Rolls-Royce is taking a diversion into sport utility vehicles, as the luxury car maker joins rivals Bentley and Jaguar in catering to demand for upmarket 4×4 models.
The 111-year-old marque, owned by German car firm BMW, said customers had asked it to add the as-yet unnamed vehicle to its existing saloon models – the Phantom, Ghost and Wraith – whose prices start at about £200,000.
The company’s chairman, Peter Schwarzenbauer and chief executive Torsten Müller-Ötvös said in a joint statement that the new car was not a radical departure for the venerable brand and that the move reflected Rolls-Royce’s rugged roots.
“Rolls-Royces conveyed pioneers and adventurers like Lawrence of Arabia across the vastness of unexplored deserts and over mountain ranges. In other parts of the world including Australia, India and the Americas, Rolls-Royces carried their owners over challenging terrain with absolute reliability and comfort. Rest assured, we are creating a motor car in the greatest traditions of our marque.”
Without mentioning SUV, 4×4 or other names normally used for off-road vehicles, Rolls-Royce’s bosses said in an open letter that they would produce a high-bodied car that could cross any terrain.
A spokesman said: “The words sport and utility don’t feature in the Rolls-Royce lexicon and that was why it was important not to say those words and nor will we ever.”
After at least three years of planning, Rolls-Royce’s team have come up with a design for the car, which will hit forecourts in 2017 or 2018. The company has been wary of undermining its brand but has seen competitors such as Porsche, Bentley and Jaguar go ahead with plans for their own models.
Rolls-Royce said it had decided to produce the car after listening to its customers. With off-road cars the fastest growing part of the market, especially among wealthy customers, it was a request the company could not ignore.
Global sales of premium and luxury SUVs rose from less than 397,000 in 2000 to 1.1m in 2007. Sales dipped during the credit crisis but hit a new peak of 1.2m last year and will rise to more than 1.3m by 2020, industry analyst IHS estimates.
Off-road vehicles such as Land Rovers were originally designed for rough terrain but they have become popular with rich city dwellers, earning the nickname “Chelsea tractor”. Luxury SUVs are also popular with newly wealthy people in developing markets such as India and Brazil, where roads outside big cities are often rough going.
Ian Fletcher, an analyst at IHS, said: “At the high end, there are plenty of customers for these vehicles. A lot of customers who have a Rolls-Royce will have some sort of SUV in their fleet already.
“I’m sure some old school customers will say this isn’t necessary but the world is changing and they are looking for a younger audience and people who will be customers in the future.”
Rolls-Royce was founded in 1904 when Charles Rolls, a racing driver and car dealer, and engineer Sir Henry Royce teamed up. BMW acquired the brand in 1998 and relaunched Rolls-Royce, which is separate from the jet engine company of the same name, in 2003.