James Lipman / jameslipman.com
An utterly surreal time in Rolls-Royce’s Cullinan, its new ultra-luxury SUV
Time seemed to stand still when I ever-so-gently floored the gas pedal of the most expensive SUV in the world, a behemoth of British grandeur, and flew up I-70’s Georgetown Hill like a rocket. All the time perched high above the world in a cabin so leathery, so whisper-quiet and so smoothly insulated from the world that it felt like a dream, despite having the mass of an armored personnel carrier.
Such is the joy to be found in the rather otherworldly confines of the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, a nearly $400,000 ultra-SUV which cruises with totally gentle largesse. It’s an absolutely massive, winter-ready machine that is all hand-built elegance, crystalline perfection and pure automotive statement, wrapped up in one boxy, V-12 engine-powered package.
Better yet, that brief highway drive came on an early morning in the middle of the Safer at Home phase of Colorado’s COVID-19 pandemic. I had been gifted with a multi-day visit of the Cullinan, the most glorious vehicle I’ve ever driven, and I could really not show it off to anyone in person, or drive it long distances, as I had hoped. The irony was just as marvelous as the Rolls-Royce itself.
The classic Spirit of Ecstacy figurine, Rolls-Royce’s long-lasting emblem, here automatically pops in and out of the grille when parked.
Since its first appearance as a brand in 1906, Rolls-Royce has remained the singular superlative for excellence in the four-wheeled world. And so it was probably inevitable that with the SUV craze of the past decade, the automaker would concoct what is the ultimate off-road-ready, 4×4 machine, as heretical as that might sound to the brand’s graceful heritage.
The 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan was delivered into my driveway, looking itself like the world’s most gracious but ominous rolling bank vault. It is truly a vehicle of heroic and stoic proportions, with such a massive scale that it just barely fit into a suburban garage.
Consider for a moment the mental image you may have of Rolls-Royce, still that highest echelon of the automotive experience. Do you see yourself in the back seat of a classic, chauffeur-driven machine, winding its way through the English countryside? Or maybe you envision John Lennon’s psychedelic-painted Phantom V limousine, a rolling testament to that Beatle’s wry sense of humor.
Rolls-Royce spent many years figuring out the best way to transform the style, the legendary luxury features and the smooth but ruthlessly powerful motoring dynamics of those traditional motor cars into something as droll as an SUV. The vehicle’s name is appropriate – the Cullinan is named after the largest diamond ever found (3,107 carats), later presented to the King of England and cut into 105 smaller stones.
That said, the company also wanted to bridge the driver/driven divide and actually get its owners behind the wheel of the vehicle more often, offering pleasurable, sporty and all-weather, multi-terrain motoring.
To test out that theory, two drivers entered an unmodified Cullinan in the 2019 Rebelle Rally, an entirely off-road, all-women’s adventure race crossing deserts and mountain ranges from Lake Tahoe to San Diego. The Rolls finished the event in style, and still in one piece.
My quarantined interlude with the Cullinan did not allow quite the same opportunity – not to mention the anxiety connected to potentially damaging someone else’s $400,000 automobile on a rocky trail – but I did get to tool around on some legitimate gravel forest roads outside of Santa Fe, N.M., during a fall preview with the automobile, and it blasted along like nobody’s business.
The Cullinan is equipped with a full-time all-wheel-drive system, plus an automatic suspension system which can raise or lower the entire chassis. True to the brand’s elegant simplicity, that’s all accomplished with the gentle tap of a single “Off Road” button on the gleaming center console, rather than the litany of switchgear found in a more pedestrian SUV.
The Cullinan, like its automobile counterparts Phantom, Ghost, Wraith and Dawn, is built by hand in England, though the company is now owned by BMW. Keen-eyed observers may notice more obvious BMW-sourced componentry in certain controls or large navigation screen.
Rolls-Royce owners do not typically drive their own vehicles, but in the case of the sporty and rugged Cullinan, more may get behind the wheel.
The rest of it is certainly pure Rolls-Royce, from the broad and seamless leather surfaces on doors, dash and seats (done up in a wonderful, almost robin’s egg blue, in my particular Cullinan), to the seemingly Titanic-era, church-organ-styled air flow pulls, all gleaming chrome.
And SUV it certainly is, with a large cargo area in the rear that, on models not outfitted with super-custom rear seat gear like champagne coolers, uses the fold-flat second-row seats to produce ample storage for large goods. Albeit in a space so lined with pillowy carpet you could have a nice nap back there.
The proportions really are gargantuan – Cullinan is 210 inches long, approximately 85 inches wide and 72 inches tall, weighing in at about 6,000 pounds. But the wonderful thing is how the designers have managed to blend the traditional Rolls-Royce shape and profile into an SUV. It can appear disarmingly large, and the massive chromed wall of grille is certainly designed to strike a pose wherever you go, but that seems to be the whole idea. Even the gleaming Spirit of Ecstasy figurine electronically pops in and out of the grille, automatically.
Acres of hand-stitched leather, power-folding tray tables and control screens and automatically closing coach doors wrap the Cullinan’s passengers in serious comfort.
Better yet, the doors also are semi-automatic, including a pair of forward-opening rear coach doors which can be closed from the outside by tapping the touch-sensitive door handles. The driver also can automatically close all the doors with a switch just above the classic left-hand-side light and ignition controls, though they also contain buttons for a night-vision function which appears on the navigation touchscreen.
Cullinan’s other shock-and-awe features include a pair of electronically deploying, picnic-table-styled rear tray tables and touchscreens behind the front seats, so that your VIP passengers (or, you, if you are that VIP) can control the navigation maps, audio and video throughout the entire cabin. A 16-speaker, two-subwoofer audio system can replicate an arena concert; Cullinan is otherwise so remarkably soundproofed that the driver and a passenger can have a quiet conversation at full highway speed.
Despite just a bit of giveaway girthy wobble when pulling it out of the driveway and over a small curb, its mass being a bit more than a fully loaded Chevrolet Suburban, Cullinan uses several systems to overcompensate when out on the road. I got nary a bounce or shake going over rutted, post-ski-season bumps and dents in I-70 on my brief public expedition; forward-facing radar scans the road for imperfections and pre-adjusts the suspension to better absorb any nastiness.
Like its fellow motor cars, Cullinan is powered by one of the few V-12 engines still found on the market, in this case a twin-turbocharged 6.75-liter monster producing 563 horsepower. To put that in perspective, most automakers have now moved to 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engines of around 200 horsepower or less. And yes, it goes like blazes when you desire it to do so, with fuel economy rated at 14 miles per gallon, city and highway combined.
Sadly, I did not get to test the Cullinan’s effect on other people, as it really was pandemic central, and even my automotive enthusiast friends did not want to settle into the amply cushioned seating or make a breezy shopping trip for more toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Rather, Cullinan nobly sat in my driveway, and when I was able to briefly venture into public, other drivers largely did a double-take, especially out in Lakewood’s Green Mountain neighborhood.
In a more traditional world, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan would definitely be the scene-making machine at an Aspen or Vail valet. With just more than 700 of them in circulation globally, as of last fall, it remains a rare beast indeed.
The $394,275 Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV arrived during the pandemic and like many long-shuttered Denver-area businesses, was all revved up with no place to go.
Andy Stonehouse is a Lakewood-based freelance writer and part-time English teacher at Front Range Community College in Westminster. He is an enthusiastic skier and car fanatic who has written for Ski Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera and is an automotive columnist for the Summit Daily News. If you ask him about his dream car, this would pretty much be it.