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MOTORING: Pistons at Dawn

Chris Hall cringes as he approaches oncoming traffic in the new Rolls-Royce Dawn, but that doesn’t put him off, in the slightest. Could this be the best Rolls ever?

Getting acquainted with a Rolls-Royce is a ceremonial experience. It’s a cross between touring a show home in an upmarket development – “here, sir, is the transmission lever; through the alcove on your right you have the wing mirrors and just behind you is the sun terrace” – and being introduced to a minor royal. I almost feel I should offer a deferential nod when the Spirit of Ecstasy rises from the prow. I certainly should be wearing something smarter than a hoodie and trainers. 

Comparisons to architecture are never far from a Rolls-Royce. For years they were described as “stately homes on wheels” (addressing the handling as much as the size) and, cliché notwithstanding, when one pitches up on my driveway I do feel like I should have got planning permission first. The Dawn, though, is more urban boutique hotel than country pile. Mine (for now, at least) is Savile Row sharp, in midnight blue with fiery orange leather and Canadel rosewood trim. It’s Ozwald Boateng in automotive form. It is big, yes, and for the asking price of £268,130 with options you could just about get on the property ladder in a London postcode, but it’s not too big. It’s barely longer and no wider than a Bentley Continental GT that recently sat in the same spot, but it dwarfs it for presence, from the colonnade of the grille to the cavernous wheel arches. 

Inside, the controls are almost apologetic, as if to say what a frightful shame it is that there have to be levers, buttons and screens in such a nice place as this. The seat is, by an immeasurable distance, the most comfortable thing I’ve sat on in years, let alone in a car. The doors, though, are my favourite thing about this car – not just for their well-documented suicidal tendencies, but for their sheer bulk. I’m pretty sure the designer’s previous work was in a bank vault. Once you’re strapped in, you can’t reach to close them, so there’s a little button that softly draws them into place. Do both at once and it’s as if the car is firmly, reassuringly, clasping its hands together and saying, “ready when you are”.

I did, of course, drive the Dawn, as well as just look at it. Leaving south London wasn’t as hair-raising as I’d feared; the ride is – naturally – superbly comfortable and cares not a whiff for potholes or speed bumps. The steering ratio, especially if you’re used to anything vaguely sporty, is surprisingly high and, coupled with the width and – I keep coming back to this word – presence, of the car, leads me to adopt a different driving style: more chauffeurly, more sedate; smoothly wafting my way around. It helped that we left on time and had no urgent need to arrive, but I defy anyone to feel stressed out, by traffic or anything else, in this car. 

That’s not to say the Dawn has no sense of urgency. With 563 horsepower coming from the 6.6 litre V12, it can summon plenty of speed and, on the rare occasion that I pulled briskly away from the lights, there was a rich exhaust noise to discover. On the motorway it’s unruffled cruising at high speed – you’d be worried if it wasn’t – but you do start to feel every ounce of the car’s weight when you’re braking or changing lanes. I wouldn’t hesitate to cross continents in the Dawn (if someone else stumped up for the petrol) but I’d take A-roads all the way. It just feels more at home between 30mph and 60mph, not because it’s a car for pootling old folks, but because it doesn’t need to rush. There is even a sport mode, but you’re not here for hooning about. Laudably, Rolls is eager to position its “smaller” models – Ghost, Wraith, Dawn – as “drivers’ cars”, and this was undoubtedly that (although I’d love to recline in the back seats, one arm on the Riva-yacht-esque decking with the roof down). But for me, driving a Rolls-Royce should be about the experience, not 0-60 times. 

My destination was the peerlessly lovely Bailiffscourt Hotel & Spa in West Sussex, and this meant we took our fair share of B-roads and even single-track routes. The Dawn wasn’t fazed, but I came out in a sweat every time we met oncoming traffic. A word to those who make sat-nav systems for luxury cars – you need to install an option that keeps you on Rolls-Royce-sized roads. 

Bailiffscourt is a fascinating place. To the uncurious it would appear simply to be another very nice English country hotel, good to cosy up in over the winter and perfect for G&T among the peacocks in the summer. And it is all those things – with a top-rate spa attached, to boot. But why it interests me is its history: it’s not early medieval, as it looks, but dates from the 1920s, when the evidently single-minded Lord Moyne, of Guinness brewing fame, decided that what Climping beach needed was a 13th-century manor house hotel. The fact that it didn’t have one was a perfectly surmountable obstacle. The period-correct materials were sourced, from stonemasonry to reclaimed oak panelling, and expert architects set to work creating something that balanced authenticity with modern needs (such as underfloor and wall-chambered heating). The result is a trompe l’oeil – a glorious, well-judged piece of work that cossets you in the best of British luxury, without compromise. I think you can see where I’m going with this. 

The Dawn is everything the Rolls-Royce name has ever stood for – luxurious, prestigious, refined, and steeped in history that has the potential to really weigh it down. But it’s a modern car to drive, and with the wealth of customisation options – in truth, there is no such thing as a non-bespoke Rolls-Royce – you can make it as edgy (or as old-school) as you like. An outstanding car that really has no equal anywhere.