Rolls-Royce Dawn

If it hasn't dawned on you yet, there've been some big changes at Rolls-Royce in recent years. And one of the most obvious signs is the arrival of the new Rolls Dawn convertible. No, the staid British maker isn't about to move into the mainstream, and it isn't shifting gears to battery power—at least not immediately. But it is expanding its lineup with a series of new products that gives the elite marque a more modern look and feel while retaining that classic elegance and exclusivity that have made it an icon for more than a century.

Let's start by pointing out that the new Rolls-Royce Dawn is, in British lingo, a "drophead," or convertible. But for the fabric top, it shares most of its basics with Rolls's Wraith coupe. The British maker likes to call the new entry "the sexiest Rolls-Royce ever built," and if the looks and sighs it drew during several days of driving in and around Boston are any indication, that's clearly no exaggeration.

There's something more approachable about the Dawn than that classic Rolls-Royce flagship, the Phantom. And while at least some buyers may still prefer to luxuriate in the spacious back seat, letting the chauffeur negotiate traffic, there are plenty of reasons why they might also opt to take on driving duties.

Start with the 6.6-liter twin-turbo V-12 under that long and elegantly sculpted bonnet—sorry, hood—which makes an impressive 563 horsepower. That's the sort of number you might expect from an exotic supercar and, even with a mass of nearly three tons, you'll be in for a surprise the first time you mash the throttle and feel yourself sink into the plush, leather seats. Dawn's solid chassis and firm suspension delivered another surprise as we charged along some winding old roads outside of Boston. "Sporty" is not a term normally associated with Rolls-Royce, but Dawn could change that perception.

Of course, you can set the electronically controlled suspension to comfort mode and all but float over the roughest roads, the top down and the wind in your hair. There's something about the way the drophead has been outfitted: only the plushest of cowhides and the most elegantly hand-finished woods make it into the cabin. There are, of course, all the latest digital infotainment features, as well as the most modern electronic safety systems, such as active cruise control with automatic emergency braking.

The Rolls-Royce Dawn somehow finds a way to balance old-school and new while remaining true to the brand. And lest you worry about seeing too many of them on the road, it remains, at about $400,000, within reach of only the most elite of the one-percenters.