The Point-One Percent Want SUVs Too, Apparently

The New Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV Is a Sure-Footed Hulk and Glamorous to a Fault


October 18, 2018 Cars By Photo by Eric Adams
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Meet the first SUV from the storied ne plus ultra scion of wealth and power. Cullinan, from Rolls-Royce, is a nearly 6,000 pound, high-class bruiser, long-awaited by the top one percent of the One Percent, who have evidently been clamoring for the same thing everybody else wants when car shopping — SUVs — but a stratospherically better version. It’s a properly good trail-whipper — if not a true rock-crawler — that delivers its raw power with panache. Owners won’t blink at the $320,000 price of entry, and the public will likely argue, for a while anyway, about the success of its design, but the British marque has produced exactly what it should have. This is a product that stretches its boundaries while remaining faithful to the brand.

The Good: The Cullinan glides beautifully down any road, and floats like a cloud over trails. The simplified off-road controls — literally, just a button that says “Off-Road” — help limit confusion or uncertainty, while ensuring that the car can deftly manage any rough or low-friction surface. But the inside is a sight to behold. It is roomy, plush and truly special in a way no other SUV can match. It’s also powerful, accelerating to 60 mph in less than six seconds and coughing up 630 lb-ft of torque at just 1,600 rpm, meaning you can power your way out of any mess despite the car’s bigness.

Who They’re For: Oh my, this is a loaded question. It’s clearly for fantastically wealthy estate types, high-profile athletes and celebrities, and assorted entrepreneurs and executives who simply groove on the Rolls-Royce vibe. (It’s not for serious off-roader junkies or anyone who thinks for a second they’re going to climb back in this thing after scampering up a mountain trail in the rain, with their dogs.) But here’s who else it’s for: those who like their luxury with a bit of edge or artfulness to it. Rolls-Royce is the only car company in the world that can really get away with such things as two-tone finishes (okay, also $2.6 million Bugattis), rich leather tones, sparkly chrome trim seeded throughout the interior and exterior and customized interior surfaces adorned with anything from colorful modern-art designs to leafy naturalist etchings. Whatever you like, Rolls will deliver, and deliver it well. This is true because the Rolls-Royce design can truly support such artistic ambitions. It’s not a coincidence that the cars draw creative minds as much as they do those with more, shall we say, imperialist intent. Or just rich folk with kids. Whatever.

Watch Out For: The Cullinan, while opulent and capable, lacks many of the features that younger buyers might crave, whether driver aids like lane-keeping and semi-autonomous highway driving or electronic gizmos in the infotainment system. I suppose there’s something to be said for any Rolls-Royce being an escape from such earthly sirens, but these cars nevertheless exist in the real world, occupied by real people with smartphones, long miles to drive and an appreciation for cool and surprising new features. Their lack seems out of place.

Alternatives: There aren’t many SUV’s that can truly come close to the Cullinan in terms of presence, luxury and design grandeur. The Bentley Bentayga certainly does, followed by the Land Rover Range Rover and, at a distant third, the Cadillac Escalade. [Editor’s Note: Lincoln’s Navigator is somewhere high in that mix.] The Lamborghini Urus doesn’t really count in this category, as it’s a different kettle of fish. Anything else in the world doesn’t even merit being whispered in the same breath as Cullinan.

Review: Visually, there’s a lot to process with Cullinan. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong, first of all, to state that it’s a jacked-up Phantom, the company’s flagship model. They’re built on the same all-aluminum platform, dubbed “The Architecture of Luxury,” and from the front, the cars exert similarly commanding presences. But Cullinan necessarily has a very distinct design approach, given the challenge of a taller vehicle and the more voluminous cargo space out back. The sloping rear glass, subtle creasing and notably chiseled surfaces lend the car the aristocratic aura that fully flat or fully arced surfaces couldn’t possess. Varied surfaces add interest and beg for exploration. You can’t take your eyes off it. So the rear views are in many ways the most compelling in this car, since they’re surprising, rugged, nicely proportioned and don’t entirely betray the car’s status. Up front, however, things change with the imposing chrome grill, capped by the iconic Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament. By now that view is both a glorified signature and polarizing statement. It’s what makes Cullinan look a bit odd on the trails, but perfectly at home on the boulevards of Miami, Los Angeles and New York — and any other major global metropolis.

I wouldn’t, however, describe it as a particularly serious machine. My metric for this is simply whether an SUV would look appropriately determined while caravanning dignitaries or spies to important treaty signings or James Bondian urban assaults. The answer, of course, is that it won’t displace the Range Rover as the go-to tool of macho marauding, nor will it kick GMC Yukons to curb while punching through the Mexican border with DEA gunslingers in the next Sicario installment. The Cullinan, as with all Rolls-Royces, is much too celebratory and indiscreet to possess any whiff of menace in such contexts.

As for its placement in polite society, reactions are mixed. I drove the car during the media launch in Jackson Hole, an area of Wyoming steeped in both wealth and earthy ruggedness. From the back, it fit in brilliantly; from the front, it broadcast its status in a way that doesn’t quite gel with the local gestalt. But it is what it is, and it’s a Rolls-Royce, friends. Fortunately, the car was for most everyone a joy to behold: a big, glamorous beast that brought far more smiles than it did curt sneers, of which there were indeed one or two. The fact that it’s an SUV seemed to draw the most curiosity, and in many ways, it made the Cullinan something of an equalizer, even if it is priced 10 times beyond most of our SUV budgets. Rolls-Royce claims it’s the most-anticipated Rolls in the company’s history, which means, of course, that the rich really are just like us. They all want SUV’s!

A drive around the block and up the mountain will seal the deal with most of the Cullinan-curious. The ride is magnificent — appropriately cushioned without being too floaty, and quite firm in its power delivery. The twin-turbo V12 makes sure of this thanks to its diesel-like torque delivery, pumping 630 lb-ft at just 1,600 RPM. That means it will muscle its way up most inclines, with the all-wheel-drive (a first for Rolls-Royce) expertly flicking power among the wheels as needed for traction. This comes with the press of a single “Off-Road” button, which elevates the air suspension a few inches and preps the all-wheel-drive for wilder variations in traction, including activating the car’s ability to actively push wheels down for maximum traction. The system’s torquey low-speed crawling helps maintain careful momentum uphill, which its hill-descent control keeps things in check on the way down, allowing for cruise-control-like adjustments of the speed based on the terrain and slope. In our climb up Snow King, right in Jackson, being in a Rolls provided a quirky thrill, but no hints of uncertainty as to its capability. We went up the Sno-Cat trails, but an engineer riding with us assured me it could climb straight up if we wanted to — this on the steepest ski slope in the United States.

Inside, the Cullinan is perfectly engineered for sensational experiences at all four corners, with firm, generous seating, excellent visibility for all and, of course, a pretty great sound system. If kids are in the back, they’ll have the optional touchscreen entertainment systems at their fingertips, while elder statesmen can enjoy airliner-like moving maps of their drive while being chauffeured about. It’s all very comfortable and pleasurable and precisely what you’d want from this vehicle, no matter what kind of approach you’re contemplating.

Verdict: There’s no disputing that this is the most outrageously luxurious SUV on planet Earth. The fact that it somehow achieves this while also avoiding the kiss-of-death label “soft-roader” is a credit to the company’s commitment to, at the very least, bailing its ballers out of trouble when they go axle-deep in the sand. It’s a powerful and sure-footed hulk, and glamorous to a fault. It’s up to you to decide whether you really want to trot this thing into the wild, but if you do, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing it’s absolutely the most fantastic thing on the trail.

What Others Are Saying:

• “Cullinan is a highly measured, seriously considered sport utility that feels every bit a Rolls-Royce, with more versatility than you might expect from a brand whose last ventures into the genre date back to T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who battled Turks in the desert with a fleet of nine armored Silver Ghosts. Cullinan’s armor may be more stylistic than literal. But it does an indomitable job of insulating its occupants from the wilds of the world while presenting a stoic outward face to skeptics and admirers alike.” — Basem Wasef, Automobile

• “The car lacks any fancy locking differentials and doesn’t offer anything so crude as a selectable low-range transfer case. But, with 627 pound-feet of torque available at just 1,600 rpm, it’s quite happy to claw its way up very steep inclines at very low speeds, even on the bespoke, 22-inch, road-oriented Continental ContiSportContact 5 tires. The trails we climbed were mostly gravel, generally dry and, to be honest, wouldn’t trouble most light-duty SUVs. However, few if any other vehicles could make the summit while offering that kind of comfort.” — Tim Stevens, Roadshow

• “Further driving, both behind the wheel and as a passenger, revealed a car the onroad manners of which are so composed that I actually fell asleep (not while driving, mind you). Subsequent long stretches of dirt road showed that while the ride isn’t as silky smooth as it had been onroad – even magic carpets have limits – the large and splendid beast remains composed and comfortable. Protective cladding along the door sills, as well as chrome cladding just above it, are angled such that stones will be deflected away from the sheet metal. — Mark Vaughn, Autoweek

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Key Specs

Engine: 6.75 liter twin-turbo V12
Horsepower: 563
Torque: 630 lb-ft at 1600 rpm
Weight: 5,864 lbs
Top speed: 155 mph
Fuel economy: 18.8 mpg combined

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