We Drive the Electric Rolls-Royce -- It's Amazing

PHOTO: The Rolls-Royce 102EX Phantom Experimental Electric car.PlayPHOTO: Rolls-Royce Motor Cars
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The Rolls-Royce 102EX Phantom Experimental Electric is the most extraordinary EV yet.

The list of superlatives you can apply to this car is as long as its wheelbase. The first electric Rolls-Royce is big. It is smooth. It is mind-bogglingly luxurious. And the torque just keeps coming. It has the largest battery ever installed in a passenger car, a 71-kilowatt-hour monster that would power your iPhone until Armageddon.

The 102EX is a one-off prototype to test the waters, a $3 million bet on the future. And it is bloody brilliant. Combining the peerless chassis engineering of a Rolls-Royce with a pair of silent electric motors in a vehicle that defines opulence yields what is arguably the most refined automobile, electric or otherwise, ever built.

And Rolls-Royce built it because its customers haven't asked for it.

The people who spend the kind of money required to buy a Rolls-Royce have no interest in Goodwood building a hybrid or an electric vehicle or anything else "green."

It isn't that they don't care about such things, it simply isn't what they want from a Ghost or a Phantom.

This worries the venerable British marque. Rolls-Royce knows that it if it is to survive its second century, it must adapt to the times. Its customers may not be particularly concerned with things like fuel economy and emissions, but regulators on both sides of the Atlantic sure are.

The brass at Rolls know they have to start developing an alternative to the beautiful, but remarkably thirsty, 12-cylinder engines that power their automobiles. And they have to start developing it before customers start asking for it.

Electric power is a natural fit.

High-torque electric motors offer seamless, refined power delivery, which fits perfectly with the brand's values. The 102EX, unveiled last month at the Geneva Motor Show, will spend the next year touring the world, being tested like any other prototype but also being driven by the well-heeled folks who already own a Rolls.

If it's something they could see themselves buying, something very much like it might appear in showrooms within a decade or so.

But the firm's top brass are open to the possibility people might hate it and they'll have to start all over again with a fresh idea.

There are a couple other reasons electric drive could work for Rolls-Royce. First, because its cars already are eye-wateringly expensive, the astronomical cost of the battery is more easily absorbed within the cost of the car.

No one who makes batteries talks about what it costs to make batteries, but it's a safe bet you could buy a nicely appointed mid-size sedan for what the pack in the 102EX costs.

Second, range (the Achilles' heel of EVs) is less of an issue for a Rolls. The company claims the mammoth pack in the 102EX is good for 125 miles. That's not much more than a Nissan Leaf but plenty for the city-center chauffeuring and airport runs most of these luxo-liners are used for.

The typical Rolls-Royce owner has a great many other autos available for long trips — and most likely a helicopter or a Gulfstream, too.

The car's massive battery weighs 1,410 pounds. It is comprised of 96 lithium nickel cobalt manganese oxide pouch cells, arranged in five packs and laid out to mimic the V-12 and gearbox that were cast aside.

A trio if 3-kilowatt chargers are mounted up top. The car can recharge in eight to 20 hours, depending upon what you've plugged into.

Recharging is a simple plug-and-play operation. The socket, which casts a soothing blue glow, sits where you'll find the fuel filler on a conventional Phantom. Rolls-Royce also fitted the car with an induction charger for wireless charging.

Simply have Jeeves drive over a similar plate installed in the marble floor of your garage you won't risk having him scratch the Atlantic chrome paint — all 16 coats of it — fiddling with a plug.

Bright orange high-voltage cables snake through the space vacated by the propshaft to a pair of 145-kilowatt motors mounted above the rear axle. Combined output is 388 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque.

Despite the size of the battery and output of the motors, there's nothing terribly radical under the miles-long hood of the 102EX. It's all pretty standard EV fare, just bigger. Rolls-Royce considered adding a variation of the kinetic-energy-recovery system developed by Williams F1 but decided that was a bit ambitious.

The styling isn't particularly radical either. To keep the emphasis clearly on the technology, Rolls opted for a standard Phantom with a slick paint job and experimental eco-friendlier chestnut leather that even covers the floor.

One cool feature is the illuminated Spirit of Ecstasy, made of translucent Makrolon polycarbonate and lit with blue LEDS. The iconic RR logo is red, as is the norm with the company's experimental models.

So what's it like to drive?


The Phantom Experimental Electric has a bit less power than the gas-burning Phantom but about 10 percent more torque so it pulls like mad. All that grunt is available the moment you hit the go pedal, and it just keeps coming, smoothly and without interruption because there are no gear changes.

The car is sedate off the line, but hold on once you hit 20 mph because the torque of the motors finally overcomes the mass of the car. You'll see 60 mph in eight seconds, impressive for a car that weighs three tons. Top speed is capped at 100 mph.

But it isn't the numbers that are important. What's so amazing about this car is how it feels. A Rolls-Royce engine is so remarkably refined that the contrast between petrol and electric isn't as obvious as it might be in other EVs like, say, the Ford Focus Electric. Usually, the silence of an electric drivetrain means you hear everything the suspension, tires and wind are doing. It isn't intrusive, just noticeable. Not so in the 102EX.

The Phantom has what is arguably the most refined chassis of any car on the road, so the absence of engine noise means there's almost nothing to hear.

This car doesn't move down the road, it flows, and so smoothly you'd think you were floating. Whenever you're sitting in a seat –— in a car, a train, a plane — and propelled forward, you feel it. Not so in the 102EX. Your eyes tell you that you're moving, but your other senses disagree.

Rolls-Royce has built something truly special. Yes, the 102EX is furiously expensive, has limited range and takes eons to charge. But it is a glimpse of the future, the first serious exploration of how the super-luxe cars of tomorrow might be propelled.

The 102EX will never be anything more than a niche vehicle, but that doesn't make it any less significant. Or spectacular.

Ben Oliver also writes for Automobile magazine. Follow him on Twitter @thebenoliver.