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30 September 2009

It wouldn’t be a newsflash to proclaim the times we live in as rocky. Even Los Angeles, usually a town relatively steady in tough times, is showing the strain, and not just for us hoi polloi—the film industry is starting to look very vulnerable, and spending is down. Way down. The evidence is as unavoidable as the strangely empty storefronts on Rodeo Drive. Film studio bosses are sweating over loans in the billions that have looming, unfathomable payment deadlines. Talent agency execs, who are used to literally fighting to represent the hottest actors, directors and writers in town, are suddenly merging their rival companies, preaching “synergy” even as they keep their backs to the wall to prevent being stabbed. Nobody in this town isn’t aware of the New Deal, and nothing is sacred. Even the iconic palm trees rooted everywhere in the city are slated to be replaced by plain old oak trees, deemed cheaper to buy and maintain. The industry that makes dreams is trying to adjust, but the outcome is potentially not the happy Hollywood ending everyone has always taken for granted.

So, what should we make of the introduction of this, the drop-dead beautiful Rolls-Royce Concept EX200? The latest and sexiest Flying Lady was shown to a small group of press in an art gallery right in the heart of Beverly Hills, and it somehow managed to both confirm and deny the time and place we live in perfectly.

Even now, among all this economic uncertainty, we still understand that the archetypal Rolls-Royce buyer isn’t really concerned about whether they can afford the car, at least in terms of price. They still have ample reserves of money—though perhaps less than before—across the board. But the question is, can they afford the way people will perceive them if they suddenly show up at their place of business with a brand new Rolls? Rolls-Royce owners may be captains of industry, but this means they often have to report to shareholders, various boards of directors and the like; therefore they cannot afford to look financially irresponsible when their businesses are in the middle of massive cost-cutting measures. Conversely, pulling up to the reserved spot in a Hyundai Genesis could send signals that the business is somehow in trouble. The perception of confidence must be maintained, and the Masters of the Universe know this.

Enter the newest Rolls-Royce, to be called “Ghost” when it arrives in dealers later this year. Not a cut-rate, bargain Roller—the mere suggestion of trimming corners is anathema to the Rolls-Royce mission—but a smaller, more casual Rolls-Royce. The car we’re previewing today isn’t the finished product, but we’re told that this concept was essentially, with very minor changes, what we will see arriving in showrooms as a 2010 model.

Victoria Bennett, launch manager for the Ghost, pointed out that the Phantom, because of its caricature-like proportions and opulence, tends be considered an “event” car—something that the owner typically uses for more exclusive occasions. Thus, the company views the production Ghost as the “everyday” Rolls—more manageable in size, more discreet in design, genuinely suitable for day-to-day life. They also see this car as being more appealing to female owners, as a driving prospect, than the Phantom, whose size makes it a bit unwieldy and intimidating to some. While certainly not small, the Ghost looks measurably more nimble for someone looking to hit Little Santa Monica Boulevard for some shopping exercise.

Ian Cameron, chief designer for Rolls-Royce, explained that this EX200 prototype was in the midst of a worldwide tour, having already been to Shanghai and Miami, and would continue on to New York and Moscow—all the cities where the car was expected to draw interest from prospective customers—and he is always careful to gauge reaction to his work. Judging by the hugely positive reaction at the Beverly Hills event, he had nothing to worry about. The car is genuinely gorgeous in person; undoubtedly a true Rolls-Royce, it’s the little details that pique our interest. The front end deserves particular attention here. It clearly shares strong elements with its larger brother, but note the execution; the grille, running lights and headlights of the Phantom all protrude, reaching out from the body. On the EX200, these are all recessed into the body—smoother, less aggressive, literally less in-your-face. It makes sense both from a design perspective for the smaller car, and, of course, pedestrian safety.

The attention to detail in the interior made it clear that this was not ever to be considered a “cheaper” version of the Phantom; far from it. Everyone I talked to, from Miss Bennett to Mr. Cameron, made it very clear that this was a car that would be equipped with every opulent detail Rolls-Royce could reasonably fit into it. The concept was trimmed in a cream leather of unimaginable suppleness. The dash details were traditional Rolls, with gorgeous, deep wood veneers and hefty chrome organ-stop vent controls all present and accounted for. Given that, however, the two thoroughly modern iDrive-looking knobs—one in the front and one installed in the rear center armrest—look a bit jarring by their mere presence, despite an impeccably clean execution.

So it was gorgeous, but the motor… well, here it got more interesting. The press packet simply states, “new V12,” and we all know Rolls has a long tradition of describing the horsepower as “adequate.” But now they are more than happy to discuss details—twin turbo V12, around 550 HP. The fine representatives with whom I spoke were very clear that they did NOT consider this a sports sedan, and mentioning any other car as a potential “competitor” really isn’t the Rolls-Royce Way. But it seems that the owners of, say, Bentley Continentals and Mercedes-Benz S65s might see this car as being a refreshing alternative, though it will be more expensive. If that really matters once youre up past $200,000, which we don’t think it does.

How much more will it cost than those cars? Honestly, price simply wasn’t ever brought up. Tacky to even think about it, really. But the car clearly slots in beneath the Phantom, so consider a quarter-mil’ an informed guess. If the concept is anything to go by, the car should do well with potential buyers, as long as they accept the premise that buying this car is indeed a relatively reasonable, even practical expense. Oh, and rehearse those speeches for the shareholders, people.

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