I'm standing, flabbergasted, on the perfectly manicured lawn of the majestic Le Cap Estel, an elite, private retreat that's welcomed luminaries such as Erenst Hemingway, the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe. Now, little old me is enjoying the secluded beauty of this idyllic hideaway set in the rolling hills of the French Riviera. The sun's glorious rays shimmer between dense, green branches and the air is filled with the sound of the electric blue Mediterranean crashing against golden brown cliff edges. What's a grubby motoring journalist doing in such a divine place? Believe it or not, I've been put up in these gorgeous surroundings for a test drive, but one like no other. With the promise of being whisked to dinner at an exclusive restaurant in Monaco's harbour via a luxury, Dh5mil J-Craft powerboat, there's only one carmaker that would go to this much trouble and consider it the norm. Need a clue? Its rivals include mansions, private jets and 300-foot yachts enjoyed by the rich and famous. Other cars? They just don't compare. It's the best that money can buy. It's Rolls-Royce.
When the Phantom saloon debuted in 2003, it became the only mode of transport, for the road at least, for those in the one per cent. It established a reputation at the pinnacle of automotive excellence. Now, it and the rest of the Phantom family have been revised.
I'd landed in Nice airport and my chauffeur was waiting for me in a resplendent black-with-gold-pinstripes, Phantom Series II. It was so shiny that let alone my reflection, I could see my soul in it. How do they get them so glossy? With five layers of paint and clear lacquer coating between each layer, sanding the body down by hand then polishing them for five hours. The hand-applied coach-lines are added using only the finest squirrel and ox-hair brushes in this painstaking process.
I felt a sense of guilt when stepping on the deep, rich lambswool carpet and entering the grand interior because flip-flops hardly merit such a treat. I looked anything but regal — although sat in the back seat, which has now been elevated by 18mm to provide aristocrats or in this case, me, an inspirational view of the Spirit of Ecstasy, pedestrians assumedI was royalty. I felt special but I wasn't the only one smiling. Others stopped to stare and point as the 5,842mm long Rolls, with a 6.75-litre V12, wafted effortlessly past doing no more than 60kph. But don't be fooled into thinking that all it does is float slowly along. With 453bhp at 5,350rpm on tap and 0-100kph achievable (if you really must) in 5.9 seconds, this cruise ship of a car does have some guts even though it crushes the scales, weighing in at 2,560kg.
The materials in here wouldn't go amiss in a seven-star hotel. Whatever you touch or stroke is exclusively wood (up to 28 layers), chrome and leather from the finest hand-selected hides of Alpine bulls. The veneered picnic tables behind the front seats house monitors linked to a multimedia player placed at the end of the centre console. There seems to be more kit in here than an electrics shop at the mall, such as AV connectors, a six-DVD changer in the lower glove box and a USB port. Fabulous for entertaining, not least the brilliant Logic7 surround-sound system by Harman. It creates astonishingly clear sound thanks to a combination of speakers, sub-woofers and resonance chambers inside the Phantom's double floor. But you'd be hard-pressed to want to break the serenity that this car has in abundance. Just 10 minutes on the road and all the stress and tension in my body disappeared. If, however, you're in need of yet more pampering then nothing beats the starlight headliner, available on this saloon and the Phantom Coupé: 1,600 tiny fibre optic lights, hand-woven into the leather roof lining, creating a stunning starry sky effect. Opulence galore.
Though I loved being driven in this, the epitome of luxury, what I really wanted was to have a go myself. Swapping seats with my driver, I took command and the first thing to strike me was its sheer size. It was tricky at first to gauge its extremities, but I was soon driving using only one hand, the other hanging out of the window, very ungentlemanly-like. We began picking up the pace and I could sense it wrap around me and I no longer feared its epic proportions — and so I pressed the little S button on the steering which I guess stands for Swift rather than Sport. This stiffened the suspension a tad and improved throttle response a bit too, though the power was still "adequate". The roads became exceptionally tighter and I slowed the big beauty right down to a crawl. Fortunately, when others see a Rolls coming in the opposite direction, they give way. With this being the common practice out here, driving the Phantom was a breeze. Yes, for the ultimate in refinement and luxury, this is the outright winner. Good news wasn't far, as ready and waiting at my hotel was the rest of the Phantom family.
This was the first chance I had to take in the revised looks of each; the aforementioned saloon, the sporty-ish Coupé and the biggest show-off of all, the Drophead Coupé. All three sat side by side and they emitted so much visual stimulation that my eyes tingled with pleasure. I noticed just how modern the front end was, fitted with rectangular LED headlights, indicator strips and new front bumpers, which made their way on all three. Their new eyes are particularly clever, boasting curve light functionality, arcing in the direction of the road as it bends. I liked the redesigned rear bumper on the saloon featuring a stainless steel strip between the taillights while a new single-piece grille surround found its way on the Drophead and the Coupé. Three new wheel options had also been made available across the range and the cars looked dressed for the ball.
They've undergone a thorough refresh on the inside too, the highlight being the infotainment system. The sat-nav now has a 3D map display and landscape topography not to mention a satellite view while the screen has grown from 6.5 to 8.8in. Parking these land yachts can be a nightmare but not now, thanks to a camera system with not only a top but a split-front view to help you out.
I hopped into the burgundy, hand-stitched leather seat of the Coupé, put it in Drive and immediately came across my first hurdle - getting it through the hotel gates. Twenty minutes later, I made my way out into the beautiful city. The two-door felt more taut and responsive than you'd expect a 5,612mm long and 2,580kg car to be. The new eight-speed gearbox and rear differential (across the range) has not only improved the potency of the V12 but it has helped reduce its fuel consumption by 10 per cent while C02 emissions are also down from 385 to 347g/km. Granted, not the kind of issues billionaires will be thinking about.
So, more pertinently, how did it make me feel? That's easy — like the king of the world. The steering wheel was thinner than a catwalk model yet so deliciously soft and easy to operate. It swivelled around with an oily slickness and allowed you to manoeuvre the car with minimal fuss. It's like it was taken directly from the elegant classics of the Thirties and put here to serve as a timely reminder of the glorious history of the marque. Not that the lady on the end of the enormous bonnet would let you forget.
The Coupé glided along and even when I picked up genuine speed, I never felt as if I was going particularly quickly. There's no intrusion of wind or road noise entering the cabin as it's built to perfection and though this expression has been bandied about before, it really is a magic-carpet ride. With 720Nm of torque at my disposal, I did the unthinkable and floored the loud pedal. Only it was quiet with the big motor upfront remaining as unfussed as ever. It took a deep breath, the rear squatted down and the flying lady shot skywards as the Coupé gathered momentum. It had much less of a chauffeur-like feel about it. The steering was slightly stiffer than the saloons and the suspension that bit harder too and, overall, it was the best to drive. BeforeI knew it, it was already clocking 120kph. I eased off and began to roll along in my Rolls, which has a limited top speed of 250kph — 10kph more than the saloon or the Drophead Coupé.
There was just enough time beforeI suited up for dinner to have a blast in the latter. Following a short route taking in the sights and sounds of a charming summer's evening around Nice, this one was easily my favourite.
With the same engine and revised gearbox as the other two, and even though I loved the saloon for its timeless appeal and the Coupé for its sportier credentials, the Drophead was on another planet. Parked under the moonlit night with the top down revealing its intricate teak rear decking, it looked obscenely beautiful. If money was no object, this would be the one I'd want.
Over dinner, Richard Carter, head of the RR global PR team beamed, "This is the greatest car of them all." He's got that spot on. Rolls founder Sir Henry Royce once said, "Take the best and make it better." With the Phantom Series II family, this has absolutely been achieved.