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Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review

Published:17 June 2011

Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
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By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features

This is the Rolls-Royce 102EX. Also known as the Phantom Experimental Electric, it swaps V12 petrol power for a massive block of batteries and electric motors to create perhaps the least-likely EV conversion ever.

Does the Rolls-Royce 102EX work as a viable EV luxury limo? Read on for CAR's drive of the 102EX to find out...

Rolls-Royce 102EX: the rationale for an electic Roller

It’s worth starting with the question of why Rolls-Royce is building an electric car. This is not, the firm is very keen to stress, a ‘green’ concept. This is not about environmental sustainability. It’s far more important than that: it’s about the sustainability of Rolls-Royce as a business. Its customers don’t ask it for more environmentally-acceptable cars. It’s not that they don’t care. If they want a Tesla or a Leaf or a Prius they’ll just buy one; they don’t look to Rolls-Royce for green solutions, and as one of a fleet of cars don’t drive their Phantom or Ghost far or often enough to be bothered by its consumption.

But this is a problem for Rolls-Royce, which knows that one day the oil will run out, and that it needs to be ready with an alternative to petrol V12s that its customers find acceptable. You’d have thought that near-silent, vibration-free electric motors that deliver all their huge torque instantly would be ideal; in the quest for perfect refinement, imagine being able to take the noise, vibration and harshness of an internal combustion engine (even a silky Rolls V12) out of the equation altogether. But a Rolls-Royce is more than a luxury good; it’s meant to be a supreme piece of engineering too, and the firm is remarkably candid about being unsure how important an actual engine is to its reputation for engineering. That’s why it has built the 102EX. And it seems quite prepared for its customers to hate it.

And then there’s the range problem - 125 miles in the 102EX. It’s actually less of a problem in a Rolls-Royce than almost anything else. They do lower mileages than other cars; they’re typically used to move around city centres, or go from town to the airport or a suburban home. Nobody runs a Rolls-Royce as their only car; buy an electric Phantom and you’ll have another car (probably another Rolls) for trips longer than the battery can manage. And because a Rolls-Royce is already so furiously expensive, the cost of the battery, which usually distorts the price and economics of ordinary electric cars, is much less significant, and Rolls can simply fit the biggest the car will take.

Rolls-Royce 102EX: the EV powertrain

So up front is what Rolls believes is the biggest battery ever fitted to a passenger car: 96 snappily-titled lithium-nickel-cobalt-manganese-oxide cells arranged to mimic the shape of the absent V12 and gearbox. Total capacity is 71kWh, peak current 850 amps delivered at 338 volts. Three chargers sit on top of the pack to allow for three-phase charging; a full charge takes between eight and 20 hours depending on supply. There’s a five-pin socket that glows and flashes as it works in the hatch in the C-pillar vacated by the fuel filler, and an induction-charging plate underneath that will allow you to charge up by driving over a similar plate in the heated floor of your garage, doing away with the need to ever stick anything the side of your car. High-voltage cables run back through the space vacated by the propshaft, but because they need less space the floor of the car is now entirely flat. Two 145kW AC motors sit above the rear axle and drive it through a single reduction gear and an open differential.

It isn’t a technologically radical drivetrain; Rolls looked at adding a flywheel based on the system developed by Williams for the F1 KERS experiment to recover more energy, and a torque-vectoring diff, but decided that just electrifying a Phantom was enough to begin with. The styling isn’t radically different either, again to keep the focus on the tech. There’s a gorgeous new sixteen-layer Atlantic Chrome paint finish, and a new, more environmentally-friendly vegetable-tanned chestnut leather trim that shows more of the hides’ natural creases and even extends to the floor. The Spirit of Ecstasy is made of translucent Makrolon polycarbonate and lit with blue LEDS, and the RR logo is red, as it always has been on ‘experimental’ models.

The numbers do stand out. The 102EX makes a total of 388bhp, down from 453bhp with the V12, but torque goes up ten per cent to 590lb ft. At around 2700kgs, mass is up less than 200kgs but that monstrous torque figure means the Phantom will still hit 60mph in less than eight seconds, and is limited to a top end of 100mph.

Driving the Rolls-Royce 102EX

But forget all the figures. Numbers can’t describe what it’s like to drive an electric Rolls-Royce. The 102EX makes a strong claim to be the most refined car ever made, and driving it is one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had at the wheel. The effortless, almost silent way it surges away from standstill will be familiar to anyone who’s driven a modern electric vehicle. There’s a faint, Star-Trek sigh from the twin electric motors behind the rear seats; the engineers could have damped it all away, but I like it.

Because a Rolls V12 is so refined anyway, the contrast between petrol and electric isn’t as great as it is in other electrified cars. In those other cars, the absence of the noise and vibration of an engine means you notice more suspension, tyre and wind noise; they’re not louder, plainly, but just more noticeable, and not good to listen to. But because the Rolls still has arguably the best chassis refinement of any car, even after eight years on sale, there isn’t anything much left to hear or feel. Any time you sit in a seat and are moved forward – in a car, train or aircraft – you feel vibration. Driving the 102EX is like sitting in the sofa you might be reading this from; your eyes tell you you’re moving, but your arse totally disagrees. You don’t feel disconnected; you’re still in charge, and despite being powered electrically rather than hydraulically the steering and brakes still have the same weight and feel. It’s eerie-delightful; it made me giggle aloud the first time I moved off, and I think Rolls-Royce owners are going to love it.

Forgetting the limitations of the 102EX's battery pack

I started off driving incredibly carefully, not out of respect for the car’s range but instead for its total irreplaceability; this car, as the CEO said in that speech, is the future of the company. But like any other Phantom the 102EX drives with an ease and grace that belie its size; the high driving position and great square plateau of bonnet – surely the best view in motoring – imparting complete confidence.

So I soon reverted to the way you’d usually drive a Phantom; one arm on the broad, high door sill, the other using just a finger to twirl the breadstick-thin steering wheel. I wasn’t consciously trying to maximize the range, but a Rolls and an EV ought to be driven the same way; smoothly and seamlessly, lifting off early when you see an obstruction, braking as little as possible and observing the speed limits. Like other good EVs the Rolls is an immensely relaxing thing to drive; not only is there no noise and only one gear, but you seldom need to shift your foot to the brake as the gentle braking effect of the motors as they become generators generally slows you enough anyway. In the 102EX the button on the steering wheel that usually locks the transmission in low instead gives stronger regenerative braking, recovering more energy and slowing the car firmly enough to bring it to a halt if you time it right, so you drive this vast, priceless car with just a flex of your right ankle and a flick of the thumb.

Going the distance in the 102EX

On the return leg of our test run the ‘fuel’ gauge was falling more slowly than the miles were accumulating; I don’t know whether we were drawing less power or if the gauge wasn’t perfectly linear, but my bad maths told me we were going to make it back to base. So I started hoofing the Phantom away from junctions. Purely in the interests of dynamic assessment, of course. And I’m pleased to report that it feels pretty good; deliberately gentle up to about 20mph, when the vast weight is overcome by even greater torque and you get that lovely, irresistible, guilt-free surge of torque. It might not be as fast as a V12, but it’s fast enough.

Verdict

By putting such a big battery in such a big car, Rolls-Royce shows the limits of the possible. It’s the first real exploration of how super-luxury cars might drive in 20 years’ time. And despite its protestations, Rolls-Royce is going to find it very hard to resist the customers who will come to it with open chequebooks once they’ve driven this extraordinary car, asking for a 102EX of their own.

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  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review
  • Rolls-Royce 102 EX (2011) CAR first drive review

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features

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