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Phantom of the road: The ultimate car

By Paul Sussman for CNN

Phantom
The Rolls-Royce Phantom comes in more than 45,000 different colors.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Not for nothing has the title Rolls-Royce come to have a resonance way beyond the confines of the motor industry.

So revered is the legendary marque, so intimately associated with the very highest standards of luxury, opulence and precision engineering, that its name has long been used as a byword for excellence in any field and not just that of vehicle manufacture.

An uncertain period occurred in the 1990s as ownership of the quintessentially English brand -- or at least its motor car arm -- passed, via a convoluted deal, first to Volkswagen and then BMW. But the year 2003 saw the launch of the Rolls-Royce Phantom, a car whose effortless performance and unparalleled refinement make it ... well, the Rolls-Royce of Rolls-Royces.

With a starting price of £250,000 ($333,000) it is by no means the most expensive car on the road, a title currently held by the £810,000 ($1.4 million) Bugatti Veyron (at £1.1 million/$1.9 million, the Ferrari FXX is even more expensive, but is only designed for use on a track).

Nor is it by any means the fastest car on offer -- its top speed of 150 mph (241 kph) looking positively sluggish compared to the Veyron's eyeball-popping 252 mph (406 kph.)

If it fails to top the tables in terms of price and acceleration, however, the Phantom is in a league of its own when it comes to sheer smoothness of drive and luxury of interior.

Combining cutting edge German technology with an innately English sense of pomp and style, this is car-making at its most supremely indulgent.

Silver Ghost
The legendary Silver Ghost was one of the earliest Rolls-Royce models

"Henry Royce, who founded the company in 1904 with Charles Rolls, believed that you should strive for perfection in everything," explains Graham Biggs, Rolls-Royce's Director of Corporate Communications.

"He had a dictum: 'Take the best that exists and improve on it. And if it doesn't exist, design it.'

"That is the philosophy by which our company has always operated. And that is what we have tried to do with the Phantom, which is our response to the challenge of bringing about a renaissance for Rolls-Royce in the 21st Century."

Work on what was at the time referred to as "Project Rolls-Royce" began in early 1999 with a hand-picked team of top designers and engineers working in conditions of utmost secrecy inside a converted bank in central London (such were the concerns with security that each night the team's drawings and sketches were locked away in the bank's old vault.)

Under the leadership of Chief Engineer Tim Leverton and Head Designer Ian Cameron, a design was finalized in under a year.

"Our absolute priority was to create a motor car that was clearly a Rolls-Royce," says Cameron. "More than that, the car had to stand apart from all others on the road."

The resultant vehicle is a triumph of tasteful, understated opulence; a unique status symbol that at the same time manages to avoid the gaudy ostentation that the status symbol tag often brings with it.

Compact it most certainly isn't, weighing in at 2.5 tons and measuring 5.83 meters in length and 1.99 meters across. With its 6.75-litre, 48-valve V12 engine, however, it is still capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in under six seconds, and while bulky, its unique aluminum frame and body mean that it is in fact a lot lighter and more maneuverable, and stronger, than other vehicles of a similar size.

"This car is founded upon the very ultimate in engineering," explains Graham Biggs. "We have designed it so that it is virtually silent at any speed. Even at 150 mph it drives in an extremely unruffled, effortless manner.

"It's what we call the 'magic carpet ride.' You just don't feel the rough and tumble of the road. You feel like you are skimming just above it."

Top-of-the range engineering and supreme mechanical performance, however, are just part of the overall package. What really elevates the Phantom into the realm of the super-car is the extraordinary pride, love and attention to detail with which it is constructed; the determination to leave no stone unturned in the quest for complete customer satisfaction.

Goodwood
The Phantom is hand-assembled and finished at the Rolls-Royce factory at Goodwood, England

"This is a hand-built car," says Biggs, "And the whole point of a hand-built car is that the customer can specify exactly what they want. We can tailor each individual vehicle to each individual customer's requirements and needs.

"We offer over 45,000 different external paint colors, for instance. The interior uses only the finest leathers and woods and carpets. We offer a bespoke design team who will meet with the customer and produce exactly what they want.

"We see it as rather like commissioning a piece of art."

Although many of the car's key components are manufactured in Germany, it is actually assembled and finished at Rolls-Royce's new $100 million factory at Goodwood, England.

And while it incorporates a host of new design features -- rear-hinged back doors, for example, and pushbutton electronic engine starting -- it remains, with its tell-tale "Parthenon" radiator grill and Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, unmistakably a Rolls-Royce. "Nostalgically progressive" as one critic described it.

At £250,000 it is clearly a vehicle that most of us will only be driving in our dreams. Despite that, Biggs is convinced the Phantom is worth every penny.

"When potential customers visit the plant at Goodwood," he says, "And see how we actually build the car, the love and effort and attention to detail that goes into its creation, the spontaneous reaction is very often: 'What excellent value.'"

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