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.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
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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 Project Cullinan
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Rolls-Royce Project Cullinan
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.