Porsche has it. Bentley is working on one. Lamborghini would love to get one. Range Rover revolves around them. Maserati is laying the finishing touches on one. You guessed it: we're talking about up-market, high-performance luxury SUVs. Better make that crossover, because the word SUV is a red flag to the green police. In the wake of the Bentley EXP 9 F/Falcon, Maserati Kubang/Levante, and Lamborghini Urus concepts, even Rolls-Royce is now discussing the pros and cons of a super-exclusive soft-roader.
As one might expect, the debate is heated and controversial. The conservative wing is strictly against this type of "non-brand-compatible vehicle," while the progressive faction wants "to give the market what it apparently craves for." We asked Harald Krueger, who was put in charge of Rolls-Royce (and Mini, motorbikes, and aftersales) in April 2012, whether a high-roof all-terrain gentle giant might see the light in the not-too-distant future. A firm denial would not have come as a surprise, but the board member chose a diplomatic answer: "As a rule, we are monitoring the activities of the competition, and we are debating, in regular intervals, whether to take action. This applies to all brand-relevant segments and technologies. Right now, I have no more to say on this matter."
While there is no doubt that Rolls-Royce will continue to expand its portfolio, the marque does not have the resources, the production capacity, the dealer network, or the intention to double or triple its output within a relatively short period of time.
BMW 7-Series Bones?
At the upcoming Geneva Motor Show, we are going to see the exciting Wraith fastback coupe, which will be followed by a Ghost facelift in 2014 and by the Phantom replacement in 2016 (at the latest). So far, the lineup does not include an all-wheel-drive model, but this may change. After all, 2013 sees the launch of the all-new BMW X5, and insiders are predicting the next-generation 7-Series, which will again be offered in xDrive guise, for 2015.
Could the new Rolls-Royce crossover be an evolution of the stillborn BMW X7? Or would it make more sense to derive such a vehicle from the lighter 7-Series platform? BMW chairman Norbert Reithofer gave a cryptic answer: "The Phantom is simply too big and too special to be fused with a mainstream architecture. This does not, however, apply to the Ghost and possible additions to the range." Will there be a Ghost convertible? "The business case does not look particularly promising. While such a model would do well in North America, its opportunities in China - which is the second-biggest market for Rolls-Royce - are limited. What I can confirm is that we are going to retain and further improve the V-12 engine." According to a third source, the proposed crossover might not necessarily sit on a four-wheel-drive platform. "It depends what kind of vehicle it will end up being. If the term 'crossover' is primarily package-related, rear-wheel drive might do."
In the case of almost every other brand, wheel diameter would swing things toward an SUV-like matrix, but since all R-R models run on extra-extra-large footwear, the underpinnings of the next long-wheelbase 7-Series (codenamed G12) might work for the Ghost II and for a new crossover. One supplier familiar with the project is predicting a relatively high 25 percent carbon fiber content paired to lightweight front and rear subframes made of aluminum. If it does happen, the new Rolls-Royce model would probably not be built in Goodwood but in Graz, Austria, the home of the Mini Countryman; Magna Steyr is about to install a highly flexible and innovative assembly line tailor-made for small build runs and multi-material applications such as this. Done right, the go-anywhere Rolls could combine a bespoke upper body with chassis and drivetrain elements of the G12 matrix. Tapping the more readily available X5/X6 replacement (codenamed F15/F16) gene reservoir would be the quickest way to bring a crossover to market, but since a twin-turbo V-8 is the biggest engine this architecture can accommodate, the dice may roll in the direction of G12 since it offers an advanced all-wheel drivetrain, an available V-12, a more efficient 48-volt electrical system, and even a plug-in hybrid option.
Coach Versus Pullman
At this point, top management at BMW and Rolls-Royce are still discussing the character of the mold-breaking crossover, which allegedly fits no existing pattern. One informant tells us that there are currently two different projects under review. One is named Coach, the other is known as Pullman.
The Coach is exactly that: solid and stately, square and slab-sided, substantial and supreme. Although the roof is not overly tall, you sit relatively high up in a vault-like cocoon with small side windows and fat, wraparound C-pillars. Large wheels, a long wheelbase, and short overhangs define the impressive proportions. All-wheel drive is not a must, but it would underline the extended mobility message.
While Coach has obviously been inspired by the horseless carriage, Pullman was influenced by legendary first-class trains like the Royal Scotsman or the Orient Express. Lower than the Coach as well as longer and sportier, the Pullman is expected to feature a panoramic roof, a split rear lid that's made to measure for exclusive tailgate parties, and an extended rear overhang.
Common to both versions are the trademark rear suicide doors and the chromed cathedral radiator grille. According to one designer, the two proposals are too far apart to be merged into one, so it's Coach, Pullman, something completely different, or nothing at all.
A V-16 Roadster
A Rolls-Royce project that has been on and off the table for almost ten years is the V-16 roadster. It all began in 2004 with the 100EX concept (http://www.automobilemag.com/auto_shows/04gms_rolls100ex/) powered by a mighty 9.0-liter V-16 engine, and it probably did not end in 2011 with the one-off V-16 Phantom coupe hand-built for Johnny English (aka Rowan Atkinson). Although the existing Phantom has been engineered with the 700-plus-hp extra-extra-large drivetrain in mind, plans to equip the top-of-the-line model with the V-16 have been shelved. Comments our friend from research and development: "A mistake, clearly. While the Ghost is fitted with a 570-hp V-12, the more prestigious Phantom must do with a less-powerful 460-hp motor - when it could be offered with a 9.0-liter torquemonster."
Instead, the ultra-high-end V-16 may now be fitter to a brand-new roadster. Based on a spaceframe architecture loosely related to the Phantom, the striking two-seater sports an uncommonly long nose; a stubby tail; and a low, steeply raked windscreen. Also worth noting are the very short front overhang, the tapered rear plan view, and the wide track that creates a butch stance. Extra money would buy a contrasting stainless steel hood, trunk lid, and windscreen surround, sources say. Whereas the exterior is said to demonstrate "presence, power, and purposefulness," the interior of the softtop provides a "sporting driving position as well as a sense of the occasion, thanks to iconic controls and materials."
Why not forget the V-16 and go for a quad-turbo V-12, all-wheel drive, and a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) instead? Because Rolls-Royce customers are, supposedly, neither interested in ultimate performance nor in saving the earth. What matters to them are refinement, luxury, craftsmanship, waftability, and the opportunity to customize their vehicles.
Looking even deeper into the crystal ball, we see the new Phantom family of luxury liners, a smaller convertible, and, ultimately, perhaps even a new Rolls-Royce positioned below the Ghost.
The Phantom II won't change much in size and character, but the next-generation two-door models might. The follow-up to the Phantom Coupe is, for instance, expected to be lighter, sportier, a little smaller, and more of a driver's car -- less of a Camargue and more of a Continental or a Brooklands, if you pardon the Bentley connotation. In case Rolls chooses to sign off on another full-size convertible, it will likely be more efficiently packaged to become a proper four-eater. Like the Coupe, its design is bound to differ more profoundly from its four-door sister models.
Behind closed doors, there is also talk of a second, notably more compact droptop that would be smaller than the Ghost, but not by much. Another G12 derivative, this cabriolet may be twinned with a shooting brake/crossover/four-door coupe. This is still highly provisional and speculative stuff, but there is no doubt that Rolls-Royce intends to expand cautiously into different, even more exclusive, and emphatically avant-garde territory.
"We are not interested in volume," states Krueger. "In the segment we compete in, volume can, in fact, be counterproductive." That's why the V-16 roadster will be limited to 500 or 750 examples if it does get the nod. The large convertible must be profitable at 2000 units over its lifetime. And in case there ever is a car below the Ghost, the company would want to treat it like Rolex treats its steel Daytona watch: they make so few that it commands an eight-year waiting list. That's how sustainable brand values for luxury goods are created and maintained these days.
Renderings via AUTOBILD / LARSON