CROZET, France – You know you’re driving a big coupe when you pull up to a toll booth and the grille bumps the gate arm before you reach the pay window.

Such are the tradeoffs of living large.

And when your view of the world is perched on the graceful back of the famed Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, your life not only is large, but far removed from the lives of almost everyone else on the planet.

Rolls-Royce is defined by such separation, with each model offering it in varying degrees, without apology.

The storied brand’s flagship 5-passenger Phantom, mostly a chauffeur-driven car, isolates its occupants in a cocoon of unparalleled comfort and luxury. And the Drophead Coupe buffers the open-air experience with consummate elegance.

Not surprisingly, the Phantom Coupe’s character lies somewhere in between. It invites driving, but leaves you blissfully insulated from the vagaries of weather and road conditions.

Faintly sporty and openly opulent, the Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe is a car for people enamored more by the idea of driving than the act itself.

Consider its other-worldly response to hard acceleration.

Mashing the throttle on a flat, blacktop straightaway outside this Swiss-border resort town awakens the Phantom Coupe’s 453-hp 6.7L V-12. Sluggish at first, it dutifully unleashes 531 lb.-ft. (720 Nm) of peak torque, effortlessly catapulting the car from 75 mph (120 km/h) to 110 mph (177 km/h) in a few heartbeats.

This is hardly extraordinary until you are reminded the Phantom Coupe weighs more than a black rhinoceros and acceleration occurs seemingly without inertia. Coupled with the prodigious engine’s near-silent hum, it is the kind of sensation you would expect in deep space.

Rolls-Royce insiders call this “waftability.”

Perhaps that is what inspired the auto maker’s starlight headliner. The optional feature incorporates hundreds of fiber-optic lights into rich, black upholstery.

When activated, it lends an intergalactic effect to the Coupe’s interior which was conceived – and we’re not making this up – by a designer named Alan Sheppard.

But we digress.

Sharp steering inputs echo the engine’s majestic character. Results are impressive, albeit benign.

The car responds crisply enough, but without the drama you would expect of a vehicle so heavy. (Did we say the Phantom Coupe weighs more than a newborn finback whale?)

Incredibly, the car stays ramrod stiff. Even during aggressive lane-changes at highway speed.

Rolls credits a fatter, rear antiroll bar and an A-pillar uncompromised by door hinges. The Phantom Coupe’s ample rear-hinged doors open with regal ease, front-to-back, and close neatly from the inside with the push of a button.

And while we’re on the subject of handling, Jupiter has moons with smaller diameters than the Phantom Coupe’s steering wheel. Such oversized tillers belong on pirate ships, not 21st-century luxury cars.

’09 Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe
Vehicle type front-engine, RWD, 4-passenger coupe
Engine 6.7L V-12
Power (SAE net) 453 hp @ 5,350 rpm
Torque 531 lb.-ft. (720 Nm) @ 3,500 rpm
Compression ratio 11:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 130.7 ins. (332 cm)
Overall length 220.8 ins. (561 cm)
Overall width 78.2 ins. (199 cm)
Overall height 72.7 ins. (159 cm)
Curb weight 5,710 lbs. (2,590 kg)
Base price $400,000
Fuel economy 18 mpg (15.7L/100 km) city/hwy
Competition Bentley Brooklands
Pros Cons
“Waftability” Pirate-ship wheel
Starlight headliner Low-brow LEDs
Tail-gate potential We’ll never own one

Clearly, the Phantom Coupe is about indulgence. It panders to the brand’s heritage as much as it pampers the customer.

The iconic Rolls-Royce grille is, as it should be, a focal point of the Coupe’s design. The signature feature evokes instant recognition, as does the Spirit of Ecstasy, which is retractable.

With the push of another button, the winged figure disappears into the top of the grille. This nifty dodge around pedestrian-impact concerns also induces playfulness. (Back at the toll-booth queue, we passed the time by making her dance.)

The optional brushed-steel hood and A-pillar surround, inspired by the Rolls-Royce 100 EX concept, suggests strength and highlights the stately lines of the brand’s trademark bonnet.

But the LED “brows” over the headlamps are definitely low-brow. They are unnerving and disingenuous, like the disjointed mingling of digital readouts and quaint analog instrumentation on the’03 Bentley Arnage R.

Ward’s once asked Rolls’ Chief Designer Ian Cameron to name something the brand would never do. “A pickup,” he said.

However, the Phantom Coupe comes close with a handy fold-down trunk feature it calls the “picnic boot.” Sturdy and easy to manipulate, it’s not hard to imagine tail-gating at the regatta with some chardonnay and Camembert – or even Arrowhead Stadium with some barbecue and Bud.

Inside the Phantom Coupe, comfort is king. But fair evaluation is a challenge because Rolls-Royce’s bespoke customization program, which has been growing steadily in popularity for two years, empowers customers to brand their hand-built cars with unique colors and materials – for a price, of course.

Cowhide not buttery enough? How about lambskin?

Highlights include the starlight headliner and the MP3-player hookup, which wisely is hidden in a closed compartment to preserve the notion that you are behind the wheel of a classic automobile, not the trend du-jour. (Note: The connection setup is designed for the top-of-the-line iPod. Nanos and Shuffles need not apply.)

Also satisfying is the museum-piece heft of the dashboard’s drawers and doors, all of which are fully damped.

However, when it comes to customization, Rolls-Royce draws the line at structural changes that would require recertification for standards such as crashworthiness. Therefore, for your $400,000-plus expenditure, you’re stuck with relatively cramped front-row footwells and rear legroom that falls short when compared with the Bentley Brooklands.

We might be willing to sacrifice some of that bonnet length for some additional space. At least we could reach the toll-taker’s outstretched hand.

But would it still be a Rolls-Royce?

emayne@wardsauto.com