More than transportation


Rolls-Royce: A test drive in a $360,000 Corniche convertible provides a glimpse into a world of power, quality and luxury.

May 28, 2000|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

My heavens! Linda would love this car.

My late wife drove an overweight, under-powered, four-cylinder Volvo sedan with 100,000 miles on the odometer, but Linda was a closet luxury, performance-car junkie.

She would never own one (too ostentatious), but on those rare occasions when opportunity presented, she thrilled at the chance of driving a sumptuous and powerful set of wheels that would force her back into the seat when the go pedal was pushed to the floor.

The $360,000 Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible certainly falls into that category. It's the world's most expensive production car.

So when the British motor car company offered me the opportunity to drive one for the weekend, the temptation was great.

I was curious. What do you get for $360,000? (That's $378,000 after state taxes, but who's counting?)

That's $124,000 more than the average price of a new, single-family, detached home in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

It's the combined price of six Dodge Neons; five Toyota Corollas; four Honda Civics; three Chevy Malibu sedans; two Chrysler Concordes, one Ford Mustang; and a red, four-wheel-drive, GMC pickup with an extended cab where the doors open in both the front and the back.

But before we get into what you get for $360,000, let's clear up what you don't get.

It doesn't come with a sealed hood. That's a misconception that dates to 1910, when some owners had their hoods sealed so that nobody but a Rolls-Royce mechanic could tinker with the engine.

And there were no cup holders in this flashy ragtop. You don't sip coffee while driving your Rolls to work.

What you do get is a lot of stares. A small crowd gathers at the Citgo station on Jarrettsville Pike in Jacksonville. Some ask if they can sit behind the wheel, just for a few seconds. Others, perhaps feeling a bit awkward, pretend it's invisible.

At the McDonald's on York Road in Hunt Valley, Peggy Langston of York, Pa., approaches the driver with a small spiral notebook in her hand and asks: "Are you famous? Can I have your autograph?"

When the driver admits that he is a reporter for one of America's great newspapers and does not own the car, she puts away her notepad and the conversation quickly switches to the car's nearly foot-wide tires.

Rolls is a hand-built, made-to-order driving machine bathed in luxury. The broad dash and the console between the front seats are covered with fine wood veneers. Workers put 150 to 200 hours into the trim's production.

Impressive, but it makes you realize that the also-rans of the auto industry do a pretty good job of making plastic look like wood.

There's a 6.75-liter, turbocharged V-8 engine under the long hood delivering 325 horses. That's enough to power the car from 0 to 60 mph in eight seconds.

It will whisper on to a maximum speed of 135, the company says in its press kit. I wouldn't know. I'm not that brave.

I will confess, however, that it has enough oomph at 70 mph to easily jump to 90 in a second or two, at which the driver experiences very little sensation of speed.

"It has a lot of get-up-and-go, for a 3-ton car," says Jay Zeman, a businessman and car enthusiast who lives in Pylesville, Harford County.

According to the factory, the engine will go 500,000 miles before a major overhaul.

Computer-controlled suspension provides a comfortable ride on the highway and makes it fun cruising winding country roads on which the car grips the asphalt like an Indy racer.

"Feel the doors," Zeman commands. "They're heavy. They close with a solid thud. There's nothing tinny about this car. This is the way they used to make cars."

Zeman plays with the dashboard control switches. "Nothing chintzy here," he says.

The seats are creamy, hand-stitched leather. The same covers the headrests, door panels and the side panels in the back.

The deep-pile carpeting is topped with matching, nearly 2-inch-thick, Morelands lambs-wool mats. It makes you want to kick off your shoes and wiggle your toes.

The craftsmanship includes 15 coats of paint.

Interesting gadgets include: a steering wheel that tilts out of the way when the driver opens the front door to enter or leave the car; four memory settings for the front seats, mirrors and steering wheel; air conditioning with separate temperature controls for the front and back.

When the front seat is tilted to allow a back-seat passenger out, the entire seat motors forward, providing more exit room. With the push of a button it returns to its previous setting.

A telephone is tucked into the console, along with a six-CD changer unit. In the trunk are tools with the RR logo and a switch to turn off the battery for long storage and an opening to check the air pressure of the spare tire stowed under the back of the car.

The convertible's top is lined on the inside and retracts beneath flush-fitting chrome decking with nothing more on the driver's part than the touch of a switch on the console. It goes up just as easily.

If there is anything chintzy about this car, it is the plastic rear window.

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