DETROIT – Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. is showing off a new extended-wheelbase version of the Phantom sedan here that will be launched in North America by the end of 2006.

It promises to follow up with a new convertible that will go into production in 2007.

Most auto makers sell more cars in an afternoon than Rolls-Royce sells in a year, but in the rarified air of $180,000 stickers and up, the auto maker says its Phantom left direct competitors such as Mercedes-Benz's Maybach in the dust with 796 retail sales last year.

The Phantom starts at $329,000. Sales in countries as diverse as Cambodia, Bulgaria and Uzbekistan helped drive sales to a 15-year high, says CEO Ian Robertson, although the U.S. still accounts for 50% of global sales.

Extended-wheelbase Phantom

The auto maker's No.1 dealership is in Beverly Hills, CA, but the rest of its top five retailers are based in Tokyo, London and the two United Arab Emirates cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, respectively, Robertson says.

“We have enjoyed another strong year, with the Phantom now clearly established and the foundations laid for the launch of our new products over the coming months, further increasing our lead over the competition,” he says.

The Phantom is changing the typical profile of Rolls-Royce buyers. They are much younger, drive their cars a great deal more and request many more bespoke features than expected, Robertson tells reporters at the North American International Auto Show here.

The average age of Rolls-Royce customers has dropped from about 61 to just over 50, he says, and the cars now are driven about 6,000 miles (9,656 km) a year compared with traditional Rolls-Royce owners, who only drive their cars an average of 2,000 miles (3,219 km) per year.

Some owners now drive their cars as much as 30,000 miles (48,279 km) annually, and a significant number of new buyers are in their 20s or 30s, he adds.

The new extended-wheelbase Phantom on display here has 10 in. (25 cm) added to the wheelbase behind the B-pillar, which offers additional interior space for rear occupants. It is an attractive feature to owners who want to be chauffeured, Robertson says.

Rolls-Royce says extending the wheelbase of the Phantom is particularly easy because the car is built on an aluminum spaceframe. Most cars are extended by cutting and re-welding the car's steel body shell.

However, in the case of the Phantom, the extruded aluminum frame rails are simply replaced with longer versions, Robertson says.

dwinter@primediabusiness.com