► New Cullinan SUV driven
► Rolls' first-ever SUV
► Starts from £276,000
The ‘Rolls-Royce of SUVs’ is unsurprisingly the most luxurious, most refined, quietest and comfiest 4x4 of them all. And at £276,000 before customisation, the new Cullinan is, by some margin, also the priciest. The nearest rivals – SVO-fettled Range Rover and Bentley Bentayga – are barely half the price.
Surprisingly, Rolls-Royce reckons many will get used off-road. CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös plays up the ‘off-road adventure’ nature of the car, drawing parallels with Lawrence of Arabia’s fleet of armoured Silver Ghosts in the Arabian deserts during World War I and Indian maharajahs’ tiger hunts in old Rollers in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
He expects the super-rich who buy Rollers will often use their Cullinans to go places where no modern Roller has tread before: through streams (to aid fishing expeditions), up snowy Alpine passes (for skiing), across deserts (Middle Eastern and Australian adventures), and to tame the worst roads in Russia, China and India.
A Rolls that prioritises practicality
‘Utility and versatility are two of the key qualities of the Cullinan,’ says Müller-Ötvös. ‘And I never thought I’d say that about a Rolls-Royce.’ Müller-Ötvös also expects them to be working vehicles, used for school runs, shopping, plus towing boats and horses. It must surely be the first Rolls ever fitted with a tow bar, deployed electronically so hidden from sight when not in use like many other 4x4s on the market.
Given the adventurous nature of the new Rock’ n’ Roller, our first drive was in the perfect place: the cowboy country of Wyoming, through the woods and plains in and around the Grand Teton National Park. It’s spectacular countryside that includes elk, black bears and grizzlies, as well as tough off-roading.
The Phantom-based SUV
The Cullinan uses the new ‘Architecture of Luxury’ platform that first saw service in the latest Phantom, and will underpin every upcoming Rolls-Royce. It’s a highly configurable box-section frame – Rolls calls it a spaceframe – made from aluminium castings and extrusions that allows more variability than high volume press-steeled platforms. The engine is the same new twin-turbo 6.75 V12, which also debuted in the new Phantom. It’s remapped to deliver a little more low-end torque and is every bit as wonderfully smooth and responsive as in Rolls’ flagship.
The body is shorter, stumpier, higher, a bit heavier and far less elegant than the Phantom. It’s no beauty, at least to my eyes, and clearly prioritises engineering and marketing functionality over styling felicity. Yet CEO Müller-Ötvös insists the reaction from potential clients has been universally positive, borne out by orders that now run till late 2019.
There’s no doubting the superb stand of finish, though. From the lustrous stainless steel exterior brightwork including the temple-like grille to the superb detailing (those lower body ‘spears’, the laser lights), the Cullinan is beautifully crafted.
The cabin quality is also superb, again a notch or two above the Bentayga, let alone the Range Rover. It’s not just the look and feel of the leather, wood and metal controls; it’s the lovely fluent movement of those controls, including the column-mounted transmission wand and the organ-stop real-metal vent controls. The in-house developed sound system is also superb.
There’s the option of folding bench seat – a Rolls first – or fixed rear chairs. Choose the latter option and you can also get a fixed glass partition between back seats and boot further to quell cabin noise.
Choose the regular folding seat option – as more than 70 per cent of early buyers are doing – and the rear is a conventional hatch. The hatch tailgate is two-piece, so you can sit on the lower section when doing outdoorsy things – all part of the adventurous ethos. It’s the first-ever Rolls-Royce hatchback.
The clamshell-style doors wrap around the sills, so no dirty trousers on entry or exit. It also means a flat floor, with no sill to climb over, but Range Rovers have the same feature. The rear coach-style doors also provide for a supremely elegant exit and look fantastic. Both front and rear doors can be shut, when seated, electronically by pushing a button.
‘Effortless everywhere’ is the Cullinan’s mantra, and it sums the car well. On the tarmac, it purrs along almost as fluently and as quietly as a Phantom. On main roads, it’s eerily isolated from its surroundings, like an A380 cruising at 30,000 feet. The V12 is near-silent, the ZF eight-speed auto magnificently smooth, road noise and wind noise barely noticeable. By some margin, it’s the world’s most refined and comfortable SUV on the blacktop.
But it’s not the sportiest. Near 2.7 tonnes of mass makes it the heaviest SUV on sale in the UK (although it appears a featherweight in the US, alongside some of the obese GMC and RAM monsters). It disguises its heft amazingly well, and can be hustled along quickly with confidence. But when the roads gets twisty, a Bentayga or a Cayenne are all more agile. The active roll bars and damping, satellite controlled gear shifting, and four-wheel steering all do their jobs manfully, but they just can’t compensate for so much bulk (including 100kg of sound deadening wrapping the cabin).
And surprisingly good off-road
The goal off-road was not outright all-terrain leadership – the Range Rover easily takes that prize among top-end SUVs. Rather, it was offer more comfort and refinement in real-world off-road situations than any rival. It succeeds, nobly.
On forest tracks, on snow and ice, and even up rocky paths, the Cullinan shows surprising dexterity for such a big beast. Its four-wheel steering is also a boon on tight switchback gravel tracks.
The Cullinan’s great strength is its ability to glide elegantly, and quietly, over rough tracks. When venturing off-road, simply push the dainty ‘off road’ button on the centre console, and car’s suite of electro controls will do the rest. Ride height is elevated by 40mm. In such a mode, the drive-by-wire throttle is recalibrated, demanding more pedal travel to spur the beast into action. Off-road performance can occasionally feel strangled. The upside though is a very linear and progressive power delivery, helped by that enormously torquey twin-turbo V12.
Grip was excellent on our test car’s road-standard 22-inch tyres. Wading depth, at 540mm, is second only to the Range Rover among luxury SUVs.
Rolls-Royce Cullinan: verdict
The looks may be challenging, and the price daunting, but the Cullinan sets new overall standards in the luxury SUV class. Its on-road comfort and refinement is a notch or two above anything from Bentley or Range Rover, and so is cabin quality and comfort. It’s almost as good as a Phantom on the tarmac – and that’s high praise indeed. And if it’s less agile than some lighter rivals, then that’s a trade-off most customers will probably happily accept.
More surprising is the off-road prowess. If ultimate go-anywhere capability is the priority, stick with a Range Rover. But if all-terrain comfort and composure is the goal, then the Cullinan sets a new benchmark: it really will do effortless (almost) anywhere.