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Rolls-Royce tests SUV chassis with a winged Phantom

Inviting the public in on its development process, Rolls-Royce released photos of an "engineering mule," a shortened Phantom model sporting a wing on its trunk, that it's using to test a chassis for its upcoming SUV.

Rolls-Royce Project Cullinan
Rolls-Royce is using this engineering mule to test a four-wheel-drive raised suspension, ensuring Rolls-Royce's characterisic ride quality. Rolls-Royce

Spy photographers make a whole business out of catching new models undergoing road testing, but Rolls-Royce gets out ahead of the espionage game by releasing photos of a development car it will be putting on the streets. Called an "engineering mule" in an open letter (Rolls-Royce-speak for "press release"), the vehicle serves as a test-bed for a four-wheel-drive SUV it calls Project Cullinan.

The vehicle shown in the photos is a shortened Phantom model, so it runs on a unique Rolls-Royce chassis, likely with air suspension components. Space between the tires and wheel wells shows quite a bit of lift in the suspension, and it sports a wing on the trunk, a performance component as unlikely to be seen on a Rolls-Royce model as neon under-lighting.

If Rolls-Royce hadn't explained what this car was all about, it might have made a fun guessing game, inviting speculation of a Phantom-based GT3 racer. However, Rolls-Royce makes it clear that this car, which will probably be seen trawling around Goodwood, is being used to tune ride quality for a future SUV model.

A Rolls-Royce spokesperson told CNET that the final SUV model will use "an all-new aluminum architecture specific to Rolls-Royce."

Tuning a suspension is of primary concern for Rolls-Royce, as the company makes ride quality one of its hallmarks for owners. And an SUV makes for a unique challenge. As it sits higher than a sedan, Rolls-Royce has to make sure it doesn't sway heavily when turning. The four-wheel-drive system presents its own challenge, as Rolls-Royce will want to mitigate extra vibration and noise, and maintain effortless steering qualities.

Rolls-Royce aims to have its new SUV provide its signature ride quality over any terrain. Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce gives itself a further challenge with the new SUV: ensuring comfortable ride quality off-road. It will be an impressive feat if Rolls-Royce can make the new car waft equally well on asphalt and dirt. As a positive example, Rolls-Royce brand owner BMW has performed impressive work making its X6 M handle like a much smaller sports car. Rolls-Royce can follow that example with comfort as its focus.

In a conversation with CNET last year, Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes admitted that the company was looking at developing an SUV, noting that 70 to 80 percent of Rolls-Royce owners also have Range Rovers in their garages. Last February, Rolls-Royce confirmed a new SUV with the hashtag #EffortlessEverywhere. At the time, another open letter from Rolls-Royce noted the new model would be a "high-bodied car, with an all-new aluminum architecture" and would offer "the luxury of a Rolls-Royce in a vehicle that can cross any terrain."

As for that wing? It lets Rolls-Royce engineers simulate added downforce from a high roofline running all the way to the rear bumper.