Exotic cars tend to arrive freighted with purpose, an unspoken raison d’etre telegraphed to those around them: “I’m on a mission; get out of my way,” they seethe. Their mission might be roadway dominance, as with any of the current crop of menacing, drum-tight supercars. It could be social ascendancy, via Germany’s grander sedans. Or it might be stratospheric financial conquest, as in Rolls-Royce and Bentley’s current chauffeur cars — the Phantom and Mulsanne, respectively, which convey status and unwavering commitment to imperial expansion. They’re not cars you take to the beach, or ride around in while bullshitting about The Walking Dead. They’re focused, closed-off worlds.
Yet the pursuit of such power and prestige is still undeniably an earthly goal. A sin of the flesh. I’m totally down with that, of course, but I also have a healthy admiration for things that somehow transcend merely mortal goals. Enter the Rolls-Royce Dawn, which almost magically achieves that sort of greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts transcendence.
The Dawn is perhaps best described as a next-level bit of grace in engineering. Yes, that’s a lot of responsibility to heap onto a simple convertible, but hang with me for a minute. Rolls-Royce’s newest addition — and only the third drop-top to grace its ranks since the dawn of the jet age — is a work of both high art and somewhat surprising humanity, and about as humble as a Roller could possibly be without compromising the firm’s rabid devotion to supreme luxury.
But… how? Firstly, because of its beautiful design. More than any other manufacturer, Rolls-Royce produces cars that are visually sublime, with precise proportions, lush, multi-hued coloring, well-drawn functional details, and zero extraneous decoration. The signature grill is the centerpiece, and it has marched lockstep with the marque’s decades-long design evolution, from its place as a necessarily huge air intake in the classic, pre-war era to its more subdued but still immediately recognizable current incarnation.
The Dawn encapsulates all that, but also digests it into a more focused and compact punctuation than Rolls-Royce’s larger cars. The design team began with the company’s similarly sized Wraith coupe, but pushed it to a completely new place. The frame, engine, and suspension are largely the same; the body panels are overwhelmingly new. They’ve tweaked the waistline (higher), window height (narrower), the grille depth (deeper) and the front bumper (bigger), all to enhance “tension” in the design. The grille also rises slightly higher, to bring the Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament into greater prominence for the driver and front passenger. The Dawn is no holy relic from the heavens, though. From one angle — the side, straight on, from down low — it looks too big, too flat, too blank. Stepping just a few degrees forward or aft, however, fixes that completely.
2016 Rolls Royce Dawn
Engine: 6.6-liter twin-turbo V-12
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 563 @ 5,250 rpm
Torque: 575 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm
0-60 mph: 4.9 seconds
MPG: 12/19 city/highway
Inside, unlike most 2+2 convertibles, it’s a proper four-seater that comfortably supports full-grown adults. The deck that surrounds the backside of the passenger compartment is beautifully celebrated real estate, with a wide wooden surface that hides the roof when retracted and plunges down between the two rear seats. It elegantly frames the rear occupants, who are so often given short shrift by convertible makers. The color options inside are as rich and surprising as the exterior combinations, and you could bounce a quarter off the firm leather seats. Suicide doors — always surprising and fun — allow occupants to exit easily, especially when the roof is down: one need simply stand up and walk out. To close the door, just hold down a button a let the powerful motors do the work for you, to the endless amusement of everyone in creation.
Secondly, the Dawn achieves its feat of transcendence by virtue of its engineering, both in the ride and in the roof. Driving on the roads around Cape Town, South Africa was a supernatural glide. The 6.6-liter V12, producing 563 horsepower and 575 lb-ft of torque, made the car’s nearly 6,000-pound (!) weight seem to vanish. The smooth ride owes much to a high degree of torsional rigidity engineered into the frame design to keep out creaks and groans through turns. The suspension is tuned to accommodate topless driving, utilizing enhanced air springs and active roll bars. The car stayed nice and flat through fairly aggressive driving around undulating mountain passes.
So it’s smooth as glass, and quiet too — regardless of whether the roof is up or down. The six-layer fabric roof’s aerodynamics are engineered to be firm and minimally disruptive. As a result, the wind noise is actually lower than that of the Wraith. When the roof operates, it retracts and extends in absolute silence, save just a few clicks at the beginning and end. There are no straining motors, no friction to be heard as the supports fold into themselves.
The silky-smooth road manners, the whisper-quiet airflow, the overall design that frames your world rather than intruding — it all conspires to make the car an experience, not a statement.
What you’re left with is the heart of the Dawn’s magic trick: a car that’s essentially a disappearing act. The silky-smooth road manners, the whisper-quiet airflow, the overall design that frames your world rather than intruding on it, and, of course, the open-air cruising — it all conspires to make the car an experience, not a statement. Even better, it’s a social experience. With the top down, the drive becomes all about the people and places around you. This is delivered with no fuss in a package that presents both its occupants and the captivated outside world with something special. That’s the ultimate goal of great design — to generate an effect rather than draw attention to itself. It becomes the pedestal, rather than what is displayed on the pedestal.
One hopes, of course, that future owners will treat the Dawn as just that — as something special. Will samples be snatched up by braggy blowhards who groove on the whole Rolls-Royce thing? Sure, of course — and who am I to rob anyone of their fun? Will it cruise boulevards in urban hotspots and roll up to valet stands at trendy restaurants? Absolutely, and bystanders will be thrilled by its sexy lines and the pulsating vibes that emanate from its audiophile-pleasing, 16-speaker sound system. That’s great, too.
But perhaps, somewhere down the road, your first encounter with a Dawn will transcend mortal enthusiasms as intended, and be as simple and elegant as the car itself. Perhaps it will be a light “hello” with a Dawn owner you might you encounter in a restaurant parking lot while on a morning jaunt to someplace beautiful. Someone out driving for the experience, not the statement. Even better, maybe you’ll enjoy their experience yourself. You deserve it, don’t you?