Rolls-Royce sales glide smoothly ahead

Cruising one of the world's most glamorous shopping districts in an open Rolls-Royce convertible, you can't help but feel the love.

A man waves from a seat inside a coffee shop. Valet parking attendants at Spago restaurant hail the sapphire-blue whale. A panhandler in a white running suit accepts a crisp $5 bill and offers to drag race down Rodeo Drive for the pink slip: his overloaded pushcart vs. the car's 453 horses.

The driver, Paul Ferraiolo, politely declines. But as president of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars' U.S. operation, Ferraiolo knows that even in Beverly Hills, the city where more of his cars are sold than any other, the sight of a sparkling Phantom Drophead Coupé still creates a stir.

While the rest of the auto industry struggles, the good times are still rolling for Rolls sales. Millions of strapped Americans are cutting expenses. Even luxury car sales are down. But so far — knock on the convertible's hand-tooled teak deck hiding the folded top — the super-rich aren't buckling.

"They don't check to say, 'Can I afford a Rolls?' " says Alexander Edwards, president of the automotive division of consulting firm Strategic Vision, who is bullish on the brand.

Rolls-Royce, bought by BMW in 1998, is on pace to surpass the 322 cars that Autodata estimates it sold in the USA last year. For the first quarter, Rolls sold 149 cars, up 67% over the period last year.

Worldwide, Rolls sold only 1,010 cars last year — about one for every 915 Toyota Camrys sold in 2007. Then again, it takes a garage full of Camrys to add up to Drophead's jaw-dropping list price of $407,000. Yet, the Drophead is sold out through next year.

Exclusivity is Roll-Royce's appeal. Even its former stablemate Bentley, now owned by Volkswagen, offers cars at half the price of a Rolls.

"They are not trying to get everyone behind the wheel of a Rolls," says Brett Anderson, editor-in-chief of Robb Report, the lifestyle publication aimed at readers whose average net worth hovers around $10 million.

'Entry-level' Rolls coming?

For now, Rolls makes only variants on the Phantom — the convertible, a sedan and just unveiled in February, a two-door hardtop. A new, slightly smaller Rolls is on the way by 2010, but Ferraiolo says it still will cost well north of a Bentley, so, don't expect to see a bevy of Rolls-Royces at the mall parking lot.

"One of the things that Rolls-Royce has been particularly good at is not corrupting its brand in the name of growth or profit," says Tom duPont, publisher of duPont Registry, a publication for car connoisseurs. Nor is it corrupting it in the name of ecology or economy: The sticker price includes a $3,000 federal gas-guzzler tax, thanks to the V-12 power plant that gets 11 miles per gallon in city driving, 18 on the highway.

Ferraiolo isn't ready to declare the Rolls recession-proof. Asked whether the sour economy could infect even the toniest of brands, he responds, "It could," and leaves it at that.

Keeping in touch with buyers

If there's sales trouble afoot, however, there's probably no automotive executive better positioned to spot it firsthand. Ferraiolo personally meets with up to 20% of the brand's customers a year.

He knows a third own yachts. A third have access to a private jet. Beyond that, little else binds them except wealth and "being very passionate about cars and life."

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