BMW Group’s unveiling of the Ghost, its newest addition to the Rolls Royce line-up, at the Frankfurt Motor Show last September sent a small shockwave through the blogs and forums of the automotive world. Critics responded to the new model, which is smaller and significantly cheaper than its predecessors, with a mixture of surprise, praise and confusion.
As top dog in the high-end luxury auto market, Rolls Royce’s decision to “tone down” its new model, ostensibly to produce a more affordable, driver-focused experience, seems a deviation from the company’s long-standing policy of marketing only to the best-heeled buyers. Since its earliest days, Rolls Royce has cultivated a reputation as a kingmaker — today, just owning a Rolls separates suzerains from ordinary human beings. After more than a century of production, the company has built up a reputation that goes beyond the physical properties, considerable as they may be, of the cars themselves. Now the world is wondering: could an expanded consumer base put that reputation in jeopardy?
Certainly, expanding production seems to be a major feature of BMW’s plans for the brand. When the German automaker salvaged the company in 1998 it took concerted steps to keep the personality of the brand quintessentially Rolls — in terms of know-how, feel and luxury — as well as retaining the original factory in Goodwood, England. At the same time, BMW began a gradual escalation in production levels. In 2007, Phantom sales broke the four-digit mark for the first time in the brand’s history. Today, current projections for 2010 more than double that figure, with production of 2,000 to 2,500 Ghosts anticipated.
Yet the Ghost is by no means a streetcar. Carrying a price tag of between $200,000 and $300,000, the car is likely to satisfy buyers that the Rolls Royce marque, in terms of quality and luxury, is as alive as ever in this newest model. The body alone shows the effort its designers made to incorporate the brand’s most fundamental design cues: the upward sweeping sill line, elevated prow and long bonnet all impress upon the viewer that this car, in every essence, is a Rolls.
At the same time, there is an air of informality — if such a thing can be said about a Rolls Royce — and dynamism present in the Ghost that clearly sets it apart from other cars in the Phantom line or before it. Chrome tailpipes, the car’s smaller size and flowing, powerful lines hint at a shift toward speed and power.
Indeed, the Ghost is the most powerful car made by Rolls Royce to date, due in part to its smaller size, but also to a number of mechanical modifications. The new 6.6-liter V12 engine used in the Ghost supplies 563 British horsepower — enough to propel the car from zero to 96 kilometers per hour in just 4.7 seconds. That’s not quite a supercar, but it’s getting close in terms of performance.
Breaking new ground
At the same time, the Ghost’s interior boasts all the trappings of luxury. Elegant frosted lamps, reclining lounge seating and deep-pile carpets affirm the car’s true nature. Two LCD screens, analogue watches and meters, as well as the signature flying lady icon add to the image. There is little doubt that, powerful as the Ghost may be, it is still a luxury vehicle, and still a Rolls Royce.
The real question is: can the brand foray into new territory without corrupting its core values? At the moment, the general consensus seems to be yes. The Ghost maintains an elevated standard of luxury while breaking new ground in speed and drivability. One might speculate that, spurred by a drop in sales during the global recession, the car has taken Rolls Royce to a new breed of auto enthusiasts — younger, with plenty of money to spare and an eye for both luxury and performance — without selling the brand short of the expectations of its traditional customer base.
Where does the company go from here? Is the Ghost the lowest threshold, or will BMW continue to pare down the Rolls into an ever-fainter specter of its former glory?
A policy like this would prove fatal in the long run for the same reasons it might prove lucrative in the short run. It’s the name that sells the Rolls Royce, a name built up through decades of top performance. But the drivers play a role as well — every king, president, celebrity or sheikh that adds their name to the list of Rolls’ customers adds something to the brand as well. To spread that brand around, to make it more accessible to the public, puts its star power at risk — and without star power, what is a Rolls but a really, really high-end car?
Nadim Mehanna is an automotive engineer and has been a pioneer of motoring on Middle Eastern television since 1992