Rolls-Royce Dawn Is a Mid-Summer's Dream Car

Courtesy of Rolls Royce

With its fabric droptop and yacht-like cabin, the Dawn nods to Gatsby-era luxury on a thoroughly modern plaform.

Like veddy British Cunard (Queen Mary) and British Airways (Concorde), Rolls-Royce denotes its models sans article. This year, Rolls announced it was phasing out its $400,000-plus flagship Phantom sedan, coupe and drophead (Brit-speak for 'convertible'). Taking the place of the drophead in the Rolls stable is Dawn, a purpose-built convertible just hitting the streets after months of mostly justified fawning in the automotive press for its fetching looks and, as I can attest having driven one to and from Malibu recently, taught handling and impeccable road manners.

This newest of Rollers is what Jay Gatsby would have called a cream puff, but that would miss the intent of Rolls as it balances its future on the knife-edge of pleasing its traditional customers, many of them born in the Truman administration, and forty-ish freespenders who like their luxury with lashings of performance.

Rolls-Royce has taken pains to differentiate its current lineup, conceived under BMW, the owner of its name and logo since 2008, from the wheezing image as portrayed by Dudley Moore in 1981's Arthur: a sodden prat given to haranguing the hoi poloi from his chauffeur-driven Rolls Silver Wraith. The brief: create a suite of cars plausible for a younger, hipper demographic without tarnishing the brand's bullet-proof superpremium legacy, a tall order that archrival (and Volkswagen-owned) Bentley accomplished a decade ago with its Flying Spur and Continental but for Rolls remains a work in progress. (Bentley's first $229,000 Bentayga SUV went to Queen Elizabeth but a Rolls SUV is still at least a year away.)

Rolls 2.0 began to hit its stride in 2013 with the introduction of the rakish Ghost, Rolls' $300,000 answer to Bentley's $200,00 Flying Spur, and its really rakish fastbacked Wraith, that borrowed its name but almost nothing else from Arthur's bloated ride. Wraith has since been embraced by wealthy Silicon Valley gearheads and young Hollywood players unconflicted about dropping 300 large on what is sometimes their second or third ride: Kylie Jenner recently added a nail-polish-red Wraith to her motor pool, which already comprises a Ghost and a Ferrari 458, and commemorated the acquisition with celebratory snaps on Snapchat.

Dawn shares Wraith's high belt-line and rear-hinged "suicide" doors, and by any reasonable measure would appear to be Wraith repurposed as a svelte convertible. No so, protests Rolls, although the family similarity is inevitable, given that Dawn shares with Wraith the iconic Rolls prow and Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, not to mention the 568 hp twin-turbo V-12 adapted from the engine used in the BMW 760i. But it is also evidence that Rolls is thinking like a modern car company: Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and, yes, Bentley have been moving toward a company-wide, brand-defining aesthetic for years in which the new $42,000 Mercedes C300 looks like a three-quarter scale version of the $95,000 S550.

Dawn's cabin is hands-down one of the most gorgeous in autodom, all the more so when the top drops and the bookmatched open-pore veneer--which lends to the sensation of piloting a powerboat instead of a car--and acres contrasting, RR-logo-bedecked leathers bask in California sunshine. Rather than a retractable hardtop, the elves at the Rolls mothership in Goodwood, England, conjured a throwback comprised of six French-seamed layers of fabric that provides astonishing good sound insulation when raised and lowers in 22 seconds flat as quietly as a blown kiss.

That Dawn can launch its 5,644 pounds from naught to 60 in less than five seconds when the twin-turbo is properly motivated is almost beside the point. Dawn is more about knowing that near sports-car performance — or the eight-speed automatic transmission that calculates gear selections by reviewing GPS coordinates on the fly — repose in the background like a footman who emerges from the shadows with a chilled bottle of Mumm's at exactly the right moment.

Yes, Dawn is that cossetting — and, for those occupying the socioeconomic caste where lifestyle pricing is mostly conjecture, even practical. And while I never felt compelled to shout, as Arthur surely would have, "Don't you wish you were me!", to the drivers casting covetous glances as I drove serenely along the Pacific Coast Highway, I can appreciate the impulse.

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