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Rolls-Royce's CEO on youth appeal and a future SUV (Q&A)

CNET sat down with Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes to talk about expanding the brand's appeal to younger buyers, new models, and efficient drivetrains.

Rolls-Royce Wraith
Rolls-Royce's most recent model, the Wraith, came out last year, and is a completely new type of car for the brand..
Rolls-Royce Wraith
Rolls-Royce's most recent model, the Wraith, is a new type of car for the brand. Rolls-Royce

Despite troubled times in the 1970s and 1980s, Rolls-Royce maintains a reputation for luxury unparalleled in the automotive industry. Recent years have been good for the marque. Under what CEO Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes refers to as the "custodianship" of the BMW Group, the company has carefully expanded its model lineup, going from the Phantom in 2003 to the Ghost in 2009. Last year, Rolls-Royce unveiled its newest model, the Wraith.

CNET's Wayne Cunningham sat down with Mueller-Oetvoes, Rolls-Royce's Director of Global Communications Richard Carter, and North American Regional Director Eric C. Shepherd to talk about appealing to a new generation of buyers, engine technology, and when we will see an SUV adorned with the Spirit of Ecstacy, Rolls-Royce's iconic hood ornament.

The company has most recently announced it will release a new model, a rare occasion for the brand, with availability in 2016. Mueller-Oetvoes described that new model as a "Wraith without a roof", revealing that it would be a convertible.

On younger buyers

Wayne Cunningham: How do you sell to a younger audience that grew up playing video games, and make them understand the allure of Rolls-Royce's old-world luxury?

Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes
Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes considers BMW Group the "custodian" of this historic brand. Rolls-Royce

Mueller-Oetvoes: When Rolls-Royce delivered the Phantom in 2003, its age group fell between 50 and 60. That changed dramatically when we introduced the Ghost in 2009, which appealed to an average age 10 years younger. And guess what? Wraith's appeal is even younger. The Wraith age group is 35 and upwards. These younger customers are interested in the latest gadgets so they can stream music and stream videos.

We are part of the BMW Group and have access to the latest technology. We take what exists and make it even better. Our technology is designed to underpin the effortless feeling of a Rolls-Royce. For example, there is the satellite-aided transmission which we have put into Wraith. We have the latest navigation systems, high-speed processors, Wi-Fi hotspots... you name it, and we have it.

Carter: We just announced that the Wraith will appear in Forza 5, and were surprised at how much attention the news received. Thousands of articles appeared and feedback from the market was stunning. But efforts such as that are part of the contemporization of the brand, making it more approachable. There was a time at motor shows when we didn't let people onto the Rolls-Royce stand. They had to look at the cars as if they were some vision of heaven. Now we feel exactly the opposite.

Mueller-Oetvoes: Wraith brought us a lot of new customers we had never seen before. The same happened with Ghost when that was introduced. Eighty percent of Ghost buyers were new to the brand.

We are not bringing new models out every year, for multiple reasons. First of all, the capacity of the plant is highly limited. We want to keep volume low and we want to stay highly exclusive, so the plant's capacity is an in-built guarantee for exclusivity."

On the V-12 engine

BMW has developed many technologies under its EfficientDynamics brand to achieve better fuel economy. Will Rolls-Royce be adopting any of these, such as the start-stop feature?

Carter: Start-stop is not something Rolls-Royce customers like. The only time the 12-cylinder engine in a Rolls-Royce can be heard is when you crank it up. Our customers like that quiet driving experience.

Mueller-Oetvoes: We developed a beautiful car with an electric drivetrain, the 102EX, but the reception from our customers was lukewarm. The range was not seen as being sufficient and the charging times were too long.

A Rolls-Royce is not bought for economy, it's the fascination with the 12-cylinder engine. A 12-cylinder engine in itself is beautiful, it's a masterpiece of engineering and seems completely silent in the car. We are manufacturing the most efficient 12-cylinder engines in the world. For CO2 emissions, they are class-leading. I'm a true believer that we are the last ones in the industry who will give up 12-cylinder engines.

I'm convinced we will, sooner or later, bring an alternative drivetrain to Rolls-Royce, maybe not driven by customer demand, but more by the legal side. Many cities around the world are talking about protecting the city centers from combustion engines, so cars would only be allowed to enter with electric engines. We are thinking actively what might be the answer, and might go in the direction of plug-in hybrids.

On a future SUV

Would there ever be an SUV from Rolls-Royce?

(Carter, Shepherd, and Mueller-Oetvoes chuckle over the question -- one they've been hearing a lot.)

Mueller-Oetvoes: We are working on that. It is a very interesting segment and we are getting questions from customers asking us to participate in that segment. Probably 70 to 80 percent of Rolls-Royce customers have Range Rovers in their garages, and they wonder why that can't get a better, more luxurious car. For us, it's a question of how does it fit with Rolls-Royce, is it a credible type of car for the brand?

We were quite brave with the Wraith. It was the first time in the history of the brand we brought a fastback coupe to the market, and reception was fantastic. So that encouraged us to go beyond our roots. I think that when we can make it happen and when it fits design-wise, package-wise, and also content-wise, we will build one. Because again, our customers would never accept any compromises, the car needs to be 100 percent right, and we are working on that. So there is no final decision yet, but we are making progress."

Rolls-Royce Wraith in the Forza racing game
Rolls-Royce partnered with Forza to create a virtual version of the Wraith for the racing game. Rolls-Royce