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Is the Rolls-Royce SUV imminent?
It’s a good time to be Rolls-Royce. Last year saw it pass 4000 annual sales for the first time, 2014’s grand total of 4063 cars not only representing a 12 per cent improvement on 2013, but a stratospheric rise above the 300 cars shifted during the Phantom’s first full year on sale just over a decade ago.
And it’s a safe bet that Rolls hasn’t reached its limit just yet. Later this year we’ll find out if its SUV has been given the green light, with Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös telling us his team are “making progress in mulling the plan”.
What’s stopping them, TG asks? “The reason that we haven’t decided yet is that we still have a couple of questions to answer ourselves”, says Müller-Ötvös. “Rolls-Royce shouldn’t be about compromise, and that car needs to be a true Rolls-Royce when we bring it into the market”.
So what makes a true Rolls-Royce? “It’s very much about comfort levels: effortless to drive, a magic carpet ride, really fantastic legroom and space, the most comfortable materials, acoustic comfort, surprise and delight features. It is about long lasting quality, and especially in that segment, it needs to be about reliability, because you would use that car for many purposes.
“Going to the opera, driving to the yacht harbour, putting your kids, dog and luggage into the car and driving up to your chalet in the Swiss alps. All that needs to be incorporated in that car. Definitely this is a self-driving car. It will be used as an all-purpose vehicle for many families.”
Unconventionally, Müller-Ötvös calling it a ‘self-driving car’ doesn’t signify it coming with autonomous technology. In Rolls-Royce lexicon, it means a car the owner drives themselves rather than leaving such duties to a chauffeur.
The Wraith was the first Rolls designed from the outset as a ‘self-driver’, with its loony power output and sharper dynamics, and the company is reaping the rewards. The Wraith can take much of the credit for those record sales, accounting for over 40 per cent of Rolls registrations last year, ranking it alongside the Ghost for volume.
But does autonomous driving have a place in Rolls-Royces of the future, we ask? “We have invented that already 111 years ago with the chauffeur behind the wheel!” Müller-Ötvös laughs.
“Many of our customers already have a high amount of cars in the garage and have access to a chauffeur. So for that reason that’s not on the top list. But I would never say never, as in principle it would fit perfectly with Rolls-Royce. Once that technology is right for the market and is proven, I would say ‘yes, sure’.”
Being part of the wider BMW group – which is developing the technology for its own cars – is an ideal place to be. But chauffeurs everywhere needn’t rewrite their CVs just yet. “When you talk to our customers they would still prefer human beings as their chauffeurs”, Rolls’s boss assures us. Phew.
Rolls-Royce customers can breathe a sigh of relief, too. While the company is proudly shouting about record sales, it’s not turning its back on exclusivity.
“Our strategy is that we will never offer a car priced lower than Ghost”, says Müller-Ötvös. “We want to keep exclusivity very high. I think 4000 is still a very minute number; it’s great for us but it’s a small number in the automotive business as a whole. As long as customers don’t see their cars on every street corner we are fine.”
Would Rolls-Royce ever cap sales, like Ferrari has done in the past? “Yes, why not? I think it’s exactly right what they [Ferrari] did. They were limiting themselves to certain numbers. I think what Luca di Montezemolo said is exactly what we do; a luxury brand should not be for volume, it should always be for profit. And that’s exactly the target I’m getting from the BMW group. We are not in the volume business, rest assured.”
And what of Rolls’s lowest volume car, the Phantom? While it recently enjoyed a considered refresh, it is at heart the same car that debuted in 2002. Müller-Ötvös confirms we will see a new-generation car. “This is not tomorrow, or the year after tomorrow. But a new Phantom generation will come, that’s for sure.”
Just the small matter of a new Drophead and that potential SUV to deal with first…