Prepping for First SUV, Rolls-Royce Begins Testing New Aluminum Spaceframe

All new models, including Cullinan, will adopt new platform after 2018.

by on Jan.07, 2016

A teaser image from Rolls-Royce shows a mule being used to test the maker's new utility vehicle.

There has always been something a bit anachronistic about Rolls-Royce, retro if you prefer. The big grille, classic hood ornament and, oh, so much mass.

But Rolls is ready to go on a diet. Confirming earlier plans, the British maker now says it is already testing an all-new, aluminum spaceframe architecture that will serve as the basis for all new models, starting in 2018. Among the list of upcoming products to get the lightweight touch: the new off-roader that Rolls officials are referring to as Project Cullinan.

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Rolls-Royce has been moving to modernize itself, starting with the all-new factory it built in Goodwood, said Torsten Muller-Otvos, the marque’s CEO. “It is time to take the next step in the luxury journey.”

According to the executive, “on-road testing of our all-new proprietary architecture is beginning. This new architecture of pure luxury represents considerable investment in the future of our great brand.”

Rolls officials first announced the development of an aluminum spaceframe design last February. With unusual speed for a brand that traditionally moves slowly and deliberately, this platform will be phased in with “all future” models from 2018 on, explained Muller-Otvos.

The Rolls Cullinan will go up against the likes of the Bentley Bentayga SUV.

The move really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Virtually every super-premium luxury brand has been migrating to the use of aluminum and other lightweight materials, such as carbon fiber. They really have no choice.

Mass is the enemy of efficiency, as any automotive engineer would put it. And with tough new global emissions and mileage mandates taking effect, even the most exclusive, low-volume brands have to be thinking about ways to put their cars on a diet. We’ve already seen that process begin elsewhere in the luxury segment. Virtually all Audi and Jaguar models have migrated to aluminum. And more direct competitors to Rolls, such as Bentley, are also setting up “lightweighting” strategies.

(Click Here to check out the new Bentley Bentayga.)

While somewhat higher in cost and more difficult to manufacture, that’s less of a problem for a super-premium brand depending upon lots of handwork, anyway.

As part of the on-road testing program, a statement from Rolls notes, “Engineering mules will be assessed on public roads in various locations around the world. The current testing phase aims to ensure that the new space-frame structure perfectly delivers Rolls-Royce’s trademark ‘magic-carpet ride’ on a variety of surfaces and that it is resilient to extreme weather conditions.”

There will likely be off-road testing, as well. Aiming to keep up with arch-rival Bentley, Rolls promises that the production version of Project Cullinan will be a full-capability SUV. Make that Sport-Activity Vehicle, or SAV, the British marque sharing that subtle twist of terms with its German parent, BMW.

(Click Here for a look at the unusual partnership between Maserati and Zegna.)

That’s another sign of changing times, not only for Rolls but for the auto industry as a whole. The new Bentley Bentayga might be the first super-premium utility vehicle, but it clearly won’t be the last. Beyond Rolls, the segment will soon be crowded with competitors from the likes of Maserati, even Aston Martin and Lamborghini.

This teaser image of a Cullinan mule suggests Rolls-Royce is going for more of a Phantom-based wagon silhouette than the classic SUV shape adopted by the Bentley Bentayga. But there’s no immediate way to be sure how close that test vehicle is to the final production car. In fact, Rolls is apparently testing it first all-wheel-drive system on a separate mule, so it will be some time before all the pieces come together in a final package.

(Bentley wants to get its customers stoned – with new slate veneer option. Click Here to check it out.)

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