Test Drive: 2016 Rolls-Royce Dawn Drophead

We take the ultimate four-seat luxury tourer through South Africa’s scenic Western Cape

As only the third Rolls-Royce convertible (following the beloved Corniche, which debuted in 1966 and the imposing Phantom Drophead, which debuted in 2007) in 60 years the new Rolls-Royce Dawn draws upon its past but takes it to an entirely fresh, functional and fabulous place. The brand invited us to experience the car on some of the world’s most scenic roads—those in South Africa’s Western Cape—and to experience a bit of the lifestyle a typical owner may enjoy on a weekend getaway there. Interestingly, its global launch happened online, a first for the brand, part of the brand’s desire to be part of hashtag-able conversation that now dominates our culture (and indeed was the most searched word on Google the day it debuted).

The 112-year-old brand is of course well known in many ways—for its cars, for being the “ultimate” luxury brand. While owning a Rolls-Royce may be a fantasy for most, understanding what makes the brand (and this car) special is easily accessible.

Inspired by the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn drophead, with a mere 28 cars produced between 1950 and 1954 (one of which was recently purchased by the brand and restored) served not only as the muse for the design team, but also as the source of the new car’s name.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Dawn is that it is much more approachable than any other of the brand’s recent or current models. As with any convertible it is two cars in one—with its top up, and with it down—each creating a different presence and a different driving/riding experience. Giles Taylor, Rolls‑Royce Motor Cars Design Director, tells us, “We were never going to treat it as a Wraith with the roof chopped off. The Dawn is controlled; it’s just right. We’ve lowered the lines from the Wraith and they are faster… The glass is low, the top is low… The hood is all new and there’s a sweeping rear deck lid. [It was important] to get a sense of speed, youth, modernity.” The interior line is raised behind the rear seats, creating a distinct presence. And its sweeping rear deck, covered in leather or wood, provides a unique and very modern feel when the roof is down. In fact, the Dawn shares only 20% of its body panels with the Wraith. Its custom 20” or 21” run flat tires contribute to the car’s presence.

The Dawn brings sensuality to the brand for the first time

Taylor continues, “The line drops where the passengers sit, and then launches forward as it passes through the length of the hood. It’s like a skipping stone—it kisses, rises, falls—it’s the first time a modern Rolls-Royce has pivoted its design energy forward. The Dawn brings sensuality to the brand for the first time. It’s the key attribute of Dawn. It’s approachable. If you make something beautiful it draws people in. People don’t judge you because you have a Rolls-Royce, they judge you because it’s a beautiful car.”

The Dawn’s roof is a central element to the overall design and is the most complicated design and engineering challenge. It’s made with six layers of fabric, and features a “French seam” along its length to reduce wind noise in the cabin. The brand claims that it’s the world’s quietest convertible; while we can’t guarantee that’s the case it is remarkably quiet with the top up. Taylor says, “We added three additional bows to the frame to make the roof line smoother. This takes up more space when the roof is folded down, but was needed to achieve the line.” Most importantly, the car is very comfortable for two adult rear seat passengers (even with the top up) making this a very functional four-door convertible. Silence also means that passengers aren’t bothered by the grinding of the convertible top as it opens and closes, and the Dawn’s operates silently even when the car is moving at up to speeds 30 mph.

Flush with open-pored, book-matched Canadel wood veneers; leather that is dyed all the way through for better aging; and leather-wrapped buttons and metal fittings, the Dawn enrobes you in some of the best craftsmanship, style and comfort achievable in an automobile. Chrome dials feature metal “chaplets” around them, lending a look and feel more commonly seen on your wrist. A new analog clock style has been introduced for Dawn as well. As with any Rolls-Royce, it’s also customizable in every imaginable manner.

Looking good is important, but the Dawn delivers an impressive driving experience as well. And, though it’s packed with a full arsenal of technology, it doesn’t overwhelm the driver nor crowd the serene dash. Like other current Rolls-Royce models it’s powered by a V12 6.6l engine delivering 563 bhp. The car is tracked by a satellite, which communicates to its 8 speed automatic transmission, adjusting it to the road ahead. It’s an example of the type of tech that Rolls-Royce is interested in providing to its owners—delivering benefit without getting in your way. Its transmission, by the way, is one of the most seamless we’ve experienced, and gear changes are barely perceptible. When demanded, it unleashes enough power and torque for any needed effort. Bespoke Audio outperforms most systems we’ve heard; a microphone analyzes ambient road noise and is one of the factors calibrating sound output through the system’s 16 speakers for optimal top up or down listening. Driver assistance tools like night vision, adaptive cruise control and a heads up display are effective. The large display and improved multimedia/sat nav features a touchpad that recognizes gestures such as swiping and pinching as well as Latin, Arabic and Chinese character recognition. The Dawn is a dream to drive.

The 2016 Rolls-Royce Dawn is now available to order at any Rolls-Royce dealer. There is no base price for a Rolls-Royce, but if you chose among only standard options $330,000 will put a Dawn in your garage. Most customers spend another 10-20% customizing their car with an extensive list of available options and to its bespoke services. Given high demand (existing customers were able to place orders a year ago) a nine to 12 month wait is expected.

First, final and interior images courtesy of Rolls-Royce, all other images by Evan Orensten