Power and perception

The Rolls-Royce Phantom isn't just your average car; in its an entity. But is the menace somehow diminished if no one can see you driving it?

16/09/2009 - Abu Dhabi, UAE -  Car test on the 2009 Rolls Royce Phantom.  Photographed in Liwa, UAE.  The 2009 Rolls Royce Phantom offers a direct-injection V12 engine and six speed transmission.  The car has an aluminium spaceframe welded from more than 500 separate parts.  (Andrew Henderson / The National) *** Local Caption ***  ah_090919_Rolls_Royce_048.jpg
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If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? You know the question, and perhaps at one time or another have thought about the answer. But this isn't so much a puzzle on physics as it is a state of perception and reality. George Berkeley, the late Irish philosopher, first broached the subject with his dictum of "esse est percipi", or, "to be is to be perceived". It's a simple enough edict on the surface, but one that gets more convoluted with thought: can something exist without having someone around to sense it?

Wait a minute, you say. This is a car publication, not Philosophy Now magazine. You're reading this to find out about the horsepower of the latest supercar, or the fuel consumption of a new hybrid. Driving is fun, and so should this story be. But sitting behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce Phantom, the concept just wouldn't leave my mind. Because a Rolls isn't just your average car; in its lofty presence, all the mundane numbers of power, size and performance melt away into nothing. It's an entity that is truly defined by its perception. Think about it: when you see a Phantom drive by, you think less about the power from under the bonnet and more about the power wielded by the person inside it.

So, would it be the same car if there was no one around to see you in it? I had to go where no one would gawk and point; I had to experience the car on its own, as simply a mechanical production of metal and leather. The Empty Quarter beckoned. But as I began the drive, hitting the motorway leading out of Abu Dhabi, I realised it wasn't going to be easy to leave my emotions out of this. Because a Rolls-Royce has an uncanny ability to make you feel like you're driving a car from another era. It's big, thin steering wheel with high-ratio steering, black-on-white dials - including a power reserve gauge - and a long bonnet with that famous hood ornament all give a driver a sense of what it was like to pilot a magnificent Rolls from the 1920s. It's driving elegance.

And elegance surrounds everyone inside. This car had the bespoke, green-and-gold theme continued inside from the two-tone paint of the exterior. Soft, supple leather coddles the passengers; the seats are bolstered more for comfort than aggressive driving, but that's not surprising. Depending on your tastes, you can get multitudes of wood and trim combinations; this Phantom was filled with piano-black wood and carbon fibre trim. The layout of the dash and door inserts can't be described as modern, but they give more of an old-fashioned feel, again harking back to another era of motoring.

Of course, passenger comforts are the priority. Behind each front seat is a fold-down tray, ready for enjoying some caviar, fine cheese and perhaps a beverage from the small refrigerator under the rear seat. They also each hold a folding video screen, with which passengers can watch a DVD or even catch a television programme - the car is equipped with a TV receiver. Front passengers can watch TV, too - if the car isn't moving - with a trick screen that rotates on the dash, switching places with the analogue clock. The screen is also the command centre for the electronic climate, entertainment and navigation system, which is controlled with a fold-away, BMW-like iDrive knob on the console.

The car is filled with other small touches that cater to the type of people that would normally be found in this Dh1.8 million car. Passengers in the back would be accustomed to having someone open the heavy, rear-hinged doors for them, but if there wasn't a doorman available, a button closes them automatically, avoiding a possibly awkward moment for VIPs. And, if it's raining when they get to their location, the umbrellas hidden in those doors solve that problem, too.

All very nice, but there must be a chauffeur, and I was it today. Around me on the motorway, people in cars pulled up beside the Phantom, took my picture and pointed. The emotion of the car was clouding my mind. Though traffic was relatively light, it seemed to be moving at a much slower pace than normal. I realised why it seemed that when I glanced at the speedometer - I was travelling much faster than I thought.

One mark of a good car is how fast it wants to go; how little effort it takes, or feel it takes, to go fast. And the Rolls was effortless, more than any other car I've driven. And that's not entirely because of its big 6.7L, V12 engine - the car is eerily quiet at all speeds, and even under the gun, the V12 can hardly be heard inside the cabin. With air suspension, the ride is level and unruffled, no matter the speed or road conditions At more than 3,000kg, it was rock-solid, unperturbed by wind or turbulence from the trucks I sailed past. At higher speeds, the variable-rate steering tightens up, allowing incremental control and less effort. Cruising at 200kph on the straight, lonely road to Liwa is like driving at 120kph with other cars, and getting to its electronically limited top speed of 250kph is nothing. That direct-injected V12's 453hp is significant, but its the 720Nm of torque that is its true asset when it comes to getting up to speed. Amazingly for its weight, the Phantom goes from 0-to-100kph in 5.7 seconds, but its acceleration can't be described as exciting so much as a "whoosh". In fact, though its overall performance is impressive, "exciting" wouldn't be a term I would use to describe driving the Phantom, but I don't mean that in a derogatory way. This isn't a Ferrari or a Lamborghini; it's not made for white-knuckle driving, engine roaring and tyres squealing. What it does best is what it's made to do: keep its composure. The windy, sand-swept road to Moreeb Dune has an occasional lorry trundle by but, for the most part, there's not a soul around. Going slower, the steering reverts back to its higher ratio, and I feel like I'm driving an elegant old car again. Even with its air suspension, the heavy Phantom doesn't take lightly to the sharp turns of the road at higher speed, and it rolls like a sailing ship. You wouldn't want to be too aggressive on twisty tarmac if you don't want to upset any important passengers in the back. I pulled over into one of the laybys and contemplated my standing here. There was no one gawking, no one taking pictures, no one to imagine how important I might be. The view of the endless dunes was astounding, the only sound was the wind sweeping sand across the landscape. And I was with a Rolls-Royce, and I still felt pretty important. But there was still something missing, something niggling at me. A friend expected the experience to be like owning an expensive watch; a Rolex or a Patek Philippe. Even if you are alone at the office or at home, you know the quality that's on your wrist; it makes you feel good to have, no matter who knows you have it.

But a Rolls-Royce is not a piece of jewellery to be hidden under the french cuff of an expensive shirt. There are plenty of high-end cars that are expensive and powerful, but, like it ascends above mere engine and performance data, a Rolls-Royce isn't just another luxury car. And taking the Rolls to the Shangri-La hotel at night, I saw the difference again. The car's mere presence sent valets into a frenzy, and people waiting for taxis looked at who might be coming out of this massive car, probably assessing the passengers' importance. The Phantom is definitely not the car for someone who wants to be inconspicuous. During a recent talk with Frank Tiemann, the head of communications for Rolls-Royce Europe and Middle East, about the upcoming Rolls-Royce Ghost, he said the Ghost was "a car you would drive in the morning to your stables, whereas the Phantom is the one you would use at night." What that means is that, while both cars are two of the most luxurious and well-engineered on the planet, the Phantom has an added element, something intangible that can't be bolted on at the factory. It has a perception of presence, reputation and elegance, and part of its reason for being is to show that to the world. It's a statement. Can the Phantom exist without this perception from others? Of course. But it certainly can't be enjoyed as much.