London, United Kingdom Posted 6 months, 1 week ago
Rolls-Royce Cullinan review: what's it really like to drive?
The new Rolls-Royce Cullinan is the pinnacle of experiential SUV luxury. It is a majestic, magnificent and ludicrous vehicle but, says Jason Barlow, curiously hard to love...
The marque that knows more than most about all things Plutusian has just bought in to the latest licence to print money – a new luxury SUV. We took it to the wealthiest mountain range on earth to see if it makes the gradient.
Howard Hughes. Field Marshal Montgomery. John Lennon. Lenin. Queen Elizabeth II. Keith Moon. When the latter wasn’t driving his into a swimming pool – although that’s probably apocryphal – he was one of a handful of big names for whom only a Rolls-Royce would do. With the Cullinan SUV, though, our thoughts turn to an even earlier adopter. “More valuable than rubies in the desert,” Lawrence Of Arabia noted of his nine-strong fleet, several heavily fortified for obvious reasons. His personal car was called “Blue Mist”, allegedly commandeered from its previous owner outside a Cairo nightclub. Rolls-Royce has dutifully waited an entire century to cash in on this historical A-list celebrity firepower, but a stentorian SUV is the car with which to do it.
A Rolls-Royce 4x4 – how you respond to those words will dictate how you feel about the Cullinan. This is either an exciting development or the end of days and the “statement” design – unusually deep windows, “Parthenon” grille and a gallant adherence to Rolls’ boldly surfaced proportions – is another polarising factor.
What’s indisputable is the intimacy of the relationship Rolls-Royce enjoys with its patrons; if they build it, they will come. And now the world’s ultra-high-net-worth individuals (by which we mean a minimum of £25 million in disposable readies) have a car that can drive not just over the field of dreams, but up and over the mountain on the other side, in almost unimaginable luxury.
Rolls-Royces have always been robustly engineered, but there’s still a perverse pleasure in pointing the Spirit Of Ecstasy off the beaten track, knowing that neither she nor the rest of the car is going to flinch. The location of a first drive is usually incidental, but Jackson Hole in Wyoming isn’t just cowboy country, it’s also the wealthiest corner of America per capita (Harrison Ford has a ranch hereabouts). It’s also 6,000 feet above sea level, so it strains your lungs until you’re acclimatised. The Cullinan is less bothered: it’s powered by a reworked version of the engine used by the Phantom limousine, making 563bhp and 627lb ft of torque from 1,600rpm (a more powerful hybridised version is coming).
While our test route, framed by the magnificent Teton mountain range, isn’t particularly demanding, the Cullinan still elevates Rolls’ ride and refinement to a whole new plain – literally, in this instance – smothering off-road ruts and rocks in the same way the Phantom pulverises regular roads. Self-levelling air suspension, which has a bigger volume for miraculous bump absorption, is crucial to its deportment. Electronically controlled dampers crunch body and wheel acceleration data in milliseconds, aided by a camera system that reads the road ahead. An adventure mode, meanwhile, is accessed via the “Everywhere” button, which jiggles the traction control and uses hill descent software to tackle rutted track, gravel, wet grass, mud or snow. Its wading depth is 540mm, the deepest, claims Rolls, of any super-luxury SUV. The Cullinan also has four-wheel steering and a 48-volt anti-roll system.
Its structure is a reworking of what Rolls dubs the “architecture of luxury”, a modular aluminium spaceframe, with castings in each corner and extrusions in between, reconfigured here in a form that sits higher and shorter than the Phantom’s, with a split tailgate for the necessary versatility. The Cullinan lacks the crazy axle articulation you need for really committed off-roading and relies mainly on increased ground clearance and cleverly networked ones and zeroes to get you places nothing as sybaritic as this has ever been before. This is an extreme manifestation of experiential luxury.
That high body means an equivalently higher centre of gravity, which hurts handling. But not by much, and if that’s what does it for you, you’re clearly in the wrong place.
The transmission is the same velvety, satellite-aided ZF eight-speed automatic used by every other Rolls. The Cullinan doesn’t really like to be rushed, but again that’s missing the point. This is an environment that promotes the old adage about it being better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Pretty soon, you realise that rushing is a terribly recherché concept anyway.
It’s majestic inside. Real metal pillars connect the centre console and fascia and there’s water-resistant “box grain” black leather on the dash-top, doors and even the back of the key. The instrument dials have beautiful analogue graphics and the central multimedia display now gains a touchscreen. Rear passengers sit higher than those in front, either in lounge configuration or sumptuous individual chairs (what fits in the space between is up to you, your bank balance, but most of all your imagination).
Behind the split rear tailgate, the back can be specified with a “Recreation Module”, a motorised drawer designed according to the owner’s preferred pastime, or a “Viewing Suite”, which stores a pair of folding, leather-clad rear-facing seats and cocktail table in a special cassette.
This is, in so many ways, a ludicrous car. But in an era when the SUV is about the only sure thing for an embattled industry, creating the ultimate luxury off-roader is an opportunity Rolls-Royce had no option but to take up. The Cullinan is as meticulously engineered as you’d expect and a sublime place to lose yourself. But it’s curiously hard to love.