Would You Buy an Electric Rolls-Royce?

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Denis Balibouse / Reuters

A battery-powered Rolls-Royce 102EX at the 81st Geneva International Motor Show

You don't immediately associate Britain's Rolls-Royce Motor Cars with environmentally friendly vehicles. The company's flagship model, the Phantom, is powered by a 6.75-L, V12 engine that averages 17 m.p.g. (7 km/L). Not exactly a gas sipper. But then again, the prices at the pump are hardly an issue for folks who can afford a car that retails for at least $380,000. So, more than a few eyebrows were arched when the superluxury BMW-owned automaker recently unveiled the 102EX, a full-size Phantom prototype with an all-electric drivetrain — and then announced it was taking the car on a global road trip.

Rolls-Royce going green? Perish the thought. The 102EX is an experiment not geared toward saving the earth, but in keeping the 107-year-old brand relevant as it motors into the uncertainties of the 21st century. "It's all about business sustainability," says Nigel Wonnacott, Rolls-Royce spokesman. "The V12 petrol engine can't be around forever." Even if gasoline-powered cars still dominate the roads 50 years from now, future legislative hurdles — ranging from ultra-tough fuel-efficiency standards to outright bans of gas guzzlers from urban streets — could ultimately doom sales of monster-size limousines like the Phantom. The day will come, too, when gasoline becomes a scarce to nonexistent commodity. Hence, Rolls figures it's smart to hedge its bet on petroleum-burning cars.

But it also needs to gauge how its customer base — a relatively tiny niche market comprised of fabulously wealthy individuals — would react to an alternative engine. Following a three-city road show in the U.K., Rolls has kicked off a global tour of the 102EX, which will see the prototype traveling to Singapore and Beijing in July, the U.S. in August, and Europe and the Middle East in the fall, with a return trip to the U.S. slated for November and December. "It's the start of a conversation with our customers," Wonnacott says. In that vein, the company is also venturing into social networking. For the first time, Rolls owners who visit the company's website can post their own comments, and exchange views about a potential electric future for the world's most expensive car.

From a performance standpoint, the 102EX shouldn't be a hard sell. "The Rolls-Royce is a very strong candidate to go electric," explains Jay Nagley, managing director of London automotive-consulting firm Redspy. "It's more compatible with electric power than most cars." That's because traditionally a Rolls combines refined yet muscular power with a hushed ride. And the 102EX's two electric motors — which have the equivalent of 388 horsepower — can easily provide a seamless surge of power in total silence. Its two battery packs — housing 96 lithium-ion cells — are the heaviest ever installed in a road car. Yet, it can accelerate to 60 m.p.h. (96 km/h) within eight seconds, and has a top speed of 100 m.p.h. (160 km/h).

But like all electric vehicles, the 102EX has range limitations — it can only travel from 100 to 112 miles (160 to 180 km) before its batteries peter out. A recent Gallup poll found that 57% of American drivers would never buy an electric vehicle with limited range. But, then again, range may be less of a deterrent to Rolls owners than to most other drivers. Typically, those who own a Rolls mainly use it only for short-distance journeys; for them, 100 miles is more than adequate range. When the power runs out, the batteries can be recharged in nine hours by parking the car over a wireless induction charging pad. Most electric cars need to be plugged in to a wall socket to recharge. "It's a more Rolls-Royce way of charging your vehicle," Wonnacott says. "Induction charging is effortless, easy and slightly less mainstream than plugging a cable into a socket in the wall." That said, the 102EX's batteries can also be charged with a plug-in cable, though it takes 24 hours using a standard outlet.

While it's still too soon to speculate how Rolls customers worldwide will respond to the electric Phantom, reaction among U.K. clients was decidedly mixed. Wonnacott says that the technology and the ride impressed British customers, and many were keen to give it a test-drive. "But no one was beating a path to our door, checkbook in hand, saying, 'Rolls-Royce, you must build this car.'"

John Wormald, managing partner of U.K. consultants Autopolis, doubts there will ever be demand for an electric Roller, a proposition he considers pointless. "It's kind of like an electric Hummer," Wormald says. "Would anyone buy one? No." That may be true enough right now. But Rolls-Royce, which is enjoying record sales so far this year, probably has lots of time, say, a decade or two, to convince customers that it's actually easy being green — it is, after all, the color of money.