Driving the world's only electric-powered Rolls-Royce

The maker of luxury cars for the world's wealthy asks if they want a greener alternative



Since her first appearance in 1911, the Spirit of Ecstasy figurine heralding every Rolls-Royce has spread her cape on clouds of carbon dioxide. Except in this car — the Rolls-Royce 102EX, whose wardrobe-sized bonnet covers a 1,411-lb box of batteries. It’s everything right, and wrong, with driving on electricity.

This isn’t a prototype, and Rolls-Royce has no immediate plans to rip the 6.75-liter V-12s from the Phantom-driving chauffeurs hauling the world’s grandees anytime soon. Instead, the 102EX serves as a rolling customer clinic for Rolls-Royce and parent BMW, which have shipped the 102EX around the world over the past 10 months, asking wealthy customers for suggestions of how to navigate an ever-warming world.

While Rolls-Royce and other carmakers of its ilk represent the world’s wealth, as automakers go they’re almost proletarian. Making money in cars requires engineering and building one set of parts that can be sold several million times over, spreading overhead costs as thinly as possible. Last year, Rolls-Royce sold 2,711 cars worldwide. Ford sells that many F-Seriespickups in the United States every 36 hours.

Yet as the demands for more efficient technology grows, from both customers and government regulators worldwide, Rolls-Royce can no longer afford to sell big but outdated gasoline engines as it once did. U.S. regulations will gradually require Rolls-Royce to improve the 14 mpg average its models sport here, and European and Asian rules for carbon emissions from cars are even tougher. Plus, Rolls-Royce customers give  diesel engines the same regard Queen Elizabeth would give a brown-bag lunch.

That leaves electricity as the final frontier.

The battery pack in the 102EX is the largest ever fitted to a passenger car, with 71 kWh of energy — about as much as a typical American house would use to stay warm on a winter day. It drives a pair of 145kw electric motors at the rear axle, which can recapture some of the car’s rolling energy under braking to recharge the battery. Compared to the V-12, the system produces less horsepower and a slightly slower march to 60 mph, but it has more torque, all of it available with the tap of a chauffeur’s boot.

Driving through downtown Washington, the benefits of luxury electric motoring emerge from the moment you push the start button, nestled in a dash of aluminum fiber and leather tanned with chestnut oil. The noiseless motion makes the cabin of the 102EX as hushed as a manor’s drawing room. The 102EX weighs three tons, but only about 400 pounds more than a regular Phantom, with a suspension that hushes the chatter of city pavement. The battery system shifts its center of gravity closer to Earth, allowing the Rolls to gracefully carve around scenery like Pavarotti in “Tosca.”

Removing the engine gave Rolls liberty to make some improvements, like a flat floor for the rear where most owners ride, but also posed several engineering bogeys. Systems that use to run off spare engine power now require electric connections, including the dread numbness of electric power steering. The heating system uses two water-filled kettles wrapped in coils to generate heat for the cabin. (I did ask if it could be adapted to make tea, like the African Queen did for Humphrey Bogart. This may be the last Rolls I get to drive for some time.)

Despite the strength of its first impression, the downside emerges the longer you linger. The air-cooled batteries of the 102EX provide a range of only 125 miles, with a sizable deviation based on climate; owners in Dubai would go further, while those in Minsk would stick close to home in winter. Using the fastest chargers available in Europe, the 102EX can be recharged in 8 hours. If you tried to plug it into a U.S. wall outlet, your charge time would be somewhere just beyond 30 hours, or roughly 2,000 F-Series sales.

Even though a regular Phantom starts at $400,000 before customizations, electric power carries a steep charge. Assuming Rolls-Royce could build a production version of the 102EX and piggyback on BMW for a low-cost contract, the batteries in a 102EX would cost at least $36,000.

Yet the 102EX makes sense. Big, expensive cars can better handle the shortcomings of electric power than everyday models. Rolls-Royces typically drive only a few thousand miles a year; that limits any environmental benefit, but also takes care of range anxiety. Making an EV for the world’s elite could help push the technology into more affordable and useful forms -- especially since many buyers capable of owning an electric Rolls-Royce derive their wealth from oil. It’s an idea strong enough to leave one’s spirit mildly ecstatic.