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My lunch with (Rolls-Royce's) Ian

My lunch with (Rolls-Royce's) Ian

The CEO of Rolls-Royce, Ian Robertson, stopped over in San Francisco on Tuesday and sat down to lunch with a select group of automotive journalists. It was a great opportunity to get an insight into the new Rolls-Royce, as recreated by BMW. The German automaker bought the brand in 2002 and built an entirely new factory while carrying over only one or two employees. Mr. Robertson emphasized the vision of Mr. Royce during the founding of the company--being an engineer, Royce wanted to build mechanically perfect automobiles. That BMW's Rolls-Royce focuses on quality engineering should come as no surprise. The manner in which BMW recreated the Mini shows a similar strategy of taking a renowned brand and building a company to support its values.

Mr. Robertson pointed out that Rolls-Royce is still very exclusive, having built about 800 cars in the last year, with Los Angeles being the third largest market in the world, surpassing all but two countries. However, that number is a significant increase over past years. Another interesting note was that 90 percent of U.S. Rolls-Royce owners drive their cars themselves, as opposed to other countries where owners are more likely to rely on a chauffeur. The new Rolls-Royce launched the Phantom, a superluxury sedan, as its first model. A convertible, which Mr. Robertson insisted still hadn't been named, is due in early 2007. A coupe has been seen in concept and is a likely third model. Mr. Robertson put few limits on future models Rolls-Royce could launch, even suggesting an SUV would fit in the company's purview, based on historical examples the car company sold in India.

Of course, the lunch interview wouldn't have been complete without a Phantom for dessert. This is one big sedan, with 21-inch wheels and a seating position at SUV height. An aluminum subframe keeps the car's weight down to about two and a half tons, while a 6.7-liter V-12 (head and block sourced from BMW) mated to a six- speed automatic powers this behemoth. Variable valve lift and timing enhances the power plant's efficiency and produces 531 pound-feet of torque, 70 percent of it available at 1,000rpm. An electronically controlled air suspension adjusts to whatever type of road surface the car is traveling over. Underneath the fine wood and leather interior, a host of electronics serve driving and entertainment needs. An LCD hides under wood veneer in the center dash, displaying front and rear cameras, car information, GPS route guidance, CD track, DVD, and even a TV tuner. A voice command system, which seemed very useable during this brief introduction, lets the driver control many of the car's functions without having to lift a finger. Although Rolls-Royce is happy to customize the cars to whatever its well-heeled customers demand, the default stereo system is by Harman Kardon, with 15 speakers around the cabin, including two subwoofers underneath the floor panels. Alas, the particular Phantom we looked at couldn't stay long, as it was due in Los Angeles to appear in Ocean's Thirteen. Oh, the life of a star.