PHILADELPHIA – Perspiring heavily in a grungy gray sweat suit, Rocky Balboa felt the burn in his thighs as he sprinted to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art after drinking raw eggs, preparing himself for the fight of his life.

I made my way to those same steps led serenely down Benjamin Franklin Parkway by the Spirit of Ecstasy in a land yacht with inch-thick lamb’s wool “footmats,” Teflon-coated umbrellas hidden James Bond-style in the front doors and supple leather from 10 generous cows raised in tranquility in the Bavarian foothills.

The vast majority of Americans – boxers and aspiring actors included – will never experience the lavish lifestyle that accompanies Rolls-Royce ownership, even though the all-new Ghost is considerably less expensive than the Phantom flagship.

A mere utterance of the Rolls-Royce name conjures dreamy images of Cartier watches, private jets and Monte Carlo villas.

For many luxury brands, the allure of higher-volume sales has been too strong to resist.

Dozens of brands have moved down-market to reach a wider audience. Porsche, BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Jaguar, Land Rover, Cadillac and Volvo all have made luxury more accessible, sometimes with disastrous results.

Rolls-Royce is doing the same now with the Ghost, a sedan with a base price in the U.S. of $245,000. Our tester stickered for $309,575, including a $1,700 gas-guzzler tax and $2,000 destination and handling charge.

The car went on sale in Europe in December and in North America in April.

Meanwhile, the Phantom begins at $380,000 and runs to $450,000 as the base price for the extended-wheelbase version. Without taxes. Without delivery charges. Without a long list of options, each costing thousands of dollars.

Rolls-Royce understands the risks associated with opening the vault door a bit wider to those one step below filthy rich. If a Rolls no longer is unattainable, then what’s the point of attainment?

Porsche asked the same question when it offered the entry-level Boxster roadster and Cayman coupe. Today, the more-expensive 911 and new Panamera sedan vastly outsell both, suggesting a lower price of entry has not diminished Porsche’s desirability.

The same can be said about the BMW 1-Series and Audi A3. Those relatively new vehicles have not dissuaded buyers of the more upscale 3-Series and A4, respectively.

After extended driving here, it’s safe to declare the Ghost is a credit to the Rolls-Royce brand, paying homage to familiar styling cues and drenching occupants in opulence. The pedigree remains unsullied.

Most important, it handles as well as a dreamboat this size could, thanks to its Bavarian lineage.

’10 Rolls-Royce Ghost
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Engine 6.6L twin-turbo DOHC all-aluminum V-12
Power (SAE net) 563 hp @ 5,250 rpm
Torque 575 lb.-ft. (780 Nm) @ 1,500 rpm
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase 129.6 ins. (329 cm)
Overall length 212.6 ins. (540 cm)
Overall width 76.7 ins. (195 cm)
Overall height 61 ins. (155 cm)
Curb weight 5,445 lbs./2,470 kg
Base price $245,000
Fuel economy 13/20 mpg (18/11.7 L/100 km)
Competition Bentley Mulsanne, Flying Spur and Arnage
Pros Cons
James Bond umbrellas Grille resembles security gate
Amazing air suspension 419 lbs. heavier than BMW 760Li
Naughty feels nice Beyond politically incorrect

The Ghost shares its architectural underpinnings with the extended-wheelbase BMW 7-Series, although it weighs 5,445 lbs. (2,470 kg). That’s 419 lbs. (190 kg) heftier than the top-of-the-line 7-Series.

Despite its heavyweight status, the Ghost can dash to 60 mph (97 km/h) from a standstill in 4.8 seconds, 0.3 seconds slower than the 760Li. And fuel consumption is an acceptable 20.8 mpg (13.6 L/100km).

Motivation comes from a 563-hp BMW-designed 6.6L twin-turbo direct-injection V-12 similar to the 6.0L V-12 in the 760Li. The basic castings and architecture are the same, but most of the internals are different.

The Rolls V-12, besides having a longer stroke to improve torque, is programmed to produce smooth, silent power, and it effortlessly propels the rear wheels via an excellent 8-speed automatic transmission ZF Friedrichshafen AG developed for BMW.

The instrument cluster also includes a “power reserve” gauge that tells the driver how much more grunt lurks deeper into the throttle. With the accelerator to the floor and triple-digit speeds rapidly approaching, the gauge says the engine still can produce 40% more power.

Merely sitting in the Ghost might feel decadent or licentious – a guilty pleasure. But standing on the accelerator cements the notion that even the “Baby Rolls” can be the king of the road.

Helping insulate the interior is a double front bulkhead consisting of steel sections brazed and sanded by hand.

Although the steering wheel can feel like a rudder at times, the Ghost is fairly agile, but less so than the 760Li. The two vehicles might share the same architecture, but the Ghost has a wheelbase 3.3 ins. (8.4 cm) longer. Overall, it has more than 7 ins. (17.8 cm) on the 760 Li.

That explains the Ghost’s ponderous turning circle of 43.9 ft. (13.4 m). For context, the all-new Ford Fiesta boasts a turning circle of 34.4 ft. (10.5 m), while the 4x4 SuperCab Ford F-150 needs 47 ft. (14.3 m) to circle.

The new air suspension in the Ghost is the stuff of science fiction.

Each seat has 40 sensors to detect the slightest shift in weight, for instance, as an occupant reaches to change the radio station. That information is communicated to the suspension, which compensates accordingly. Dampers make load calculations every 2.5 milliseconds.

Its mechanical credentials established, the styling of the Ghost bears discussion.

On the downside, the exterior sheetmetal lacks emotion, from the back end to the squarish front, where the grille stands out like a security gate.

But everyone can marvel at the details of a car like the Ghost, from the rear-hinged coach doors and C-pillar vanity mirrors to the $2,800 chrome and wood fold-down “picnic tables” for the back seats and the self-righting wheel hubs that keep the “RR” marque upright.

Another nice interior feature: The back seats are tilted slightly toward each other to facilitate power brokering, deal-making or a recap of the night at the opera, as well as to prevent craning the neck.

Nationalistic Brits understandably groused in 1998 when BMW acquired the right to the Rolls-Royce name.

But those same critics likely are changing their tune. A relatively new plant in Chichester southwest of London now employs 900 people, including 150 recently added for the Ghost launch.

With two shifts, the plant is running at record levels. The Ghost has its own dedicated assembly line but shares paint, wood and leather workshops with the Phantom. The plant closed for several weeks in 2009 due to slow sales, but no jobs were lost and employees continued getting much of their pay.

Not long ago, as world economies were melting down, the future of Rolls-Royce looked tenuous. But BMW has injected Rolls with new life by sharing vast marketing and product-development resources, not to mention advanced technology.

The Ghost is the proof that mergers between auto makers can bear fruit. And more Rolls-Royce models may be on the way, including an extended-wheelbase Ghost.

Company executives also tell Ward’s they are open to the idea of a hybrid Rolls, if done right. With a hybrid 7-Series already on the road, a Rolls derivative would not require heavy lifting.

Rolls-Royce sold 1,002 cars in 2009, about a third in North America, its largest market. And in first-quarter 2010, deliveries were up 60%. True, last year’s baseline was tortuously low, but the arrival of the Ghost surely has had a positive impact.

As Rolls-Royce moves downmarket, it encroaches on the turf of Bentley Motor Cars Ltd., while at the same time Bentley inches into Rolls territory with its all-new Mulsanne, which has a higher base price than the Ghost.

These movements set the stage for a titanic battle between the U.K.’s cherished national nameplates.

Sort of like Rocky vs. Apollo Creed.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com