Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: February 22, 2019
PALM SPRINGS, California - “This sure handles well for an SUV that weighs a megaton,” I muttered under my breath. It was a consistent and recurring thought that I couldn’t quite shake off during my short drive with the new Rolls-Royce Cullinan. Part of that reason was because the cabin was so darn quiet, to the point that my conscious (and subconscious) thoughts were more pronounced and exponentially louder than normal. What appeared to be an engineer’s infatuation for sound insulation only seemed to amplify that effect. Rolls-Royce believes that their patrons shouldn’t be bothered with such lower-class displeasures such as wind noise or tire noise. But it was the way the Cullinan accelerated, the way it meticulously rotated with graceful precision, and the way it felt behind the wheel, that amazed me.
Sitting inside a Rolls-Royce should be on everyone’s bucket list, whether it’s at an auto show or at your Bitcoin-frenzied neighbour’s down the street, just to lock yourself into this arcadian bubble. With every speck of auxiliary noise drowned out of the atmosphere, your eardrums relax, your blood pressure drops, and your heart rate lowers. It’s therapeutic. FDA might as well approve it to treat hypertension and anxiety. Though, the Cullinan’s $399,000 base price tag might be one tough pill to swallow and last I checked, it’s not covered under OHIP.
The Cullinan is an intriguing moniker, one that has been aptly named after largest diamond in the world. Still, it’s a shame they didn’t refer to some sort of ghastly spirit like they did with the Wraith, Phantom, or Silver Spur. I imagined something along the lines of Spectre or Revenant. Maybe even Poltergeist would ring well with the focus groups. Sir Henry Royce would surely be rolling in his grave.
This is the first SUV to ever grace a Rolls-Royce badge, and when you look at the current market trends in the automotive sector, it makes sense. Even Ferrari and Aston Martin are making one. There’s just no denying that SUVs are cash cows. It’s just too bad that they don’t look very good, constrained by the design limits that define an SUV and lacking the inherent ability to appear lustrous and beautiful. The Cullinan is no exception. We just couldn’t find an angle we liked. But looks aside, let’s toss the tiresome question of “why they built one” out the window and focus instead on what makes the Cullinan so special: the drive and the interior.
With only an hour of driving time on near-pristine Palm Springs roads, it was difficult to critically evaluate the Cullinan in every department, but it was enough of a teaser to see why high-net-worth individuals might want to dip their hands into this bucket. First up, the drive, because unlike the Phantom, the best seat in the house is up front in the driver’s seat. As you start up the engine, you’ll notice the air suspension raising up 40 mm to its commanding ride height, one that is noticeably higher than in other Rolls-Royces. The Spirit of Ecstasy pops out from under the front hood and shines the way forward, but alternatively acts as a yardstick when you’re trying to ease it through a narrow parking garage. A 6.75-litre twin-turbo V12 purrs at the request of your right foot and dishes out an astronomical 563 hp and 627 lb-ft, more than enough to get this rolling tank moving in a straight line with verve and vigour.
The ride quality is sublime. Road imperfections simply melt under the weight of the Cullinan and barely a whiff of chassis disturbance is translated to the occupants. Rolls-Royce calls it their “Magic Carpet Ride,” and it only takes half a minute on the road to appreciate the Cullinan’s masterstroke in this department. The self-levelling air suspension makes millions, yes millions, of calculations every second as it constantly readjusts the shocks for the optimal ride, and because the Cullinan sits on a platform that was curated for its frame and purpose, it’s incredibly stiff and is able to exhibit remarkable on-road behaviour. This is in comparison to other uber-luxury SUVs recently unveiled on the market like the Lamborghini Urus and Bentley Bentayga, both of which lie on the same humble platform underpinning the Audi Q7.
The gargantuan V12 engine perpetually feels under-stressed and relaxed, no matter what you ask of it. Even at wide open throttle, the Cullinan is but sipping on a cup of tea. Calm, gentle, and polite, this is a Rolls-Royce that won’t ask much of you, but at the same time will answer on a moment’s notice with hot water always on the boil. Though acceleration is effortless, you can feel the front end lift when launching forward as the AWD system sorts out the power in a jiffy and the massive tires claw into the ground for maximum traction. The Cullinan does all of this in a suave manner, like a cat delicately pouncing from one table to the next. It’s a fun SUV to drive in the sense that it’s comfortable, easy to rotate, and a time capsule that seemingly warps you to your destination fresh as a daisy with its heated and massaging seats that puts anything from EQ3 and West Elm to shame. I wouldn’t say it’s a very athletic or dramatic dancing partner - that’s not the Rolls-Royce memo despite the thicker leather steering wheel that may suggest otherwise.
The real gem of the Cullinan lies with the interior. It’s a marvel of craftsmanship and technology, all mixed together into one fine concoction. You can smell the leather. You can feel the open pores on the teak wood. It’s a sensory overload of over-the-top luxury, the same feeling you get when you step inside your first five-star hotel. I’m disappointed that they went all digital with the instrument cluster, though. The analog dials and finely crafted needles were classy and appeared like a piece of jewelry, a watch that you could look at every now and then when gliding down the road. These digital displays appear modern, yes, but they are clearly borrowed from its BMW cousins and have unfortunately lost some of that Rolls-Royce charm deeply engraved in its history. On the bright side, gone is that odd air sensor hole that used to stick out like a sore thumb on the center stack.
As an SUV, the Cullinan is a first for Rolls-Royce in many regards. It’s the first to have an Off-Road button and it’s also the first to sport a proper tailgate, one that comes in a split format like the Range Rover and BMW X5. The trunk has an adjustable floor bed as well, though much of the precious real estate has been taken up by those massive wheel wells sticking out into the cabin floor. There is even a partition wall that separates the cabin from the luggage compartment, so if tailgate is open for whatever reason, faint gusts of wind cannot disturb an occupant’s sensitive skin.
We rode in two different models, both in a five-seat configuration. You can order one with just two rear seats and a massive center console that houses seat controls, a rotary dial to play with the infotainment system, and a storage section for your champagne bottles. Instead, the Cullinans we rode in only had a fold-out tray table, automatic side curtains, and a standard fold-down armrest. The meticulous stitching, seat piping, and monograms on the headrests looked and felt expensive, and wouldn’t look out of place on a Hermes handbag, let alone this half-million-dollar SUV. The thick lambswool mat, teak wood caressing every surface, and finely crafted materials made it feel special, but overall it wasn’t as eventful back there as the Phantom EWB or Ghost. What did not seem to lose its charm though, was the ability to close the doors with a simple push of a button. Still, nothing back there scratched the itch, and it only made me want to get back into the driver’s seat.
As limited as it was, our time with the Cullinan was well spent as both a driver and a passenger. Rolls-Royce badge or not, from an engineering perspective, the Cullinan is exceptional with its majestically tuned suspension, pindrop-silent cabin, and thrilling propulsion capability. You won’t find a dopamine rush trying to carve canyon roads with it on a Sunday afternoon. Rather, the Cullinan is rewarding in the same way that a hot bubble bath and a glass of champagne warms the soul and cleanses the mind. Capture that moment, bottle up the feelings and that state of mind, and transform it into a material, ethereal, and palpable machine. That’s the Cullinan.
Model: 2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan
Paint Type: Dark Emerald
Base Price: $399,000 CAD ($325,000 USD)
Price as Tested: $404,925 USD
Length/Width/Height (mm): 5,341 / 2,164 / 1,835
Unladen Weight (kg): 2,660
Engine: 6.75-litre twin-turbo V12
Horsepower: 563 hp @ 5,000 rpm
Torque: 627 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD