Cars

All charged up?

It has tremendous torque and will cover a mile for just 7p. So why is the electric Rolls-Royce Phantom prototype getting so much flak? Simon de Burton reports.

September 28 2011
Simon de Burton

No one bats an eyelid in the quintessential English market town of Midhurst, West Sussex, as we waft through in a vibrant blue Rolls-Royce Phantom. It’s a giant of a car that you just can’t miss, but the locals are well used to seeing these behemoths of the road being squeezed down the narrow high street since it’s part of a popular test route from the R-R factory at Goodwood, just 10 miles away.

Almost more entertaining than being behind the wheel of this particular Phantom, however, is knowing what lies beneath its majestic bonnet – not the regular, 6.75 litre V12 petrol engine that swallows fuel at an average rate of 18 miles per gallon, but a giant battery pack that feeds a couple of electric motors mounted on the car’s rear sub-frame.

We’ve become used to hearing about electricity being the way forward in automotive design, and battery-powered cars are currently all the rage, but pure electric vehicles have, to date, been mostly small and outside the luxury sector. The thought that something as noble as a “Royce” ( the correct short form for the marque) could possibly have a soulless electric motor under its skin seems nothing short of absurd.

Plenty of Rolls-Royce’s “typical” customers certainly seem to think so. The one prototype electric Phantom, code-named 102EX, is currently on a world tour designed to evaluate its feasibility as a potential production model but, since it was unveiled at the Geneva motor show in March, likely punters, and the specialist motoring press in particular, have tempered any enthusiasm with grave concerns about the car’s 125-mile maximum range.

Rolls-Royce makes no pretence that it is going to put the car into production any time soon, or ever, insisting that 102EX is an experiment designed to gauge reaction. For the next three months, it will serve as a working test bed, giving current Rolls-Royce owners and other opinion-formers worldwide the chance to drive the first electric car in the super-luxury segment and tell the BMW-owned company, bluntly, what they think.

Nigel Wonnacott, the marque’s head of product PR, is disarmingly honest about the feedback: “Frankly, our customers never ask about using electric motors instead of a petrol engine. They simply aren’t interested because, at that level, the cost of running a car becomes an irrelevance and being eco-friendly is not always high on the agenda. The lack of range is also a significant issue.”

There have even been suggestions that 102EX might end up as nothing more than a good idea that never got off the ground, another attempt at using alternative power – a mildly intriguing museum footnote.

But, for what it’s worth, 102EX does have at least one ardent supporter: me. Because, while driving through the Sussex towns and villages, it became obvious that if any car should be electrically powered, surely it’s a Rolls-Royce. While, say, an electric Ferrari might seem odd because of the lack of a growling engine, a Royce’s very silence is one of its most noted features. Another is prodigious torque – and the 102EX has that in spades. In fact, with 800 Newton Metres available from the get-go, as opposed to the petrol car’s 720 Newton Metres delivered at 3,500rpm, the electric version offers an even greater and more instantaneous shove in the back. And according to engineers David Monks and Kevin Simons, who have been working on the car’s development, it would be possible to turn up the torque to tyre-shredding levels relatively easily.

And, as for running costs – well, there’s no contest. A conventional Phantom costs around £135 to refuel and, in petrol alone, around 60 pence per mile to run; 102EX, on the other hand, can be fully recharged for a mere £8 and will cover a mile for just seven pence. Imagine, Rolls-Royce cachet for the cost of running a scooter.

In fact, the aspect of driving the car that is most difficult to come to terms with is that of being able to put your foot down and enjoy the traditionally sumptuous ride without it creating any direct emissions – gingerly feathering the throttle in the name of the planet becomes a thing of the past. And it was, indeed, strangely rewarding to drive past people who assume you are burning fossil fuel at a prodigious rate when, in reality, there wasn’t so much as a drop on board.

But my rose-tinted opinion of 102EX has not, so far, taken into account the fact that, after 120 miles or so, the end of the road is nigh – or not, as the case may be.

The negatives of such a relatively short range are obvious. But hold on a moment. When, exactly, were you last overtaken by a Phantom on the motorway? Perhaps it was recently, perhaps it was a while ago – in either case, I’d like to wager that, if it’s happened at all, it hasn’t happened very often because, despite their obvious ability to eat up the miles while cosseting driver and passengers in the utmost comfort, very few modern Royces seem to be used for long-distance driving anyway.

Like it or not, the natural habitat of the Phantom and its stablemates generally doesn’t extend far beyond the likes of Bond Street, Rodeo Drive, Ginza or the Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré. Let’s be honest, this is the most glorified shopping car of all, a vehicle that rarely gets driven further than the distance from the penthouse to the helipad. So does a range of 125 miles really matter?

Somehow, I doubt it – and others in the luxury-car world seem to agree. A couple of months ago, Coventry-based Liberty Electric Cars delivered its first, £160,000 all-electric Range Rover to a client in the City of London who is, as you read this, enjoying the benefits of zero vehicle excise duty, congestion-charge exemption and the luxury and performance of a car that, in normal guise, is famously expensive to run. Yet, after a 12-hour recharge costing a few pounds, the E-Range will provide 240 miles of travel on urban roads.

Another school of thought, however, believes that pure electric luxury cars will never be viable and that the only way forward is to produce “extended range” electric vehicles that combine efficient internal combustion engines for the open road with electric motors for urban driving. The luxury sports saloon maker Bristol, which recently went into administration, was quickly revived by Kamkorp Autokraft which intends to use the name on a proposed 200mph luxury car capable of the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon using a petrol engine and complementary electric motors.

Fisker Automotive, meanwhile, is already delivering the first of its extended-range luxury saloons that cost $100,000 apiece and also use petrol/electric technology.

But what makes me believe in the feasibility of a purely electric Rolls-Royce is the fact that its potential buyers – people who can afford to spend £250,000-plus on a car without really thinking about it – will probably be happy to accept its distance limitations and, as already mentioned, might not care a jot about not being able to travel more than 100-odd miles on a single charge.

What they certainly will care about is the level of craftsmanship with which Rolls-Royce is synonymous, the cachet and presence that goes with the name and, of course, the satisfaction of driving the largest, most expensive super-luxury car on the market without having to be accused of destroying the planet.

There is, of course, the inconvenience of having to plug your Royce into a wall socket for recharge and, even worse, the ignominy of having to hook it up to an “electric motoring point” in the middle of the city. But that, too, has been taken care of by the inclusion of an induction charging system which allows recharging without any physical connection. The owner’s garage would be fitted with a floor-mounted transfer pad that delivers power from a mains source to an induction pad fitted beneath the car. It’s a simple matter of driving the car in so the two are roughly aligned in order for charging to take place. Roughly as inconvenient as recharging your electric toothbrush, really.

So, Rolls-Royce, if you want my view on whether the 102EX should become production reality, the answer is “yes”. The rather more influential readers of this magazine, meanwhile, might like to join the debate at Electricluxury.com, the Rolls-Royce website dedicated to the question. All comments are welcome, be they positive or negative, to invoke a low-voltage electrical pun.