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Rolls Phantom Coupe vs Aston Martin DB9

  1. There’s a moment in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger when the villain departs in that yellow Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. The car ‘sighed away’. The Ghost was knocking on for 40 years old when Fleming was writing, and that was itself a further five decades ago. Yet that description, ‘sighed away’, is exactly what happens when you touch the throttle on a Phantom Coupe and notice that by imperceptible silent magic you’re underway, even though you couldn’t identify the moment when the static condition gave way to one of motion. The Phantom Coupé is a properly modern car, but there is a lot about Rolls-Royce that has never changed.

    So we decided on a bit of play-acting. In the book, Bond chases Goldfinger to Geneva in an Aston DB3. In the 1964 film, the cars are updated to a Phantom III and a DB5. We’ve done our own bit of updating by going for the modern Phantom and a DB9. We start at the point where the freight plane landed at Le Touquet airport. Sorry, though, I have no intention of taking Bill to a torture chamber and threatening to slice him in two if he doesn’t spill the beans, and, as far as I know, he isn’t out to crack open my evil empire. We’re just out to enjoy the trip.

    Words: Bill Thomas/Paul Horrell
    Photography: Lee Brimble

    This article was originally published in the Supercars issue of Top Gear magazine, 2010

  2. Goldfinger’s Ghost was huge. He’d told everyone it was heavy because it was armoured, remember, whereas in fact he replaced its aluminium panelwork with white gold to smuggle the stuff out of the country. The Phantom Coupé is also, when you walk up to it, OMG big. High, for a start. Don’t be fooled by the word coupe - you’re on a level sightline with people driving Range Rovers. And it’s 5.6 metres long. When you arrive at an autoroute toll barrier, be careful not to draw quite level with the ticket- dispenser. If you do, the Spirit of Ecstasy, way up ahead, will kiss the barrier.

    The design makes more of the size. The smallness of the windows and lights exaggerates the acreage of metal. And what metal: don’t you love that brushed-steel bonnet flowing back from the grille.

  3. The vault door swings open on its rear hinges, making entry untroubled. No need to grunt to shut it; just touch a button, and an electric butler draws it closed. Welcome to one of autodom’s finest interiors. Even the front seats are like club sofas - none of that go-faster side bracing. Take things steady in this car and you can still get along briskly. The gentle giant of a V12 idles softly enough that you can be fooled into thinking it’s off and re-pressing the start button.

    What’s glorious about this cabin? In no particular order: polished ash-trays that emerge like drums from the doors. Umbrellas concealed in the front wings. Art Deco cinema mood lighting. The fibre-optic starlight headlining (an option, but why ever woudn’t you?). The solid clunk of the light switch. The astonishing stereo sound. The chrome and laquered wood surrounds to the windows where normal cars just leave an exposed rubber seal. The organ-stop vents with electrical shutter servos. The door mirrors, which have a chrome finisher around the glass where any other car just leaves an unfinished edge.

  4. Your eye alights on these details as experience mounts up. There’s so much to get to know on this car. And, to be fair, some of it is misery. The satnav, normally hidden away behind a clock panel, is one of the most user-unfriendly of any car on sale, thanks to awful latency and a clunky 1.0 iDrive controller.

    But I know the way. I drive more miles in France than England most years, and never did they slip under a car with as little effort on my part as they do now. The Coupé isn’t entirely silent at speed; there’s a bit of wind noise. It isn’t perfectly, perfectly stable on the big straights, though it’s ruddy good. But there’s something about the way it holds itself. There’s a near fathomless well of torque (the power-reserve gauge reads 80 per cent remaining untapped at 85-odd mph). The ride, on adaptive air suspension, is always untroubled, even if not meringue-soft. The steering is very low-geared - you take roundabouts and tight corners with huge movements from the shoulders, not wristy little flicks - but every millimetre of rim motion is translated into action, so straight-line running is dead easy. The sheer space around your body encourages deep, relaxed breathing.

  5. More than that, an agreeable feeling of entitlement sweeps over you. Good-natured entitlement, mind, not at all like the arrogance a big, fast SUV tends to engender. So I feel OK about checking into the château at the end of day one. Hey, Goldfinger stayed in nice places en route, while Bond hung back at the railway hotel. I get a text from Bill asking how the meal is. ‘Beyond five-star,’ I truthfully reply. The beep comes back: ‘Two-star doesn’t begin to describe this place.’

    And it didn’t. It was distinctly zero-star. While Paul dined in the château, I was close to the railway station in Reims, tucked away in a grotty little block beyond a dusty park, some way from the town centre. But it mattered not, because a new Aston Martin DB9 was parked in the railway station’s long-term car park, strategically placed outside my window. When I was awakened twice by goods trains in the night, and again by commuter trains and platform announcements in the morning, I pulled back the curtains and admired the silver DB9’s sleek shape as it sat there, waiting for another day of Grand Touring.

  6. Bond would have loved this car - its sheer beauty from every angle, its magnificent, high-revving 6.0-litre V12 and its comfort and relative quietness over long distances. Such a shame that most DB9s won’t be used for this purpose, chasing across continents at high speed. The car is most comfortable at about 120mph. Where legal…

    As I tailed Mr Horrell’s Phantom the next day, I had many hours to enjoy the DB9’s interior. Ergonomically it’s a big improvement, but there are still some dreadful niggles that Q would never have let through his net. Sure, Bond would have liked the electric-powered nav screen that emerges from the top of the dash, but he’d have been less pleased to note that it’s an old Volvo-based system, at least three years out of date and very clunky. Aston needs to get into bed with a high-end nav outfit. Bond’s iPod Touch wouldn’t have charged when he plugged it in. That would have pissed him right off too. As would the nav control toggle switch on the dash, which doesn’t twist, so you need to find a menu to alter the zoom. At night, he’d have fumbled for a moment for window and mirror switches in the doors that aren’t lit, and he would have had a quiet chuckle at the ‘power, beauty, soul’ message that appears on the instrument LED when you push the key fob into the dash. In a Sean Connery drawl: ‘Wot ish zish marketing bull-shhh*t?’ It’s an Aston Martin. It doesn’t need it.

  7. Still, eliminating those niggles is only a quick squeeze of the throttle pedal away. A mighty V12 bellow, a surge of accelerative force, and chassis, steering and brakes to match. I thought of a passage in the book that made perfect sense as we lanced across N roads near Maçon…

    ‘In May, with the fruit trees burning white and the soft wide river still big with the winter rains, the valley was green and young and dressed for love.’ And it looked even more special through the windows of a DB9…

  8. A Phantom Coupé is shorter by a foot in the wheelbase compared with the saloon. It also has - compared with the Drophead Coupé as well as the saloon - a firmer suspension set-up, slightly reduced steering assistance and an ‘S’ button that livens the transmission programming usefully. But does all that transform it into a sports car fit for tearing up these hills? Not on your life.

    For a start, it’s two and a half tonnes. The aluminum space frame is weight-efficient at half a tonne, then there’s half a tonne of powertrain and a similar mass of suspension and other mechanicals. That means literally a tonne of luxury. There are vehicles that can corner hard with this sort of height and weight, but they tend to be extreme SUVs with punishing suspensions. Despite its marginally firmed-up chassis, the Phantom Coupé is far from punishing, with the inevitable result that it, well, Rolls: the thing heels into sharp corners like a galleon, and the way you twirl that big wheel is a bit nautical too.

    And yet the steering is precise, and it’s properly fast: 0-60 is 5.6 seconds, during which that V12 clears its throat and its voice rises slightly. On normal twisting roads, the Coupe makes a decent account of itself.

  9. So does a regular Phantom. And here we come to my tiny beef with the Coupé. In pursuit of an unnecessary change in dynamics, something has been lost. The Phantom saloon has the best low-speed ride of any car, and the best supression of high-speed shudders. The Coupé doesn’t. So even though overall it still rides mighty well, an element of the unique Rolls-ness has been lost.

    But there’s no shortage of Aston-ness in the ‘new’ DB9. It feels solidly made and brutally fast, and its glorious V12 is one of the very greatest powerplants in any car. As I shadowed PH, I wondered whether any car could transport a character like James Bond across a continent with such style, grace and immense pace. The answer is, surely, no. Bond would crave the clear, white-on-black instruments of his old DB3, and some of the interior’s classic functionality, but little else. Bond - and Fleming himself - would have loved this car, not least because it is three times more powerful than a DB3. I couldn’t wait to jump in the DB9’s red seat, set the satnav for ‘London’ and just drive.

  10. Like a Rolls or an Aston, much about France and Switzerland remains the same all these years on from the 1959 book. The descriptions of the characters of the different towns - Orleans, Maçon, Geneva - ring uncannily true. But, also like the cars, much has changed. There are autoroutes now. When Bond set off to chase Goldfinger, he was on the old high-cambered single-carriageway N1. His car had cross-ply tyres and drum brakes and ‘he took no chances’. Yet he covered 43km in 15 minutes. That’s a 107mph average. The old Rolls topped out at around 50mph. Back then, because traffic and speed limits weren’t the limiting factors, the car you drove made a big difference to your progress.

    Today, as long as you can make a steady 90mph, the speed that trips the Gendarmerie’s radar on the autoroutes, and you have a decent fuel range, any car will get you from Le Touquet to Geneva in under seven hours. Time doesn’t matter any more. The issue is how you do the trip.

    Because of that, the car still matters. And by the end of it, we adored this Phantom Coupé. Oh, that’s not to say we didn’t at the start, because this thing certainly makes a mighty first impression. But that impression only deepens when you truly get under its skin.

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