It’s hard to ignore the resurgence of SUVS both in sales, as well as in overall relevance in the minds of a new generation of buyers. Once considered a crippled segment following the Great Recession, SUV growth and demand has rapidly surged ahead in recent years. This has resulted in a ripple effect that has caused many automakers to rapidly revamp, and in some cases, rethink their long term sales strategies. These include high end marques once known for car focused lineups, with Bentley, Maserati, and Lamborghini all joining the fray. But at last, this ripple effect has reached arguably the pinnacle of automotive status, Rolls Royce, which was once known for openly shunning SUVS, and embracing the elegant and stately virtues of its car focused lineup. But can the Cullinan not only bring a wider swath of buyers to showrooms, but also avoid alienating the core virtues that have made Rolls Royce such a unique commodity in the automotive landscape? We were eager to find out.
High Riding Elegance:
We had our chance at the annual meeting of the Rolls Royce Owners Club in Troy, Michigan, where Rolls Royce enthusiasts (as well as followers of other British brands) gathered to celebrate Rolls Royce’s heritage, and the 66th anniversary of the Owners Club itself. It was in this welcoming setting where we first laid our eyes on the Rolls Royce Cullinan, with the SUV being set in a separate display all by itself to highlight its unique status as the first inaugural SUV entry for the iconic British ultra luxury car brand. During its development period, Rolls Royce executives did not call it a formal SUV, and instead referred to it as a “slab sided high riding motorcar.” It’s resemblance to the Phantom is no accident, with the Cullinan adopting many of that models cues. This includes the bold and stately front end which features a massive stainless steel grille, Phantom-esque laser headlights, as well as the familiar and almost expected Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament. The long hood lacks distinctive hood bulges or angles, but its sheer length should be enough to impress those that are lucky to see it when behind the wheel. Rolls representatives claim that the face itself is supposed to give the Cullinan a warrior like profile, though the company does not specify a particular time period for reference.
The Cullinan is a big vehicle, but wheras the Phantom’s 19 feet of real estate can make the big four door a bit of a handful to manage in certain driving situations, the 17 foot long Cullinan is only six-inches longer than a short wheel base Cadillac Escalade, and is about the same length as a Lincoln Navigator. While these shorter dimensions do make a noticeable impression in both the interior and the overall driving experience (more on that later) they do make the side profile feel a bit jumbled, with the big wheels contrasting the rather high roofline. The end result was the Cullinan being occasionally compared to a hearse when viewed by passersby from this angle, but when viewed against many of its peers, the Cullinan is roughly on target with many of its segment competitors, with the Rolls even surpassing the Bentley Bentayga in this regard.
The rear fascia however, is arguably the weakest link of the entire design. We appreciate the attempts at linking it to the Phantom, but the taillights and the tailgate design do their part to make it a bit too plain looking for our tastes, which is a shame, since Rolls Royce has always been a key player when it comes to creating a visual experience that is worth every penny. For comparison, the Bentayga has a much more athletic motif back there, and we do like the way the taillights connect to the overall design when compared to the Rolls. That said, being named after the biggest diamond ever found certainly raises the bar for Rolls, and despite some minor design and styling hiccups, we do like the way the Cullinan still manages to present itself as an object of attraction, with the metal accents and the trademark handles for the coach doors doing an excellent job of drawing the eye to take a closer look. We also like the way Rolls Royce designers tried their best to reduce the volume of the side profile with the application of protective spears below the sills. When it comes to arriving with style, the Cullinan does the job well, and look for it to appeal to Rolls enthusiasts that like to make an entrance when out and about, especially when paired with certain hues.
Bespoke Stereo Spearheads Sensory Assault On The Senses:
The interior is an opulent wonderland of materials and luxury goodies, but we would not be doing the Cullinan justice if we didn’t highlight arguably our favorite feature in the cabin, the stereo system. While our resident audiophile Emily was not in attendance this go around, her ears would have fallen in love with the unit that was equipped to our tester. A $9,950 option, this stereo comes equipped with 18-speakers, and is designed to provide occupants with a true 360 degree surround sound experience. Unlike other automakers that have often made that claim and failed miserably to deliver on this promise, Rolls manages to deliver a seamless presentation that doesn’t skimp on the amount of treble or bass that is available. We recommend playing a suitable audio track with plenty of instruments to fully appreciate what this stereo system has to offer.
Looking beyond the tricked out stereo, and you are instantly greeted by a cabin that looks more at home in a palace, or even a multi-million dollar super yacht. Warm Connolly leather thrones greet occupants, and their supple hides feel great, and allow occupants to sink into an oasis of long distance comfort. The front seats also featured heated and cooled capability, as well as a built in massage feature to further remind you that you have indeed made it in the world. Rolls interior designers carefully layered the various leather chrome and wood accents together to create a very distinctive cabin environment, and its ambiance is indeed unmatched. The thin rimmed steering wheel for example features wooden spokes, while the dashboard’s wooden accents are paired quite nicely with the lacquered leather dashboard, and the accompanying metal trim. It all looks stunning, with every switch, knob, and button feeling high quality and first rate. When it comes to build quality, Rolls Royce does indeed set the bar that other automakers should strive for.
While the drivers seat is still the place to be when it comes to viewing down at the masses, the second row tries its best to steal that title away, thanks to its own arsenal of coddling goodies. The rear space back there is immense, and while the Cullinan comes standard with a formal rear bench seat that allows the big ute to hold up to five total passengers, our tester featured the optional Individual lounge layout that drops that figure slightly to four passengers. However, the lounge setup is actually the configuration we would prefer if we were configuring a Cullinan for our garage. Besides having more space to yourself, the Individual seats have more adjustability built into them, and an unmovable center partition that houses the built in champagne chiller, flutes, a decanter, and a pair of rock glasses for those that wish to indulge in the back seat. Wooden picnic tables and their accompanying pop out I-Pad style screens are an $8,000 option that is available in either configuration, but be prepared to pay a wallet shattering $17,500 for the privilege of owning the Individual Lounge. For the sake of comparison, this single option is more expensive than a 2019 Toyota Yaris LE and is also pricier than both the 2019 Nissan Versa Note and Sentra in their base forms, which should serve as a very potent reminder of the Cullinan’s target audience.
Wafting About In Twelve Cylinder Nirvana:
Performance for the Rolls Royce Cullinan comes from the familiar 6.7 liter twin-turbocharged V12, though for what it’s worth, Rolls Royce insists on calling this engine a 6.75 liter V12. Whatever designation you prefer to use, the V12 is still a very potent weapon, with the engine producing 563 horsepower and 627 lb-ft of torque. Considering that the Cullinan tips the scales at 5,864 lbs, this curb weight does little to blunt the performance that this engine provides, with acceleration coming on like a spirited freight train. There are a few moments of noticeable turbo lag, but the engine quickly regains its composure, and when it does, be prepared to have your head thrown into the back of your seat. And while electrification of the V12 is a strong possibility to help it be more fuel efficient, Rolls execs were quick to shoot down any reports of a V8 finding a home in the Cullinan when we asked them about the subject, claiming that the V12 will continue to be at the fore-front of Rolls Royce’s product portfolio for the foreseeable future.
As far as handling is concerned, the thin rimmed steering wheel also houses a reasonably communicative and accurate steering rack. But being a creature that prefers to slink its way down the road versus being a track king, the boost on hand is predictably excessive, and that causes the Cullinan to not quite deliver the amount of precision that a more demanding driver expects. But the Cullinan does not want to be bothered with that aspect of life, and instead will amaze you with just how sublime the suspension is in rougher sections of road. Pick from any of the dozens of potholes that are abundant through out the Metro Detroit area, and watch the Rolls shrug them off with ease. Or take the Cullinan down a smooth patch of road (a sight as rare as the mythical jackelope in this part of the U.S.) and revel in its magic carpet-esque ride quality. Oh and the matter of wind and road noise? The Cullinan shuts those annoyances out the minute you close its big coach doors and as a result, you will never hear them, ever.
Shifting duties for the big Rolls are handled by an eight speed automatic transmission, and the unit in our rig did a good job delivering seamless upshifts and down shifts, with the Cullinan doing a great job of hiding each gear that comes and goes. Unlike other luxury SUV offerings that wield this many gears, we noticed very little gear hunting, and the Rolls had plenty of power available for quick squirts of acceleration even in the upper gear range. Like other Rolls products, The Cullinan is the latest recipient of the company’s Architecture of Luxury platform that was designed to not only be solidly rigid, but to also deliver on Rolls’s goal of bringing world class ride quality to its buyers.
Like other Rolls offerings, saying the word value to the Cullinan will make it hold up its figurative nose in disdain, but when viewed against some of its bespoke competition, the Rolls is clearly in another ballpark. A “base Cullinan” will set you back $325,000 but it will still come with plenty of engineering precision and luxury baked into its stately flanks. Load the Cullinan up with optional extras, and naturally the price does go up with our tester having a final sticker of $420,630. That’s not particularly cheap, and highlights included the $17,500 Individual Lounge seating setup, the $9,950 Bespoke audio system, $2,075 for Adaptive Cruise Control, and the $4,500 required to install the lit up Spirit of Ecstasy badge.
The aesthetic goodies pack a wallop as well, with the Bespoke Editing relieving you of $6,000, while the open pore wood trim costs $3,000 with an additional $8,300 required to extend it all across the dashboard and into the steering wheel spokes as was the case with our tester. The visually stunning Turchese blue piping and stitching on the Arctic White leather seats adds $6,100 to the price while the supple lambs wool floormats are a $1500 extra. But ignore the sheer financial overload generated by some of the more elaborate options, and you realize that at the end of the day the Cullinan is still a very compelling value.
You can use it every day as a family hauler, you can take it off-road (if you must,) and it also manages to be a versatile offering especially for well heeled clients that have a family to haul around and the equally bespoke Phantom sedan is not up to the task. It makes anywhere you park feel much classier, and it will always draw a stare from curious passersby. The Cullinan makes a statement, but the difference is that it manages to raise the bar on that front, not because of its Rolls Royce identity, but because it is lumbering through uncharted territory for a company that has a well established and prestigious reputation in conventional car building.
We look forward to seeing where the Cullinan goes next especially as the broader SUV segment goes towards a greener future.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.