Electric Rolls-Royce Phantom points to future of decadence

Rolls-Royce brought its 102EX to Dubai this week, giving Neil Vorano a glimpse at just how good an electric car really can be.

Twin electric motors powered by batteries found under the bonnet propel the 102EX silently when the throttle is pushed. Courtesy of Rolls-Royce
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A cool breeze blows down the pit lane at the Dubai Autodrome, making this humid Sunday evening almost comfortable. And though just two days earlier this track was abuzz with the first UAE National Race Day of the season, there is but one car sitting in a garage; a car you normally wouldn't associate with apexes and braking points. Try caviar and gold watches.

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The looming Rolls-Royce Phantom, gleaming under the garage lights, is out of its element here at the dusty track. And it has drawn a small crowd around it, as a Rolls normally would. But this isn't your average, everyday Phantom (if a car such as this could ever be called "average"), even though, with the bonnet down, it could be, save for the glass fuel door, the crystal Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament and the red "RR" logo on the massive chrome grille. No, what this car represents is the future for the storied English car maker; it's the 102EX, the one-off, experimental, all-electric Phantom.

Rolls-Royce shocked the motoring world (no pun intended) with the 102's debut at the Geneva Motor Show in March and, since then, the car has been very busy indeed. It was meant as a rolling test bed for future drivetrains, and Rolls-Royce has used it to gauge public reaction to such a massive about-face by bringing it around the world and allowing media and customers alike to drive it.

"I've not had to live in the UK for months," says Emily Dungey, the project manager. "We started in England, then Switzerland, back to the UK, Beijing, Singapore, Japan, America, Paris, Monaco, Madrid, Frankfurt, Munich.

"This is actually towards the end; we're here until the 16th, then we go to America for a month. New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami, and home for Christmas."

The technology of the 102EX isn't really new; its battery - the largest ever used in a car - powers two conventional electric motors, which channel power through a single-speed transmission to the rear wheels. But for Rolls, this change is monumental, considering the loyalty of its clients and its reputation for smooth, powerful internal combustion V12 engines. It's the type of decision that could make or break a company like Rolls-Royce, so they're not taking it lightly.

"That's the main part of this; to understand how individuals perceive it," says Dungey. "We're a small-volume manufacturer, so we need to know exactly what people want before we go ahead with this. Something as massive as an alternative drivetrain is a huge undertaking; it really needs to be done with some precision and care. This is really the starting point of the journey, but it's proving very interesting so far."

Rolls wanted an alternative drivetrain without compromising the luxury and feel of its petrol-powered Phantom, and it certainly came through. Sitting inside the car is no different from a normal Phantom; it's identical, still dripping with the decadence and opulence you would expect from a Rolls. No, the real difference is when you step on the throttle - there is no burble of a giant V12 under the hood. In fact, there is nothing; it begins to glide forward silently and at low speeds - like creeping out of the pits - it's a strange sensation, but one that you get quickly accustomed to. However, everything else is just like driving the Phantom.

David Monks, one of the lead engineers on the project, sits beside me as I begin two laps of the club circuit at the track with the 102EX. "The brakes, the steering, it's all the same as the petrol-powered car. Only, because there is no engine, we had to use electric pumps for them to work, but they work the same."

On the track, I hit the throttle hard, and the car fires forward, as forceful as a massive petrol engine but far, far smoother. Though the 102 has less horsepower than the V12 (388hp v 453hp), it has more torque that is available from standstill; a whopping 800Nm makes acceleration just about equal with the V12, while still keeping the same sensation.

"The only reason the 102EX is slightly slower going to 60 miles an hour is because I made it that way with my laptop," continues Monks enthusiastically. "It felt nicer; we subjectively set it up like that.

"The first time we took it out, the throttle was like an on-off switch. But I've got a huge array of parameters I can tweak to make the response feel like how it does; we've basically emulated the V12's torque curve.

"I could rip the tyres off this thing, but it wouldn't feel good. We could make it a very aggressive car, but it's not supposed to be."

Picking up speed, the tyre and wind noise get a little louder, making the experience more like a normal car. Curiously, though there is no V12 rumble, a very slight, almost imperceptible whine emanates from the back seats - the electric motors. "That is something we didn't anticipate, but it's something we can fix," says Monks.

The 102EX isn't suited well to the tight, high-speed corners, but it performs admirably for such a large car; almost identically, in fact, to a petrol Phantom. But the big difference between the two is the power delivery, something that becomes very evident as I take two more laps in a V12-powered Phantom Coupé for comparison. The six-speed gearbox of the Coupé seems almost clunky battling around the curves of the track, but this is highlighted only because the power from the 102 is so incredibly seamless; where the Coupé's gearbox hesitates for split seconds while downshifting, the 102 reacts instantly with the slightest touch of the throttle. With a single-speed transmission, the car has no gears to change. It's an incredible sensation, and with everything else being fairly equal, I actually prefer driving the electric car to the V12.

After the drive, Monks talks more about the worldwide trip and the people he has met. He says feedback so far has been exceptionally positive.

"It's really the crux of the debate," says Monks. "People are very nervous about change. They don't want to change the V12 engine because they love it, especially customers who have our car. The one thing they never complain about is the V12, they love how it drives. It's a fantastic engine. They're also nervous about range. But most of our customers don't do anything like 200km in a day; even a week or a month, because they're coming from a house with 12 cars in the garage. But it's in the back of your mind, and you're losing your freedom of choice. With a petrol car, you can suddenly decide that I'm going to do 300 miles today, but you can't do that with this.

"Positive thing, though," he continues, "is that you put people in the driver's seat, and without fail, their jaws come down. Wow. It's silent, it's smooth, the power delivery is absolutely effortless. People who have driven it for a decent distance find out how much like the V12 it is; it drives just like it."

After the road show is finally over, the team will head back to the factory at Goodwood in the UK and go through the reams of data they've collected - media input, customer input, marketing feedback - and make some decisions. Sadly, the 102EX itself is destined to be ripped apart by Monks and his team to inspect its wear and tear, offering further knowledge for the company's future. But just two short laps in this electric behemoth has me convinced they should rebuild it, and many more like it. In terms of luxury and performance, the 102EX embodies everything Rolls-Royce stands for; it's not just a green project to show the company cares about the environment, it's a viable luxury car for discerning tastes. If this is the direction of electric cars, the future looks very, very promising indeed.