2017 Rolls-Royce ‘Cullinan’ SUV test mule spied

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A Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV prototype has been spotted winter testing ahead of its launch in 2017.

The length of the test mule is drastically altered from the Phantom donor car on which it is based, as can be seen from the much shorter rear doors, higher ground clearance and revised front-end, with different air intakes to the Phantom. 

Rolls-Royce’s first SUV model was also spied out on public roads in 2015, as it undergoes its testing schedule. 

The car was confirmed by Rolls-Royce earlier this year when some images of the mule were released but this is the first time that it has been seen in public. The car has been described by Rolls-Royce as a “high-sided  all-terrain vehicle”.

The company says only the length of the mule gives clues any clue as to the final production car; it’s otherwise an engineering mock-up. 

This ‘mule’ is based on a shortened Phantom II and will be used to develop the new all-wheel drive transmission and the suspension system. 

According to the company, the mule “will assist Rolls-Royce engineers in developing a final suspension system that will deliver…the brand’s hallmark ‘magic carpet’ ride not only on the road, but off-road, too.

“The first series of tests will focus on Project Cullinan’s on-road behaviour from suspension throw to high-bodied stability, using the first iteration of the newly designed suspension system. The result will be “effortless…everywhere” – a strong hint as to the marketing line for the new vehicle.

The Cullinan name makes reference to the largest gem-quality diamond ever found, but the car is not expected to be called this when it reaches production in 2017. The Cullinan diamond was discovered in South Africa in 1905 and is now mounted on the Queen’s sceptre as part of the Crown Jewels.

Rolls-Royce bosses made the announcement confirming the 4×4 in a one-page open letter to all stakeholders in the project – potential customers, employees, suppliers and media – signed by CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös and chairman Peter Schwarzenbauer.

The pair said they were are taking special pains to communicate early with Rolls-Royce owners, “because many of our discerning customers have urged us to develop this car”. The decision, made in Goodwood but green-lighted at the highest echelons, is a personal triumph for Müller-Ötvös, who loved the idea from the start and has been instrumental in making the business case for it.

Blog: Why an SUV can be a real Rolls-Royce

“I am proud to confirm that we are developing an all-new, high-bodied Rolls-Royce,” he told Autocar, avoiding the term ‘SUV’. “I’m confident it will deliver on our brand’s promise of supreme luxury while being effortless everywhere.”

Müller-Ötvös believes ‘effortless everywhere’ describes the Rolls-Royce 4×4’s mission particularly well and says he intends to use the words throughout the model’s gestation.

The Rolls-Royce 4×4 is likely to become the global flagship for a vehicle segment whose sales across all classes have trebled in a decade. It should add as many as 1500 cars to Rolls-Royce’s volume, which last year exceeded 4000 units, although Rolls-Royce’s people dismiss talk of volume as “not the point”. Their customers care far more about exclusivity.

Although Bentley recently announced that it would launch its own luxury SUV, the Bentayga, later this year, the new Rolls-Royce is likely to shatter existing size and price ceilings for 4x4s. Design boss Giles Taylor says the 4×4 will be carefully positioned so that the Phantom limo remains the true Rolls-Royce flagship but also says his company “will not shrink from the opportunity to build a big car”.

The 4×4 will be “nearly as long” as a Phantom and will have “very proud, very modern” front-end styling.

Rolls-Royce’s people won’t be drawn on price, but the car’s sheer size and the price of its other models indicates that it would probably start at around £250,000 to £280,000 in today’s money, rising as high as £500,000 if owners decide to splash out on bespoke equipment and decor, as they do with the saloons.

The basis of the 4×4 will be an all-new aluminium architecture, believed to be a Phantom-like spaceframe that will serve as the basis for all new Rolls-Royce models in the foreseeable future. The company acknowledges a significant engineering challenge with the 4×4, promising its usual standard of effortless luxury in “a vehicle that can cross any terrain”.

The versatility of the 11-year-old Phantom chassis, which has been extended into several longer-wheelbase versions, has taught Rolls-Royce insiders the value of spaceframe chassis flexibility for low-volume production.

They also see their use of a bespoke chassis as an important advantage over less expensive luxury cars such as the Bentley range and Mercedes-Benz’s new Maybach sub-brand, which are steel monocoques and related to volume models. No future Rolls-Royce will take its structure from a steel monocoque production car.

The staple engine for the new 4×4 is likely to be a developed version of the Phantom’s 6.8-litre V12. Research has shown that Rolls-Royce customers care relatively little about their cars’ engines, provided they are powerful, smooth and silent.

However, the company is already well advanced with a plug-in hybrid powertrain, some of whose mechanical design has been informed by experience of the experimental, battery-only 102EX prototype, built and widely tested in 2011. 

Diesel prototypes are understood to have been built but dismissed as production prospects not so much for refinement reasons (the cars were said to be very quiet) but because Rolls-Royce doesn’t feel diesel fuel is easily enough available in important luxury markets such as the Middle East, China and the US.

Rolls-Royce bosses say they have yet to decide on the new 4×4’s name, but it is likely to be a word, not a number. Having so far launched Phantom, Ghost and Wraith in the modern era, the executive team still have Dawn, Cloud, Shadow, Spirit, Corniche and Camargue at their disposal before they need to look outside — although given the 4×4’s departure from Rolls-Royce’s familiar format, they could, like Bentley, go for something new. 

The new model is being developed under the code name of RR31.

Before taking the decision to make this car, Rolls-Royce did copious research into the company’s history to confirm that faithful performance in tough conditions — such a crushing victory by James Radley’s Silver Ghost in the 1913 Alpine Trial, the landmark test of vehicle endurance at the time (see sidebar) — was one brand value that could extend forward into the 4×4.

Rolls-Royce insiders say the 4×4 is likely to include equally the qualities of Charles Rolls, adventurer and pioneer aviator, rather than majoring on those of Henry Royce, master engineer, as is more usual. Mind you, Royce’s qualities will also be key in this mould-breaking project. It was he, after all, who said: “Take the best that exists and make it better. When it does not exist, design it.” Within Rolls-Royce’s back rooms, that’s exactly what is happening now.

David Cameron visited Rolls-Royce at its Goodwood HQ to mark the original Cullinan announcement, becoming the first Prime Minister to do so. He said: “By developing an SUV Rolls-Royce is supporting jobs and investment in the region – and we in government will do everything we an to support you.

“What Rolls-Royce is doing here is something our country needs to do more of – manufacturing, designing, investing, era searching and developing, training apprentices, creating an infrastructure. These are all things Rolls-Royce does and we must support that.”

Q&A with CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös

What made you decide on an ‘open letter’ announcement?

“We felt the whole Rolls-Royce family needed to hear the news as early as possible. Our customers needed to know we were responding to their enthusiasm for the idea and our employees needed to know we were building and safeguarding our business and their jobs. And obviously we needed to tell the media.”How big a decision is this for you ?

“It’s big, but so is the decision to build it on new aluminium architecture. That’s going to affect what we do for many years to come. And it’s such great news. It also shows that our car isn’t simply going to be a differently styled [BMW] X7. It will be a genuine Rolls-Royce from the ground up, and so will every other new car we show you in the future.”

Was there much opposition to this project inside BMW?

“I wouldn’t call it opposition. More like caution. People were aware of the extreme value of the Rolls-Royce heritage and they needed to be sure that what we proposed was viable for the business and right for the brand. I drove this as hard as I could and had great support from our chairman, Peter Schwarzenbauer.”How much extra volume will the 4×4 bring to the total Rolls-Royce business – 30%?

“It could be something like that but, as you’ve heard me say many times, volume isn’t our preoccupation and our customers don’t like to hear us talking about it. Rolls-Royces are very rare and exclusive and they always will be.”

Will the 4×4 attract a new breed of customers?

“We believe so. Owners will be a mixture of people who already know Rolls-Royce and who are new to the brand. We’re getting used to this, though. The Wraith has attracted 80% new customers. And before that, between 60% and 70% of our Ghost customers were new, too.”

This is going to be quite a serious challenge for your engineers, isn’t it?

“It will be, if we’re to achieve the standard we’ve set ourselves, which is to create a high-bodied car that delivers supreme luxury yet is effortless to drive, everywhere. But we’re very confident we can design, develop and build it to the quality required by our discerning customers around the world.”

Rolls-Royce – the next four years?

Between now and 2018, the Rolls-Royce line-up will be completely refreshed – with a new Ghost, new Phantom (and spin-offs) and its 4×4 – as the company continues its expansion plans.

Here’s how its timetable of renewal looks.

Ghost facelift – 2014 Displayed at the Geneva motor show in February and due to arrive in showrooms later this year, the facelifted Ghost has a consciously more modern appearance. There’s even the choice of a Dynamic Driving Package, hinting at a more sporting mien for the model.

New Phantom – 2017 Early work is under way on a replacement for the 11-year-old super-luxury saloon and its coupé and cabriolet spin-offs, with sketches already being done at the company’s Goodwood design studio. A new BMW i-style carbonfibre and aluminium architecture is a strong possibility.

New SUV – 2017 As described above.

New Ghost – 2018 BMW’s sophisticated part-carbonfibre structure, seen at last month’s Beijing motor show, is thought give big clues to the architecture that will underpin the next-generation Ghost family. It will replace today’s steel monocoque, which is loosely based on that used by the current 7 Series.

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