Oil is a finite resource, something we cannot enjoy forever, certainly not at the rate the world is burning today. Downsizing is the “in thing” of the auto industry today, which is producing smaller, more frugal combustion engines alongside hybrid powertrains. What then is the future of a brand like Rolls-Royce, renowned for mega luxury cars with equally big V12s?

Back in February 2010, Rolls-Royce announced the birth of its 102EX, also known as the Phantom Experimental Electric. As its name suggests, the Phantom EE is a battery powered version of Goodwood’s flagship Phantom, built not to preview an upcoming production model, but to spark debate, and give us a glimpse of what could be the future.

Throughout 2011, the fully functioning and drivable Phantom EE will tour the world to give owners, VIPs, the media and enthusiasts the chance to experience an electric Rolls, gathering feedback for the company in the process. One fundamental question the Phantom EE poses is: Can an all-electric drivetrain deliver an authentic Rolls-Royce experience that customers expect, and an experience that befits the marque?

“After this program, Rolls-Royce will be in the position to make a more informed decision on its future,” Hal Serudin, Rolls-Royce Asia Pacific’s Corporate Communications Manager told us. Our neighbour Singapore, the nation with the highest concentration of millionaires in the world, was the first city on Rolls-Royce’s 102EX International Tour (China and USA are the next stops), and we were lucky to be among the first in the world to sample the electric Phantom, of which only one unit exists at present.

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I have to admit that I approached the 102EX with some trepidation. The Phantom is a gigantic car, bigger than any passenger car on the road, and the 102EX is a left hand drive car on right hand drive Singaporean roads.

It’s also the only running unit in the world – if I had damaged it, this writer would have single handedly disrupted RR’s International Tour! Oh, and it took Rolls-Royce the small sum of US$3 million to make one!

Here’s what the car is about, in a nutshell. Based on the standard wheelbase Phantom (3,570 mm, Extended WB is 3,820 mm), the 102EX has a Nickel Cobalt Manganese battery pack and two electric motors in place of the regular 6.75-litre V12 engine and six-speed gearbox. The motors are mounted on the rear sub frame and are connected to a single speed transmission with integrated open differential by Xtrac.

Each motor produces 145 kW, giving the Phantom EE 290 kW, or about 390 hp, in total. This is less than the V12 Phantom’s 453 hp, but the 102EX has 800 Nm of torque available from rest compared to the standard car’s 720 Nm at 3,500 rpm. The torque isn’t so much a luxury but a necessity here, since the 102EX is heavier than the Phantom by almost 200 kg (unladen weight is 2,720 kg).

The battery pack powering the motors consists of five modules of cells (96 of them in total) arranged to resemble the overall shape of the gasoline engine and gearbox. It can be replenished either via single-phase charging (20 hours), three-phase charging (8 hours) or wait for this – wireless induction charging!

Basically, this trial method just requires the Phantom EE to be parked above a transfer pad on the floor (I’m imagining a burger frying pan) connected to a mains source. Power frequencies then travel magnetically to the induction pad lining the 102EX’s underbody.

This system is said to be 90% as efficient as the standard charging method, although I’m not sure what will happen when that proud neighbourhood kitty decides to sashay across the pan! Anyhow, Rolls-Royce didn’t bring this along to Singapore, so we didn’t get to try anything funny.

Notice the brilliant sparkling paintjob in our opening photo? That’s the 102EX’s special Atlantic Chrome finish that stands out even more in the metal, especially when the sun is out. A special car needs special paint, but that’s not easy to do when Rolls-Royce already has a range of bespoke paint options with 45,000 colours!

Atlantic Chrome is a type of highly reflective paint using ceramic nano particles. How small are they? Just about 80,000 times smaller than the thickness of hair and 1,000 times smaller than a normal paint particle! In all, 16 coats of paint were needed to achieve the stunning finish (four of which were Atlantic Chrome) plus many, many man hours.

Besides the birth of the 102EX, 2011 also marks the 100th birthday of the Spirit of Ecstasy, which has stood proudly on Rolls-Royce cars since it was registered on 6 February 1911. So the 102EX wears a special one made of Makrolon (a type of polycarbonate) and illuminated in blue. Also notice that the double R badges are in red, reserved for EX models.

Back to the experience. My drive partner took the wheel first, allowing me to sit where most Rolls-Royce owners sit – at the back. While one can specify a Rolls in any colour or material possible, the most popular and traditional choice is lots of timber and a light hue.

For the 102EX, RR took the experimental theme into the cabin as well, which features dark brown Corinova leather, leather floor carpets in place of lambs wool and a white carbon fibre style finish (RR calls the pattern aluminised foil weave) on the dash.

Now, there’s more to the leather than just its colour. The name Corinova is taken from an experimental natural vegetable tanning process that uses chestnut extract and Tara powder from South America to make Glutardialehyde.

Unlike the usual chrome tanning process, Corinova uses less paint finish and creates less waste, and delivers more curves, creases and features that makes the leather look more “alive”, for lack of a better description.

Rolls-Royce says that with further development, Corinova leather can be used to aerate soil in agriculture. From dust to dust.

The Corinova leather completely transforms the interior ambiance, and while it’s quite unique, I can’t say that I prefer it over the typical RR living quarters. Same goes for the contrasting white trim, which could be a hit with bling loving hip hop artistes.

The leather flooring feels more “robust” and is much easier to clean though, and the Phantom EE has a flat floor since the electric drivetrain doesn’t need a propshaft. The dark tanned hide covers the roof lining as well, so it’s quite dark inside compared to conventional RRs.

The experience of rolling in electric is as hushed as you like; the EE’s electric drivetrain dovetailing perfectly with RR’s specialty of insulation from the outside world, which is otherworldly in the world of cars. I’ve been in a couple of electric cars before, but none feels as remote as this. The seating position on the sofa bench is high and upright, and the view out is quite regal.

My switch from “boss” to driver came soon enough, and after the ritual of thumbing the parking brake button and putting the steering column mounted gear lever into D, we merged into Singapore’s West Coast Highway.

There’s no sound or shake from the drivetrain at start up, since there’s no engine – there was just a faint whirr from the motors as we pulled away, and the only thing we hear in the car is the air-con blowing. Speaking of that, the ventilation remained cool even when the motors stopped working at idle.

By the way, one of the major things RR wanted to bring home from Singapore was the 102EX’s range with the AC in use, as well as in hot temperatures. The official range figure is 125 miles (200 km), and 116 miles has been achieved around Lake Geneva, but Singapore will be a tougher test for the Phantom EE.

The Phantom is huge, but Singapore’s wide lanes made it an easier task to place the car than my previous limo experience of the BMW ActiveHybrid 7 in Munich. One also sits high and upright in a Phantom (both front and back) and the cliff like front with the Spirit of Ecstacy as marker all combine to help. The thin rimmed wheel is also very light and effortless.

After some junctions and a roundabout, I floored the pedal for the first time. No, it doesn’t pull away like a plane on take off, or even a twin-turbo BMW, but there’s enough torque for swift overtaking. The process is very efficient and graceful, and all the sound we hear is a faint whirring.

While an electric motor doles out all its torque from “0 rpm”, it’s neutralised a little by the 102EX’s great weight. A button on the wheel activates a maximum brake regeneration mode that’s much like the ‘B mode’ in the Toyota Prius – the greater drag is very apparent.

Top speed for the 102EX has been capped at 100 mph (160 km/h), and while I didn’t reach there (it’s Singapore!), I did come close, gliding along above the Malaysian highway speed limit when given the green light by the event organisers. Truly effortless and pleasant for all onboard – now, if RR could come up with a noiseless air con blower…

Rolls-Royce gave us the chance to drive the 102EX back to back with the regular petrol powered Phantom for comparison. Let’s just say that the gulf isn’t as wide as a electric/petrol comparo for a lesser car, because the Phantom is the pinnacle of refinement.

The big V12 is as silent, smooth and cultured as they come, and it isn’t undesirable even after the 102EX experience. Other than on full acceleration, you won’t hear much of it. Acceleration felt noticeably stronger than the EE, though.

A stint in the rear quarters gave me the chance to remove my shoes and dig my toes into the thick and soft lambs wool carpets absent in the 102EX. The light colours also gave the impression of a larger cabin – I like it this way.

Normally, the lack of drivetrain noise in an electric vehicle amplifies din from other sources such as the suspension and tyres, but since the 102EX is a Rolls-Royce Phantom, there’s no such thing to write about. The silent and graceful climb to speed in the EE is a great, and almost like-for-like, swap with the RR V12 experience, and you never ever have to visit a petrol station again.

This means that the most luxurious EV ever made is also the best example of the EV today. I can imagine it as a great as a point-to-point city limo, or doing the home to office commute where recharging can be done at both points. However, the question of range remains.

At present, the Phantom EE is not capable of ferrying its owner from KL to Singapore for a business meeting or to Penang for lunch without a recharging stop, for instance – and this is compromise for a group of people, and a brand, that’s not used to such a word. Battery technology will improve though, and perhaps one day, the mega rich will all roll in electric.

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