The Rolls-Royce

Drive into the small Italian town of Montalcino, perched on a hill overlooking the vineyards of Tuscany, at the wheel of a spanking new Phantom Drophead Coupé and you'll understand. A group of cyclists pause by the side of the road to grin and wave. Pedestrians nudge their companions and point, then add their own smiles and waves. Their happiness is infectious and soon you're smiling and waving back like a rock star or a head of state on tour. The arrival of a Rolls-Royce, especially a convertible, is cause for celebration. The famous "flying lady" hood ornament, called the Spirit of Ecstasy, couldn't be more aptly named. What is it about these cars that prompt such a joyous response?

The appearance of the Drophead Coupé is less like the coming of a motor vehicle than it is the docking of an extravagant yacht that just happens to travel on land. Indeed, the nautical comparison is one the company has cultivated, to the point of offering teak decking for the rear roof cover and an all-weather interior.

And then, of course, there is the rarity. Only 805 hand-built Rolls-Royce vehicles were produced in 2006 at the company's Goodwood, England, factory. That makes a sighting of a new model as noteworthy as that of any rare animal species.

Rolls-Royce traces its lineage to 1904, but it needed a little pick-me-up in the new millen- nium. BMW purchased the company in 1998 and moved quickly to reassert Rolls- Royce's standing as the ultimate car. First came the Phantom sedan in 2004, reminiscent of the storied Silver Cloud in its traditional lines and stateliness, prompting such hotels as the Peninsula Hong Kong to order customized models for chauffeuring guests about (at a cost of almost $340,000 each).

With the Phantom sedan serving as a reference point, the Drophead Coupé is a bit of a rule breaker. More expensive, at a base price of $412,000, it is—as befitting a convertible—less formal and more dynamic than the Phantom. Its sense of fun is reinforced by an optional brushed-stainless-steel hood that gives the car a sort of relaxed air, even with the signature Greek temple–style grille. The front end is more streamlined than in previous Rolls models, with the bumper integrated into the overall design. The rear trunk adds to this sense of joie de vivre with the inclusion of a foldout picnic bench that supports 330 pounds (a weight restriction that may limit its use by the average American couple, however). And at 18 feet 5 inches in length, it's 9.8 inches shorter than the Phantom sedan, making the Drophead Coupé more maneuverable. That's not to say it's small—the car is nearly six and a half feet wide, and the weight approaches three tons. Tiny cameras situated to the left and right of the bumper send video images to a dashboard monitor, very handy when the long nose is poking out into traffic well ahead of your sight line.

The two rear-hinged coach doors open wide for easy access to the intimate yet comfortable backseat. But don't worry about having to pull those big doors closed because that happens at the touch of a button. Then there is the muscular 12-cylinder engine, smoothly manipulated by an automatic six-speed transmission, with a top speed of 149 mph and zero-to-60-mph acceleration in less than six seconds. Seventy-five percent of the engine's peak torque is available at a low 1,000 rpm, which makes the car notably quick and responsive for its size. And should you get caught in the rain, raise the canvas roof and you will feel as though you're under a canopy of cashmere. The Drophead Coupé comes in nine launch colors, but available bespoke opportunities that include a wider palette will no doubt elicit even more smiles and waves from admirers.