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The air bag: Can Rolls-Royce solve its SUV conundrum?

Rolls-Royce has a dilemma on its hands.
Rolls-Royce is likely to confirm an SUV in 2015. Courtesy Newspress
Rolls-Royce is likely to confirm an SUV in 2015. Courtesy Newspress

Rolls-Royce has a dilemma on its hands. The British car company is literally the byword for luxury – “the Rolls-Royce of cars”, as one executive quipped at a recent event – which is an enviable title to boast.

But Rolls is in a precarious position. When you stand tall, there’s farther to fall – and, in the world of ultra-luxury goods, you can’t afford to slip. The demand for such goods is expanding at a rapid rate, driven largely by emerging markets like Russia, China and the Middle East. Rolls is in the middle of a drive to open up its business to these new publics – a touring art exhibition is making its way around the world to show the craftsmanship involved in building its cars, while the firm was recently the subject of a TV documentary.

Rolls can’t afford to shut itself away and do what it has always done. It has to move with the times and markets. But what if the times and markets are demanding something new? Something that doesn’t fit in with what’s been done before? Something that, if mishandled, could be disastrous?

Such is the problem with the luxury SUV. Manufacturers universally agree that this segment is an untapped resource – Porsche’s success with the Cayenne kicked off a growing demand that shows little sign of abating. Luxury carmakers know that there’s a financial killing to be made, but making it isn’t easy. Porsche worked on the Cayenne for years before it looked decent – fans of the brand were aghast when it first appeared.

Lamborghini has been touting the Urus since the 2012 concept, and while it’s still planned for a 2017 release, Lambo’s parent company Audi is having second thoughts. Worries about demand and the economy are driving their procrastination.

Aston Martin unveiled the Lagonda concept in 2009 to widespread revulsion. Hasty backtracking followed. Lagonda was actually revived earlier this year, but in limited-production saloon form. Bentley’s EXP 9 F concept met with similar snorts of derision, but the Crewe firm gathered customer feedback and will go ahead with an SUV in 2016, albeit with a different design.

These very public batterings are the kind that Rolls bosses are adamant must be avoided. A senior executive told me that the issue is being debated constantly within Rolls’s Goodwood HQ, but that a decision will have to be made during 2015.

It’s arguably a more difficult decision for Rolls than for any other manufacturer. What kind of vehicle should they produce? Unlike Bentley, Rolls is not a sporty brand, so has no use for the sport aspect of a Sport Utility Vehicle. It doesn’t have off-road aspirations either, so the kind of clever technology boasted by Land Rover also has no place.

Then there’s the design. Even a concept that doesn’t quite work leaves a bad taste in the mouth for years, as Bentley and Aston know well. So anything that Rolls puts out, from a sketch upwards, has to be right. Rolls customers are a discerning bunch – they won’t tolerate the besmirching of their brand, either by substandard design or by their products becoming “common”.

There’s another issue: how many to make? Demand clearly exists in developing markets for a Rolls SUV, but too many cars would dilute the exclusivity.

There’s a great deal for Rolls to think about going into 2015. Bosses at its parent company BMW will be keen to reap the huge amount of money that’s waiting for the company that gets the luxury SUV right, but the path is fraught with danger. Anything less than the Rolls-Royce of SUVs simply will not do.

weekend@thenational.ae

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Updated: December 4, 2014 04:00 AM

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