Rolls makes grand claims for its new four-seat soft-top - does it deliver the refinement and luxury expected of the brand once exposed to the elements?

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The ‘one new model a year’ expansion of Rolls-Royce continues.

The world’s most recognisable name in luxury motoring now comprises, depending on your generosity, as many as seven models.

The Rolls-Royce Dawn shares its steel underpinnings predominantly with the Ghost saloon and Wraith coupé

The Rolls-Royce Phantom accounts for four of those and Rolls happily accepts that: saloon, long-wheelbase saloon, coupé and convertible.

But then there’s the smaller, cheaper Rolls-Royce Ghost, although such things are relative. The Ghost’s derivatives are perceived by Rolls to be individual models rather than variants.

There’s the Rolls-Royce Wraith coupé, a car that Rolls can’t quite bring itself to call sporting yet it is as dynamic as you’d want a Rolls to be, and now there’s this.

It’s called the Dawn and Rolls says it “is not a Wraith drophead”.

It would be perfectly natural to think of it as a convertible version of the Wraith. The two share the same platform and all but the same mechanicals.

But Rolls, we suppose, is intending you to think of the Dawn as a model in its own right, because it wants the Dawn to have a character of its own right.

Not for the Dawn the dynamism of the Wraith; instead, this car is meant to be “the most social” of luxury dropheads – it has four seats, not 2+2 seats – for those “who wish to bathe in the sunlight of the world’s most exclusive social hotspots”.

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Just in case you think Rolls-Royce hasn’t quite finished beating eggs into this particular pudding, it says the Dawn is, no less, “the sexiest Rolls-Royce ever built”.

Whatever, it’s certainly the soft-roofed Dawn that’ll be built in the biggest numbers.

The Silver Dawn of the early 1950s was the first Rolls for which the factory built its own body, but convertible versions remained coachbuilt – and only 28 were made between 1950 and 1954. That was unequivocally a convertible version of another car.

Whether this Dawn owes its character to another Rolls or not is what we’re here to discover.

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Rolls-Royce Dawn rear

The Dawn is not a Wraith drop-top, remember, although it does use the same BMW-based architecture.

It has the same wheelbase and the same twin-turbocharged 6.6-litre V12 engine driving through the same eight-speed automatic gearbox.

Nobody does pinstripes quite like Rolls-Royce. On the Dawn they are applied by hand using a squirrel-hair brush

Nonetheless, experience has shown us that it’s still possible to give broadly similar cars very different characters. And although the Dawn is intended to have a character that’s different from the Rolls-Royce Wraith’s, to our mind the Dawn will have an even greater need to feel different from the Phantom Drophead Coupé.

From the off, then, it’s worth noting that the Dawn makes rather a lot less power than the Wraith. The engine comes in Rolls-Royce Ghost output, at 563bhp at 5250rpm and 575lb ft at 1500rpm, some way shy of the Wraith’s 624bhp and 590lb ft.

It’s still Rolls-Royce’s most powerful drophead, though. The Phantom drophead’s larger-capacity 6.75-litre V12 makes 110bhp less and suggests that the bigger car is an altogether more relaxed performer again: a 5.6-metre-long pseudo-limousine with a 2630kg kerb weight.

When we say the Dawn is smaller and lighter than that, though, these things are relative. If Rolls-Royce hadn’t managed to fit four full seats into a 5285mm length, you’d have to ask questions. And forgoing the Rolls-Royce Phantom’s aluminium architecture, the Dawn still officially tips the scales at 2560kg.

That’s due in part to the sheer size of the hardware, but also to the amount of luxury the car is asked to carry; an electrically adjustable seat with the amount of plush that Rolls throws at it can weigh 100kg or more.

Then there’s the roof. Rolls says it’s the quietest open-top car yet made – quieter even than the Phantom drophead.

And it opens in 20 seconds, at vehicle speeds of up to 31mph, in as near to silence as Rolls can manage. Which means, without question, that it’s heavy – as is the wood-finished deck that rises and closes above or below it when it’s down or up.

Suspension settings for the air springs and active anti-roll bars are different from those of the Ghost and Wraith, and they are aimed at giving the Dawn a character of its own while also compensating for its reduced torsional rigidity, a direct result of the removal of a fixed roof. 


Rolls-Royce Dawn interior

In a particularly memorable section of the Rolls-Royce press pack, it suggests “rear passengers do not merely ‘get out’ of a Dawn, but rather stand and disembark as if from a Riva motor launch onto a glamorous private jetty”.

Well, indeed. The coach doors do come into their own in drophead format, as does the car’s prodigious size.

The Dawn features the same removable cupholder as in various BMWs. Sadly, what was a bad idea in a 3 Series does not magically become more appealing in a Rolls-Royce

Roof off, and with the front seat tidied away electrically, it is possible to waltz from the car – as long as you’ve taken the step down from the sill into account and stopped on a gravel driveway the breadth of the Thames.

Roof on, and squeezed into a space at Sainsbury’s Local, egress gets a little more inelegant, but in such a circumstance, the average Dawn occupant is likely to be lost or desperate and so in a forgiving mood.

The cabin fills every other requirement made of it with this kind of pomp and circumstance. Thus, the steering wheel is vast, the heater controls are slightly mysterious and the inherited iDrive set-up is dignified.

To draw attention to the quality of the upholstery or the veneers is as unnecessary as pointing out that Johannes Vermeer used expensive paint; suffice to say, what you can see and most of what you can touch is of an exceptional standard – unrivalled anywhere, except perhaps at the equally fastidious Bentley factory.

Like its great rival, inconsistencies occur only where the manufacturer is made to share components (or a version of them) or relent in its ambition to make everything out of something that grew from the ground or was fed on grass.

Plastic, modern wonder that it is, is not as tactile as leather or wood, and as assuredly as your fingers find dry skin, they’ll mark the difference. It’s possible, too, that the dashboard architecture of the distantly related 7 Series might be distinguishable to you beneath the cladding.

But neither condition much blunts the Dawn’s intended impact. This is a four-seat convertible in the truest sense of the description and Rolls claims – with some justification – that no passenger ought to feel short-changed by their allotted pew.

The roof is certainly no impediment to housing those over 6ft tall in the rear, and although there is continuing suspicion around the amount of boot space on offer, the reason for its limitation (the vast fabric awning) is worth the sacrifice.

As always, Rolls-Royce makes a fuss about the ‘discreet’ placement and function of its car’s extraneous multimedia features and, as always, it rings a tiny bit hollow.

The Spirit of Ecstasy Rotary Controller is a reclad BMW iDrive selector, just as the software showing on the screen is a reclad version of the interface hotwired into every BMW model.

The controller isn’t ‘discreetly’ placed anywhere; it’s right under your arm in the centre console, because that’s where every sensible manufacturer puts it.

Of course, like an 18th century ingénue holding a fan, Rolls ensures the unsightly 21st century BMW touchscreen can be hidden from sight by a slab of timber, should you wish. You won’t, though, because it’s useful to see the thing.

Internally, the Dawn’s pseudo-i-Drive is stuffed with all the good stuff, and because it is an iDrive under all the art deco styling, it works pretty much faultlessly.

The real Rolls-Royce touch comes with the stereo, dubbed Bespoke Audio, which uses a microphone to monitor ambient noise and adjust the volume and tone coming from 16 individually tuned speakers. Discreet? Try ‘larger than life’.


6.0-litre V12 Rolls-Royce Dawn engine

Carrying more weight than the Wraith and producing modestly less power makes the Dawn slower than the coupé – 5.2sec to 60mph, compared with 4.6sec – but in reality the difference in all-out acceleration is about as meaningful as the relative difference in acceleration between the RMS Queen Mary and the RMS Queen Elizabeth.

Burying the solemnly long-travel accelerator into the extravagant carpet pile is hardly what the Dawn is about – despite the preparedness of the V12 to live up to the promise of its gargantuan output.

At a typical cruise, 93% of the Dawn’s horses are lying idle, apparently. How superbly extravagant!

Instead, the idea is to keep the car’s Power Reserve gauge (the dial Rolls uses in place of a rev counter) at just below 100% while all the time wafting along like your worldly cares are considerably loftier than the mundane scrabble to get somewhere at a specific time.

In this respect, the low-boost, big-displacement personality of the V12 makes it an ideal power source, as does the 575lb ft it quietly dispatches to the rear axle.

We found room to gripe about the programming of the eight-speed gearbox when it was deployed in the Rolls-Royce Ghost, but those concerns were ironed flat a generation ago. Now the ZF auto barely troubles itself with the idea of a lower cog, and if it does, you scarcely feel it anyway.

There is nothing as unsightly as paddles to ruin the ‘minimum effort’ ambience, and although it would very occasionally (twice a fortnight, perhaps) be nice to select your own moment to downshift, the kickdown is forceful should you trigger it.

The Dawn takes less than 2.0sec to dispatch all meaningful 20mph accelerative increments (20-40mph, 30-50mph, 40-60mph) and will take only a second longer to get from 30-70mph than a BMW M5


Rolls-Royce Dawn cornering

There’s plenty of pleasure to be taken at the wheel of the Dawn, wherever your idle sunny afternoon happens to lead.

The downy softness of the car’s secondary ride combines with a gently loping primary gait, and the quietness of the former and amplitude of the latter communicate perfectly between them how hard the suspension may be working at any given time to contain the car’s mass and preserve the magnificent, floating isolation of the cabin.

Full manual control of the gearbox would bring the chassis to life a bit more in tighter corners

Around town and at low speeds, the car rides predictably well – as only cars of such weight and skilful, uncompromising tuning really can.

Our test car’s 21in alloy wheels allowed sharp edges and broken asphalt to present inside the cabin as the faintest thump, but very rarely one that could be felt.

At higher speeds, your chances of feeling what’s going on under the car’s contact patches are even more remote.

Although it’s air sprung, the suspension gives the natural, honest, predictable impression of a really good steel-coil chassis and never feels at all brittle or hollow. Just breezing along in the car, in no particular hurry, therefore becomes an experience truly to savour.

Increase your pace and although the Dawn obliges you with plenty of speed, grip and controllability, it also begins to communicate quite early on that it’s progressing beyond its comfort zone. Body roll is the chief telltale; tackle a tight, well-sighted B-road corner with not excessive speed and you’ll get plenty.

The car’s directional responses are so gentle anyway, and the steering so slow, that you hardly notice any detrimental effect on handling as that roll builds, and resistance to understeer is remarkably good. But it’s always there, always discreetly asking you what your hurry is.

A Rolls-Royce Wraith doesn’t do that; rather, it does just enough to encourage you to enjoy and indulge yourself at the wheel.

And if you were hoping that the Dawn might be cut from a similar cloth, there’s a chance that you might feel ever so slightly underwhelmed by the convertible’s simple dynamic conservatism.  

The Dawn’s progressive and feelsome steering makes it an easier car than you might imagine to drive quickly around Millbrook’s Hill Route.

A certain amount of circumspection about corner entry speed is required to avoid triggering the dynamic stability control and slowing the car punitively, but you quickly realise exactly how judicious you need to be.

And once you know, carving a smooth line and geeing up the twin-turbo V12 at just the right time become engrossing acts.

The faster you go, the harder the car leans on its outside contact patches — and yet it manages to work both equally, maintaining a balanced attitude until well beyond the point at which your commitment levels have progressed beyond oikishness.

Stability is always excellent, the laziness of the V12’s throttle response guarding best against mid-corner oversteer.


Rolls-Royce Dawn

It may seem an oversight to award a near-perfect score here to a car priced at a 30% premium over its nearest rivals – particularly when the rarefied air in which the car exists translates that 30% premium as £60,000 or so.

But what matters, of course, is what the Dawn does to earn that premium. And rest assured, the car would be ready to take your breath away with its grandness, eccentricity and sense of occasion every time you used it – which seems as fine a definition of a wonderful car to own as any we can think of.

Exclusivity of a Rolls badge should keep Dawn values high for a while, but not as high as some exotics

Although it may interest only a small proportion of Rolls-Royce’s customer base, the Dawn’s predicted residual values are relatively competitive.

CAP suggests that a typical three-year-old example should retain almost 10% more of its showroom value than a Bentley Continental GTC Speed and Aston Martin 5% more than an Aston Martin Vanquish Volante, despite the high initial price.

Fuel economy will be of even less interest to most Dawn owners – but even here, the car does quite well.

Averaging 19.1mpg for our True MPG fuel testers and topping 25mpg when touring, it’s actually no less economical in real-world motoring than many of its rivals – and it should be capable of putting more than 450 miles between fills on long trips.

If you are keen on the Dawn, thankfully Rolls-Royce offers a set-menu choice of specifications to make an already complicated choice that bit easier. We would spec a Dawn with the Bespoke premium audio system, comfort entry and an uplit, solid silver Spirit of Ecstasy.

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4 star Rolls-Royce Dawn

With the supremely grand Rolls-Royce Phantom and deliciously engaging Rolls-Royce Wraith, Rolls-Royce already makes the two very greatest and most special super-luxury cars on the planet.

The Dawn, although brilliant as a silver-tongued, formidably comfortable, wonderfully aristocratic boulevardier, somehow still only satisfies your expectations.

A cultured boulevardier but not quite another Rolls-Royce game-changer

A Phantom Drophead Coupé is all of those things, after all – and the opportunity here was to approach the convertible Rolls concept a little differently.

But the driver appeal of the smaller Wraith fails to materialise – as does any static or dynamic character trait that shows, beyond a doubt, what the Dawn uniquely offers.

Unique or not, the car’s silken refinement, debonair sense of deportment and traffic-stopping roof-down presence can’t be matched by any other maker of convertibles, and so its £264,000 price is – believe it or not – perfectly justifiable for anyone looking for such qualities above all else.

As a result the Dawn isn’t quite good enough to pip Aston Martin the Aston Martin Vanquish Volante to top spot, but does enough to keep the Bentley Continental GTC Speed, Mercedes-AMG S 65 Cabriolet and Ferrari California T at bay.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Rolls-Royce Dawn First drives