Car Culture

Rolls-Royce 102EX does the electric glide

CNET gets to drive the Rolls-Royce 102EX, an experimental electric vehicle based on the Phantom, at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show.

Josh Miller/CNET

LOS ANGELES--CNET takes Rolls-Royce's experimental electric car for a cruise here at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

Earlier this year in Geneva I got to look at the Rolls-Royce 102EX, an experimental electric car based on the Phantom. At the Los Angeles Auto Show, I actually got to drive it.

When Rolls-Royce first mentioned it had built this electric car those many months ago, I believe I said something like, "Wha?" The Phantom is a massive vehicle devoted to excessive luxury. It weighs 5,800 pounds and is powered by a 6.7-liter V-12. It seemed like it would take all the batteries in the world to move one with an electric power train.

Rolls-Royce 102EX
It's a good day when you get to drive a Rolls, and even better when it is electric. Josh Miller/CNET

But in Geneva, Rolls-Royce showed off the 102EX, and insisted it could drive under its own power. As it was confined to the show floor, I had to take Rolls-Royce's word for it.

Now I have proof. Rolls-Royce had the car, the only one of its kind in the world, sitting curbside at the convention center. I got behind the wheel, adjusted the mirrors, and was ready to go. As I moved the stalk to drive, the car just sat there, Rolls-Royce having disabled its ability to creep. I gave it a little pedal and this massive machine moved forward with the slow grace of an ocean liner.

Wonder of wonders, it could move. And even better, the electric power train made it move quietly and smoothly, more so than the gas-engine Phantom. This silky drive quality is exactly what Rolls-Royce engineers have spent decades trying to engineer into cars.

Moving out onto the gritty streets of Los Angeles, I turned the wheel and was treated to the prow of the 102EX coming around. The electric power-steering system made moving the wheel effortless.

Rolls-Royce 102EX
The engine bay is packed with components of the electric power train, but the motors are at the rear wheels. Josh Miller/CNET

When I gave it more pedal, the 102EX did not balk, responding quickly to my call for acceleration. Two 145-kilowatt motors, one at each rear wheel, combine to deliver 590 pound-feet of torque, sufficient to push the car comfortably.

In Rolls-Royce tradition, an analog gauge on the instrument cluster showed available power. With no throttle, it sits at 100. Never quite having the room to push it to full throttle on these LA streets, I did get the gauge down to 60. Using only 40 percent of its available power I had adequate push for quick city merging.

As with any electric vehicle, the harder I pushed the pedal, the quicker the batteries would drain. I assumed, given the weight of the vehicle, that full throttle would use up all the power of a small town. But my Rolls-Royce minders said the car has a range of 125 miles, so it must be well-filled with batteries. The battery capacity is 71 kilowatt-hours, apparently the most ever applied to an electric car.

The 102EX has two regenerative modes, heavy and light. I started driving in the default, light mode, and the car coasted easily when I took my foot off the pedal. When I pushed the steering wheel button for heavy regenerative mode while under way, there was no abrupt slow-down. Rolls-Royce took the time to program in a smooth transition between the two modes. But once fully engaged, the heavy regenerative mode slowed the car more significantly when I lifted off the throttle.

While cruising at low speed, I did notice some slight torque feathering, but a Rolls-Royce representative said it was due to wheel bushings that had gone bad during the car's heavy testing. One of the Rolls-Royce engineers suggested that the large amount of torque put more stress on the bearings than the gas engine.

But as well as the 102EX drove under electric power, Rolls-Royce says it will never enter production. The company is merely using it to gather feedback from its customers. The company has taken the car around the world, visiting 600 customers in different cities to see if the 102EX measures up to what they expect from a Rolls-Royce.

See all CNET's coverage from the 2011 Los Angeles auto show.