Rolls-Royce SUV's Phantom-based engineering mule seen winter testing, with production mooted for 2017
Steve Cropley Autocar
10 March 2016

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 4x4 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 4x4’s mission particularly well and says he intends to use the words throughout the model’s gestation.

The Rolls-Royce 4x4 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 4x4 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 4x4 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 4x4 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 4x4, 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 4x4 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 4x4’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 4x4’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 4x4.

Rolls-Royce insiders say the 4x4 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 4x4 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 4x4 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 4x4 – 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.

Get the latest car news, reviews and galleries from Autocar direct to your inbox every week. Enter your email address below:

Our Verdict

Rolls-Royce Phantom
The Phantom Series II receives a number of useful tweaks over the original car

The Rolls-Royce Phantom comes with opulence befitting its huge price tag. It is the benchmark for ride quality

Join the debate


13 May 2014
My god, the depths of ugliness have just been surpassed.....

20 February 2015
Anything has a right to be ugly, but that thing abuses the privilege. I mean, all jeeps are ugly but....eeurrghhh!

I don't need to put my name here, it's on the left


13 May 2014
Relax, billybob, there is no reason to suppose it'll look anything like the illustration. Also, there is nothing inappropriate or brand-damaging about a Rolls Royce SUV; they have always been ready to adapt their chassis to all manner of purposes and their traditional clientele get muddy with dogs etc. It's only the frightful nouveaux riches who would squeal about getting the car or their Ralph Lauren clothes dirty.

13 May 2014
275not599 wrote:

Relax, billybob, there is no reason to suppose it'll look anything like the illustration. Also, there is nothing inappropriate or brand-damaging about a Rolls Royce SUV; they have always been ready to adapt their chassis to all manner of purposes and their traditional clientele get muddy with dogs etc. It's only the frightful nouveaux riches who would squeal about getting the car or their Ralph Lauren clothes dirty.

If the recent television program is to be believed then the majority of Rolls Royce customers these days are the latter sort, the people who'll buy the RR picnic set to 'complete' the car and never use it.

An off-road Rolls Royce could be nice car. Either a low overall height with rally car style off-roading abilities or, more likely, something tall along the lines of the Range Rover Classic.

Given current market trends and their use of that most American of classifications, SUV, the worry is that we'll end up with something similar to what all the other brands are doing. Tiny windows in proportion to it's height, hatchback rear end looks and a general aimlessness as to what it's supposed to look like.

13 May 2014
The design of the SUV looks great to me.

Restrained and practical. Should sell well.

Malo Mori Quam Foedari

13 May 2014
From Guweira, north of Akaba, the cars raced over mud-flats ('their speedometers touched sixty-five') with the knowledge that 'it was nearly impossible to break a Rolls-Royce'. In the expediencies of war, the practical value of the car outweighed the camel. Alongside their speed and durability was the protection they afforded from gunfire: 'Armoured car work seemed fighting de luxe, for our troops, being steel covered, could come to no hurt'. It was only when the cars drove into the beloved old castle of Azrak that doubts surfaced over the appropriateness of mechanised beasts from the West in deepest Arabia: 'I felt guilty at introducing the throbbing car, and its trim crew of khaki-clad northerners, into the remoteness of this most hidden legendary place'. The moment is short lived. Lawrence spends far more time rejoicing at the value of the car: 'A Rolls in the desert was above rubies'... Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). BMW's token efforts today seem paltry alongside the achievements of great men in the past. So sad, so very, very sad.

13 May 2014
Perhaps they'll carve some wellies into the Spirit of Ecstasy too and give it a Barbour jacket and peak cap. When are great car makers (Porsche, Jaguar, Rolls) going to stop trying morph into extracurricular market segments? Focus Roller! Focus!
Whatever next, a two seater Range Rover sports car?

13 May 2014
Marky wrote:

Perhaps they'll carve some wellies into the Spirit of Ecstasy too and give it a Barbour jacket and peak cap. When are great car makers (Porsche, Jaguar, Rolls) going to stop trying morph into extracurricular market segments? Focus Roller! Focus!
Whatever next, a two seater Range Rover sports car?

Well,going the other way we have the Porsche Cayenne et al!


13 May 2014
They (Porsche) should of stuck to the raw sports car model.

13 May 2014
Marky wrote:

They (Porsche) should of stuck to the raw sports car model.

Not should 'of'.


Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Volkswagen Passat Alltrack 2.0 TDI 4Motion front view
    First Drive
    17 February 2017
    Latest Passat Alltrack is one of the best examples of that most inoffensive of things, the all-seasons estate
  • 2017 Hyundai i30 1.0 T-GDi 120 SE Nav front view
    First Drive
    17 February 2017
    A UK drive in the Hyundai i30 reveals a rounded and capable hatchback, but not one to challenge the class best
  • Peugeot 5008
    First Drive
    16 February 2017
    Handsome seven-seater offers a smart interior with certain key practicality benefits, but it’s a slightly mixed bag to drive.
  • Car review
    15 February 2017
    The fifth-gen Discovery is simply one of the world's most capable cars, even with the addition of a 2.0-litre engine
  • Tesla Model X
    Car review
    15 February 2017
    The electric propulsion pioneer takes aim at the seven-seat SUV market