Rolls-Royce is at a crossroads, trying to figure out which way to turn its majestic cars. The producer of ultra-luxury motors, patronised by successful entrepreneurs, entertainers and royalty, is looking to the future and sees a world in which its gas-guzzling V-12 engines stall under pressure from harsh government regulations to curb carbon emissions.
So the BMW-owned carmaker of British heritage has embarked on an experiment that it modestly calls a 'market research' project, which has involved building an all-electric version of its most exclusive model, the Phantom. This year, the 102EX, or Phantom EE as it's also called, is being flown around the world to test the pulse of buyers, car industry specialists and the media.
The saloon was in Beijing last week for its only stop in China after a stint in Singapore. It will make further stops in Europe, the Middle East, Japan and North America.
The problem is, Rolls-Royce fears, the first ultra-luxury electric car might not be something traditional customers give a damn about.
'Rolls-Royce owners are people who are used to getting what they want; they are very demanding,' says Richard Carter, the carmaker's director of global communications.
'An owner might say, 'I have 14 factories and have just reduced my carbon emissions by X tonnes - and you're talking about grams!' They believe they deserve to have a Rolls-Royce. But Brussels, California or China could introduce new caps on emissions tomorrow and we'd be out of business. Rolls-Royce owners love their V-12s and we have to explain this to them. The attitude of owners has to change.'
Self-made multimillionaires make up the bulk of Phantom owners, and they have no problem thinking outside the box when it comes to bespoke. Whatever they want, as long as it doesn't compromise the basic Rolls-Royce blueprint, they get. It could be a family crest embroidered onto the headrests, a picture of mum behind the speedometer. Customers can also choose from scores of colours for the leather and wood veneer, and from a vast colour range for the paintwork. Want your car the same shade as your favourite wine? No problem. The colour of your beloved poodle? Easily done.
But what owners may not give much thought to is the 385 grams of carbon dioxide the Phantom emits for every kilometre they drive. The car is marginally less polluting than Bentley's flagship Mulsanne, which produces 393 grams of carbon dioxide a kilometre. A Maybach spews about 350 grams, a BMW 7 Series emits 232 grams and a Mercedes-Benz S-300 just 220 grams.
Rolls-Royce says the zero-emission 102EX is not a prototype lined up for production; it's purely an experiment as it seeks the most efficient drive-train to take its cars forward, be it all-electric, hybrid or a technology still over the horizon.
'We'll make a decision at the beginning of next year over whether we will go ahead, choose a different direction or do nothing,' says Hal Serudin, the carmaker's corporate communications manager for the Asia-Pacific region.
On the surface, the 102EX has the same regal bearing as the standard Phantom, but then it's not meant to look different. It has the familiar bold, clean lines that form a 5.84-metre-long body reinvented in 2003. Noticeably different is the Spirit of Ecstasy on the prow of a grille wider than a mahjong table. Following the electric theme, the figurine is moulded from a semi-transparent polycarbonate illuminated from beneath by electric-blue LEDs. Then there's the five-pin electrical socket where the fuel cap would be, under a clear window and surrounded by blue LEDs that turn green when it's fully recharged.
The plush interior gives more away. Departing dramatically from the traditional wood veneer, the 102EX has a chrome-finished dashboard and panels of woven aluminised foil that give a more contemporary look.
A plant-based dyeing process has been used to produce a softer leather that coats the seats and much of the interior, while the sumptuous carpeting on the floor has also given way to leather.
On the console, where the fuel gauge is normally situated there is a battery charge indicator. The Phantom's reserve dial, showing how much of the V-12's power remains unfettered, is now a meter showing the degree of recharge taking place while the car is moving.
Under the bonnet, a 658kg lithium-ion battery pack, the biggest ever used in a car, sits where the 6.75-litre engine usually goes. In the absence of the six-speed gearbox, the batteries are connected to two electric motors at the back, where the fuel tank would be located. The motors together produce 389 brake horsepower, lower than the petrol-driven car's 453bhp, but the torque has been ramped up to 800Nm, versus 720Nm, and is available over a broad range, rather than at 3,500 rpm. The new technology, however, adds about 200kg to the weight of the car.
To get a feel of Rolls-Royce's electric dream, we drove a petrol-driven Phantom - a 6.08-metre long-wheelbase model - back to back with the 102EX, along a stretch of winding, hilly roads near the Great Wall at Badaling, and on a straight strip of road for a speed test.
From the outside, a low-level hum is heard as the standard Phantom starts up - and that's just the fan cooling the famously quiet engine. Behind the wheel, rather than leaping into action, the Phantom gathers steam gradually.
It feels heavy, but in a solid and reliable way, and there are enough dizzying turns on the country roads to fully feel the Phantom's steering agility. There's a whip-like whoosh as the car weaves around tight bends. Then it dawns that this is not engine noise, it's the sound the car makes as it cuts through the air; the pitch rises when steering into a corner. Hit a bumpy patch and there's a distant, muffled thud that cannot be felt in the cabin.
In the speed test, the car accelerated from zero to just 60km/h in about four seconds, wheezing like a plane taking off - albeit infinitely quieter - before we were commanded to brake and bring the incredible hulk to a safe halt.
Switch to the driving seat of the 102EX, which rolled out of the workshop in March, and the difference is barely discernable. It's hard to tell if the car is quieter, since this is already a hallmark of the Phantom. (So the argument about electric cars being a hazard to pedestrians is redundant here.)
Still, the 102EX makes the same whoosh around the corners and the same mighty vroom as it speeds up the straight, with no impairment in performance, no noticeable lag felt from the extra weight, nor any issues with braking during the speed test.
Rolls-Royce says the electric car can reach 100km/h in under eight seconds, against the standard Phantom's 5.9 seconds. Its top speed is limited to 160km/h, compared with 240km/h for the V-12.
There are some things to get used to. Unlike a regular automatic, which creeps forward in drive mode if the brakes are not applied, the 102EX waits for you to accelerate. Take your foot off the brake pedal on an incline in drive mode and, rather than remain stationary like most automatics, it rolls backwards. Switch the brake regeneration to low mode going downhill and it feels like the car has been shifted down a gear as it feeds more power back to the battery.
While the 102EX is as much of a dream to drive - and be driven in - as the standard Phantom, weight, range and recharging times could be an unholy trinity as the carmaker seeks an accommodation with its demanding customers. Carter says weight was not a consideration when designing the car and the issue could be resolved if buyers respond positively to Rolls-Royce's concept of electric luxury.
Will high rollers tolerate a Roller that travels only 200 kilometres before stalling? It shouldn't be an issue in Hong Kong, and Phantoms are rarely an everyday drive anyway.
But then there's the recharge times? Using the household mains, this takes about 20 hours, while a three-phase option takes eight hours. It can also be recharged using a wireless induction plate that is being tested on the 102EX, which takes 10 hours.
Rolls-Royce customers must decide whether the electric Phantom is a car they could rely on or just a beautiful aberration.
Spot the difference
Drive-train: a 6.75-litre, V-12 petrol engine, connected to a six-speed transmission, with an output of 453 brake horsepower and 720Nm of torque at 5,350rpm
Speed: reaches 100km/h from zero in 5.9 seconds and has a top speed of 240km/h
Economy: a combined fuel consumption of 16.5 litres per 100 kilometres
Emissions: 385 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre
Drive-train: a battery pack of 96 lithium-ion cell pouches connected to a single-speed 6:5:1 with integral differential and twin electric motors to produce 389 brake horsepower and 800Nm of torque over a wide range.
Speed: reaches 100km/h from zero in under eight seconds and has a top speed of 160km/h
Economy: depends on the cost of electricity in your area