The Dawn is not your proletarian luxury car

BY David Booth. Sep 30 04:00 am

BOSTON — How does a lowly auto journalist determine if someone should buy a Rolls-Royce? The $442,600 that a brand-new 2016 Dawn costs — no bespoke options included — would be, if it happened to come my way today by lottery, enough for me to cash in what RRSPs I have and retire to a semi-affluent dotage. In fact, $440,000 is more than the average net worth of every household in Canada (save in Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario).

In other words, most of us — Yours Truly very much included — have no sense of what the purchase decision to buy a half-million-dollar car might look like. For anyone seriously shopping a Rolls-Royce, money is probably not an issue, particularly if you’re shopping a Dawn, all the more indulgent because it’s a convertible you’ll only drive in the summer. Indeed, statistics say that, if you park a Roller in your driveway, there’s probably another six or seven cars in the garage, none of which, as you can imagine, is a rusting-out 1998 Corolla. How, then, is someone like Yours Truly, for whom money is always an issue, to judge whether someone, for whom it is most definitely not, should plunk down the equivalent of my entire net savings on what is, after all, just a car?

The best thing to do, I can hear my dear old dad whispering (actually bellowing) in my ear, is to “just play it straight.” Focus on the basics: Is the 2017 Rolls-Royce Dawn a good car?

Things get off to a good start with the engine. It’s a twin-turbocharged V-12 of BMW origin (the company has owned Rolls since 2003) with 6.6 litres of displacement and 563 horsepower.

More importantly, there’s 575 pound-feet of torque, which is the reason the Dawn can steam — a Roller never “jumps” or “scoots” — to 100 kilometres an hour in under five seconds, despite weighing 2,560 kilograms (think small school bus or the mother of all Ford F-150s).

Of course, you never actually know what r.p.m. Rolls’ big V-12 is spinning because there is no tachometer. No, that would be just a little too déclassé. Instead, there’s a Reserve Power gauge. As the name suggests, it’s not how much power you’re making that concerns Rolls-Royce, but how much torque you have in reserve for emergencies. Indeed, for those rich enough to afford a Roller, Reserve Power is to r.p.m. what capital is to income. With a tachometer, you have an immediate sense of how much “income” your engine is generating right now. Reserve Power, on the other hand, tells you how much capital the engine has left in the bank, just in case the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan. Financial advisers call this “capital preservation.” Rolls-Royce calls it Reserve Power.

As impressive as the powertrain is, however, it is the ride that distinguishes the Dawn from more proletarian luxury cars. I’m not sure if it’s the supple suspension, the sponginess of the huge, high-profile tires or the simple fact that, because it weighs only a little less than an ocean liner, the Dawn’s incredible sprung/unsprung weight ratio — the difference between the mass of the car and the weight of the wheel — simply overwhelms bumps.

Anything short of a swimming pool-size pothole simply cannot be felt inside the cabin. Oh, you know they’re there. You can see them coming through that great, hulking windshield. And there is some sort of distant thunka-thunka noise coming from the tires as you roll over the largest crevasses. But feel them? Please. That’s for lesser automobiles. Hell, even the speed bumps we aimed at, just to see if something could upset the big Roller, failed to get the suspension’s attention. Not only are the rich not like you and I, their cars don’t drive like ours, either.

The bigger surprise, though, is that the ride is not at all floaty. Indeed, the Dawn’s suspension is firm. OK, firm-ish. It certainly doesn’t flounder in corners or porpoise over bumps like a Cadillac of yore. Indeed, the drophead — don’t call it a convertible; that’s for Bentleys — Roller handles with aplomb.

The biggest impediment (besides the fact that it is as big as a small tugboat) to back-road banditry is over-boosted steering. Rolls sees the Dawn’s clientele being anyone from a 21-year-old Facebook magnate to an 82-year-old matron of the arts. The former might push enough weights to manhandle a 2,560 kilogram/5,285-millimetre-long land yacht, but the latter probably can’t.

All of which matters only peripherally. You don’t buy a Rolls-Royce for its acceleration, handling or steering feel. What you really care about is substance and style, both of which the Dawn has in abundance.

The latter you can see in pictures, the big drophead’s shape almost organic, Rolls completely eschewing the “style generating” crease-lines that so many luxury automakers use to add drama to otherwise uninspiring silhouettes. If there is a way to diminish the girth of a 5,285-mm car that rides on 21-inch tires, Giles Taylor, Rolls-Royce’s design chief, has found it. It looks almost sporty.

Of course, it goes without saying that when you plunk yourself down in any of the Dawn’s four bucket seats, you’ll find a hedonism unlike in any other motor car. Leather so soft a baby’s bottom might be jealous. Wood trim delicately crafted. Chromed switchgear that reminds you that brightwork, properly muted, does belong in haute couture. It is true: When you sit in a Rolls-Royce, you really do feel as if you’ve “arrived.”

There are a few flaws. The “Bespoke” audio system and its 16 speakers are sonorous, but not quite as good as the Bang & Olufsen systems in top-of-the-line Audis.

And the navigation system! Frustrating as only an English schoolmarm’s pedantic instructions can be. By the time the navigation lady gets to the point, you’ve already missed the turn. I suppose the chauffeur is supposed to know where he’s going, but sooner or later, you’ve got to give him a day off.

The most unusual thing about the Dawn’s interior, however, is that it is designed for four people. Most two-door convertibles may pretend to have a back seat, but if you really have to go to the theatre en couple, you take the Phantom, right?

Rolls sees the Dawn attracting a younger clientele who are more social (as in actually socializing, not trolling social media) so the rear accommodations are real seats, not just a place to throw your Gucci bags.

Think Entourage — right down to the “suicide” doors — only with British reserve replacing American brash. Like everything about the Dawn, those rear buckets are plenty accommodating and, as befits a Rolls-Royce, incredibly comfortable.

So to all you rich IT entrepreneurs and social media gurus reading this, I may still not know if you should spend $442,600 on a Rolls-Royce Dawn. I can, however, attest that it’s a good car.

—Postmedia Network Inc. 2016

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