-Royce may not be concerned about fuel bills, but an owner who values his or her time does not appreciate making frequent visits to the pumps.

The reference to Cleopatra's barge is appropriate in more ways than one. There is something quite nautical about the inevitable wind noise and the muted squeaks, creaks, judders and shudders that accompany progress on anything other than the smoothest road surfaces.

'Must try harder' is the verdict, because a status symbol that costs so much and bears a name synonymous with excellence should embody perfection. But few cars have made me feel quite so relaxed and confident. People buy a Rolls-Royce because they want a Rolls-Royce. It's as simple as that.

(Photograph omitted)

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