The new Rolls-Royce Corniche is the car that wasn't supposed to be. At least no one outside Rolls headquarters in Crewe, England, expected the company to introduce a new model anytime soon, given the fact that the venerable Rolls-Royce marque has been in limbo since 1998, when Vickers PLC, the parent company of both Rolls and Bentley, was the object of a fierce battle between Volkswagen and BMW.
Volkswagen won this clash of the Teutons, acquiring both the Rolls and Bentley marques. But then, in one of the most arcane deals the automobile industry has ever seen, Volkswagen spun off the Rolls name and product line to BMW, but only effective January 1, 2003. The prevailing wisdom held that Volkswagen would allow Rolls to languish. After all, why would it bolster a brand destined to become a competitor? At the time of the sale, it seemed apparent that the Rolls marque was being de-emphasized in favor of Bentley—there were nine separate Bentley models but only two Rollses, the Silver Spur and the Silver Seraph.
The new Rolls is a limited-edition car in a way that goes beyond the brand itself: The Corniche may just be the storied marque's last English-built automobile. That's because Volkswagen owns the facilities in Crewe where both Rolls and Bentley are made, and the smart money says that at midnight on December 31, 2002, BMW will pack up the Rolls-Royce nameplate and ship it off to Germany to resume manufacture there. The devilishly clever marketing scheme cooked up to sell the car capitalizes on the Rolls-Royce predicament: "It could be that for collectors and aficionados of the truly hand-built, Crewe-built Rolls-Royce motorcar, this one might prove to be quite literally its ultimate expression," teased a press release.
The fact that the new Rolls is a Corniche, a convertible model in all its editions (except for 197180, when there was also a coupe), was a straight marketing decision on the part of Rolls executives. Sales of Rolls-Royces have been down, falling by more than 25 percent worldwide from 1998 to 1999. Just 444 were sold last year, compared to 600 the previous year, and the explanation is simple: "Customers have recently been reluctant to buy into a marque with an uncertain future," Rolls-Royce CEO Tony Gott acknowledged earlier this year. (Bentley sales, in contrast, remained virtually unchanged at just over 1,000.)
In America, however, Rolls sales actually inched up to 225 from 218, more than half the worldwide total. Moreover, U.S. buyers are concentrated in the "sun" states—particularly California, Florida, and Texas, where riding around in a Rolls with the top down can be the ultimate personal statement. "We probably know seventy-five percent of the eventual Corniche buyers by name already," states Gott, a plus when you are selling a $359,990 automobile, the most expensive in the Rolls-Bentley line, beating the Bentley Azure Mulliner by $90. (Initial sales indicate that Rolls did the right thing: 26 of the first 32 firm Corniche orders came from California.)
Rolls-Royce estimates that just 450 Corniches will have been produced by the time the company is handed over to BMW. With such small numbers and no prospect of precisely the same model continuing, the new Corniche could indeed end up a classic. There's also a possibility, however, that it could end up a pariah in the eyes of Rolls traditionalists, because this car—more than anything a Rolls-Bentley hybrid—is one the company swore it would never produce.
Keeping the two marques scrupulously separate had always been a cornerstone of Rolls-Royce policy. Bentley would always be a sporty automobile, a driver's automobile, a man's automobile; Rolls would always be a sober automobile, a motorist's automobile, one a woman might want to own. It was an important distinction.
This new Corniche, however, is based on the Bentley Azure convertible and uses the basic Bentley V-8 engine. It also performs and handles more like a Bentley than a Rolls. "This is a unique car in the Crewe stable," says Gott. "It can outperform many sports cars."
Indeed it can, for the Corniche is ferocious for a Rolls-Royce. The company coyly describes its performance as "more than adequate," which is as understated as saying that the royal family "has some issues." For a car this big—it weighs more than three tons and is 17.5 feet long—the Corniche is flat-out fast, turning 60 mph from a standing stop in eight seconds. The oomph is produced by the turbocharger craftily added to the already big, 6.75-liter, 325-horsepower engine. There's a most un-Rolls-like surge when the accelerator pedal is punched, and a high-pitched whine when the turbocharger kicks in.
On the other hand, the Corniche is very much a Rolls-Royce in some respects. Inside, driver and passenger are enveloped in a refined, low-key environment of leather, hardwood, wool, and chrome—just as one would expect. The simple, all-analog instrument array is easily readable, each individual gauge surrounded by a gleaming chrome bezel. The four-wheel disk brakes are very good at bringing all this bulk to an authoritative halt. Anyone familiar with this marque will not be surprised when the Corniche lumbers around curves, and will know that the power steering has much too light a feel to give confidence in delicate maneuvers. (Keeping Miss Thornton—see Status Symbol article below—pointed in the right direction requires attention on even a moderately demanding road.) With a turning radius of nearly 40 feet, parking is something of a chore too (and chase scenes are out of the question). Not surprisingly, Corniche gets a mere 11 miles per gallon in city traffic, 16 on the highway.
Visibility to the front and sides is fine, but it is compromised rearward when the top is up by the convertible mechanism. Putting the top down is a slick operation—nothing required but a running engine and a finger on the button. All sorts of motors, lids, and hinges come into play before the top disappears without a trace. The downside is that the top stowage area eats up most of the trunk space, leaving just 6.6 cubic feet—only enough room for an oversized bag of golf clubs or a couple of medium-sized suitcases standing upright.
The Corniche that I drove had neither the exterior body-fit problems (door, hood, and trunk closure) nor the squeaks and rattles of earlier Rollses I had driven. The only noise while under way with the top up was the faint creak of good leather and the bleat of the turbocharger. Cockpit ergonomics, however, aren't as advanced as you'd expect. For example, to reach the window controls, the driver must maneuver around a door handhold—and do it backhand. The steering wheel doesn't telescope, making it difficult to reach an ideal driving position. Most annoying is the driver footwell setup: The accelerator pedal is far too narrow—since it is hoped that 35 percent of Corniche's buyers will be women, perhaps it was designed for high-heeled shoes—and too close to the brake pedal. More than once I hit both at the same time. There's also no dead pedal for the left foot, and my toes kept lodging uncomfortably beneath the emergency brake mechanism. Finally, I was surprised that the Corniche was equipped with only two air bags when far less costly luxury cars provide at least four.
Perhaps the Corniche's finest attribute is its body design—steeply raked windshield, tactfully uplifted rear fender line, and a nearly voluptuous rear deck—derived from past models but updated to reflect contemporary sensibilities. While instantly recognizable as a Rolls-Royce, the Corniche is softer, rounder, and more athletic looking—a Valkyrie gone buff.
Like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the new Corniche is stately, elaborate, highly polished, and decked out to impress. Whether it's the noble last gasp of a legendary line or a temporary corporate stopgap is really beside the point. The car itself is what counts—and this one is surely the ultimate statement of alfresco automobile ownership.
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Here's a piece of Rolls-Royce trivia, actually one that I'd always wondered about: Who was the woman who posed for the sculpture that forms the hood ornament? At the international unveiling of the Corniche at the Los Angeles Auto Show in January, CEO Tony Gott recounted that her name was Eleanor Velasco Thornton. As the story goes, in 1905 the automobile enthusiast Lord Montagu of Beaulieu commissioned his good friend, the sculptor Charles Sykes, to design a mascot for his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Mr. Sykes chose as his model the lord's secretary, Miss Thornton, who as it happened was enjoying a highly secret liaison with her employer. Sykes' original statue, of a beautiful woman in flowing robes holding a forefinger to her lips, was titled The Whisper. In 1911, Rolls-Royce co-opted the mascot craze, commissioning from Sykes a variation of The Whisper. The Spirit of Ecstasy, known widely as "The Silver Lady" or "The Flying Lady," has been fitted to the bonnet of every Rolls-Royce motorcar ever since.
Richard John Pietschmann is Departures' automotive columnist.