Although you can drive in just 20 minutes from the wine country around Stellenbosch to the coastal flatlands of South Africa’s Western Cape, there’s a much more spectacular alternative. Threading deep into the Helderberg mountains, the highway over the Franschhoek Pass begins among manicured vineyards that were established more than 300 years ago by Huguenot refugees from France, then ascends into a magnificently rugged landscape of towering peaks, rock-strewn hillsides, steep gorges, rushing streams and sheer drops, before gently descending towards the blue Atlantic waters of False Bay.
This meandering, undulating, 100km-long ribbon of curves,hairpins and straights may be four times longer than the more direct route, but it’s the kind of road that immediately gets you fantasising about supercars or bikes. So for Rolls-Royce to select it as the location for our first encounter with its fabulously luxurious Dawn convertible – a car it dubs the sexiest it’s ever built – suggests the company has an awful lot of confidence in the dynamic capabilities of its latest model.
Not that I’m altogether surprised. My first and indeed only hands-on experience with the Dawn’s closest relative, the Wraith, took place last summer on a not-entirely-dissimilar stretch of tarmac in Japan. Brief though the acquaintance was, it left me profoundly impressed with the big coupe’s impeccable talent for being driven swiftly, smoothly, silently and safely, and also keenly anticipating the arrival of its open-top sibling, whose launch I knew was just months away.
While the two cars share much in common – a 6.6-litre twin-turbo V12 engine, satellite-aided eight-speed transmission (SAT), four vast bucket seats and a pair of rear-hinged coach doors are among the most obvious similarities – the Dawn is far from being just a decapitated Wraith. Naturally the removal of the roof called for major structural revisions to chassis and shell to ensure the open car is as stiff and as strong as the fastback – and RR claims this new model is “the most rigid four-seater convertible available today”. We’re also told that the coach doors make a positive contribution to the body’s stiffness.
Likewise, as a result of the stylists’ efforts to imbue the Dawn with a distinct, youthful and handsome persona, the convertible shares a mere 20 percent of the coupe’s sheet metal which to be precise boils down to the front grille and the doors. It’s marginally lower than the Wraith and looks it too, thanks to the high shoulder line, narrow glass area and the canvas roof’s broad C-pillar, while the short front and long rear overhangs, plus the wider track at the stern, impart an attitude that – rare for a Roller could almost be termed aggressive. It all adds up to a triumph of automotive design: pure, beautifully resolved and simply gorgeous from every angle.
Drop the top – which disappears quickly and noiselessly (Rolls-Royce calls this the Silent Ballet) beneath an exquisite wood-panelled rear deck to reveal a cabin painstakingly clothed in richly hued leather, with lavish embellishments of aluminium and veneer both polished to a dazzling shine, and doors that close at the touch of a button – and the car is transformed into the ultimate barchetta for the boulevard. Like the classic Aquariva speedboat that clearly served as an inspiration, in topless guise the Dawn exudes hedonism and indulgence. Yet to banish any notions of frivolity there’s the rare practicality in a car such as this of those extremely commodious rear chairs, which thus fulfils the brief to create a genuinely spacious – and eminently sociable – four-seater.
It’s inside the Dawn in fact, and especially when the roof is raised, that the commonality with the Wraith is most evident. For with the exception of the former’s bespoken palette of interior hues and the Dawn’s signature colour combination of Mandarin hide and Midnight Sapphire exterior is particularly sensational there are otherwise few obvious differences between the two cabins. Both being outrageously luxurious, however, this is scarcely cause for complaint.
I’m perhaps most impressed by the almost total absence of exterior noise, a tribute to the fabric roof’s virtually seamless construction and the six layers of sound-deadening material that go into it. A sudden downpour on the Franschhoek Pass – which I later discover is one of the wettest spots in South Africa – quickly proves just how effective that insulation is: aside from a barely audible pattering on the canvas and the distant swish of tyres through puddles, I’m so completely cocooned from the outside that I barely hear a thing.
It’s a similar story from beneath the bonnet, where the exertions of that massive V12 motor – slightly detuned from the Wraith’s, though not so you’d notice – rarely intrude on the conversation. Although with around 85bhp per litre it’s never working terribly hard, that still computes to more than 560 horses,while the 780 Newtons at just 1,500rpm are easily sufficient to impel its 2.5 tonnes into energetic motion. Off the line the Dawn will reach 100 in a brisk 4.9 seconds and I can’t envisage anyone demanding more than its electronically governed 250km/h maximum – it’s just not that kind of car.
Yet though it’s built for supreme comfort rather than envelope-extending speed, it’s hugely impressive and satisfying to drive. Grace and waft are both givens, but what I’m not prepared for – and particularly in view of the cushion-soft air suspension and springs – are the exceptional composure and body control, and steering that’s never less than reassuringly accurate in spite of being light enough to be guided by the fingertips. Factor in the well-balanced chassis and the responsive drivetrain, and even on demanding roads such as this the Dawn can maintain a surprisingly rapid clip.
As on the Wraith, you’ll find no paddles with which to select lower or higher gears. Rolls-Royce doesn’t countenance things like that and in any case the SAT does a brilliant job, cleverly reading the road ahead and perfectly matching ratios and shift points to one’s speed and driving style. If you’re really desperate to intervene, a Low setting on the eight-speed box serves more or less the same purpose as sport mode, but I’m happy to leave things as they are and enjoy the creamily supple ride, and gear changes so smooth and unobtrusive that I never, ever notice them.
As you may have inferred, the Dawn wouldn’t be a Roller if it didn’t have its foibles. Yet so alluring is its appeal that I can hardly bring myself to quibble about the steering wheel, which feels too thin and large; the anticlockwise power reserve gauge that, for no good reason I can think of, deputises for a rev-counter; or the doors that open the “wrong” way – or at least that’s how it seems to me.
Rather, I’m seduced by an interior so extravagant it almost defies words, the deliciously pervasive aroma of soft and sumptuous leather, the mirror-matched wood veneer (on the rear deck the effect verges on the breathtaking), the bewitching air of glamour that feels as if from a bygone age, and the effortless ease with which we’re whisked, wind in hair, across the epic landscape of the Western Cape. In these respects and more, the new Rolls-Royce Dawn is not just a car to admire; it’s also one to fall helplessly in love with.