by Jonathan Yarkony
In a world mad for SUVs, every brand needs to get in on the trend to survive, and Rolls-Royce has joined the ranks of traditional car brands that have branched out into high-riding utility vehicles. It's almost painful to use the term 'utility' anywhere near the Rolls-Royce name, but that’s what the vehicle style is no matter what Rolls or BMW tries to call them. As much as the is a new body style, it also represents the brand coming full circle with a vehicle that can go anywhere.
The first legendary Rolls-Royce proved itself in the . That 40-50 hp Rolls-Royce would earn the ‘Best Car in World’ title (and later be dubbed the Silver Ghost) by demonstrating durability and reliability traversing what passed for roads in Scotland 111 years ago without failure and without visiting any repair shop for the Trials and an additional 14,000 miles. Further cementing Rolls-Royces' reputation for incredible durability and quality were epic adventures through India and the Alps, and later in wartime service on several continents.
However, to mark a new era in the brand’s evolution, the Cullinan is named after the largest diamond ever discovered rather than the ethereal names most Rolls-Royces have carried. Just as that diamond resides with the Crown Jewels, the Cullinan joins the absolute posh-est lineup in the world, but aims to take the Spirit of Ecstasy to places it’s never been before. The guiding principle of the Cullinan project was to create a an engineering masterpiece that maintained the world-famous ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ of Rolls-Royce in an off-road environment.
To that end, Rolls-Royce engineers started with its Architecture of Luxury platform introduced with the recently launched Phantom VIII, and shortened the length while raising it higher and introducing a feature entirely new to the storied brand: a tailgate. Look out NFL parking lots… more on the tailgate later. Attached to the higher, shorter all-aluminum space frame is a re-engineered self-levelling air suspension they like to call ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ and, also for the first time in the brand’s history, all-wheel drive. “The drivetrain system we engineered for Cullinan had one key job to do,” explains Caroline Krismer, Engineering Project Leader for Cullinan.
“To bring the famed Rolls-Royce ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ to all other terrains possible, while ensuring class-leading on-road behavior in the SUV sector.” Not only is the air suspension height and firmness adjustable, but the electronically controlled shock absorber adjustment system is furiously calculating ideal damping input from steering, acceleration and camera sensors. The hardware is the very best available, of course, double-wishbone in front and five links in back, four-wheel steering, though it still yields a turning circle no better than 43.4 ft. Hopefully there will be a wide driveway at the yacht club.
When leaving the pavement behind and getting into the truly messy stuff, drivers simply press the ‘Everywhere’ button that remaps the vehicle systems for off-road terrain, ready to take on rough track, gravel, wet grass, mud, snow or sand, and enabling a wading depth of up to 21.2 inches at its maximum ride height. The neat party trick for off-roading is an air compression system that actively pushes down any wheel it detects losing traction keeping each wheel firmly in with the ground and getting maximum torque to all wheels in any situation. The Cullinan boasts 627 lb-ft of torque from its big, beautiful 6.75-liter twin-turbo V12, with maximum torque available from an effortless 1,600 rpm.
At 5,000 rpm, peak horsepower is achieved, with 563 ponies doing their best to keep the 5,864 pounds of aluminum and steel and leather and wood wafting down the road in veritable silence. In addition to keeping you comfortable, Rolls-Royce aims to keep you safe and as such has outfitted the Cullinan with all the latest safety and driving conveniences like Active Cruise Control, Collision Warning, Cross-Traffic Warning, Lane Departure and Lane Change Warning. Additional driving aids include a 4-Camera parking monitor system with “helicopter view” (I’m actually kind of surprised they don’t have an actual autonomous drone to give a proper overhead view) and night vision.
The Cullinan also comes with vision assist thermal imaging including wildlife and pedestrian warning, 7x3-inch high-resolution head-up display. Driving safety is all well and good, but the true purpose of a Rolls-Royce is to absolutely spoil its occupants in luxury and comfort, and the Cullinan is no exception. Entering the cabin through the suicide doors, the body lowers for easier entry and you are greeted by a sea of wood and leather and deep, h carpets, genuine metal switchgear and trim, and a massive skylight overhead to let in as much natural light as you could want. Of course, the interior will be the customer’s playground, with all manner of exotic woods and materials in the Rolls-Royce palette to tailor the color and texture schemes.
The design is suitably balanced between traditional layout and modern elements and simplicity, with a large touchscreen that is also controllable by a scrolling knob with a handwriting recognition pad on its face and bright, clear digital gauges. The doors close at the press of a button instead of anything so menial as pulling it closed with your hand. There is even a button on the outside for your driver, because Rolls cares even about the hired help. The front seats are glorious no doubt, with infinite adjustability, but there are a couple configurations in which the rear seats can be specified, Lounge or Individual.
Lounge is a traditional bench seat with three positions, and Rolls-Royce emphasizes that this is the ‘functional’ arrangement, with 60/40 split-folding rear seats – at the touch of a button of course. The tailgate is also divided into two parts, with the angled top rising and the vertical lower section dropping for an extended loading platform. The trunk measures 21.2 cubic feet or 19.8 with a parcel shelf installed, and with both seatbacks folded down, it grows to 68.1, with a load length of 88.3 inches for large artwork – the press release recommends a Mark Rothko original or priceless architectural artifacts as worthy of these accommodations.
A neat feature is that the trunk floor rises several inches to create the flat floor in maximum cargo mode, necessary because the rear seats are elevated for a better view for rear passengers. Individual configuration loses the middle rear seating position in favor of two upgraded, more adjustable seats and a center console housing a drinks cabinet with branded whisky glasses and decanter, champagne flutes and refrigerator. And because only peasants travel in the same compartment as their luggage, a glass partition divides the passenger airspace from their smelly laundry keeping all the fresh air in front and minimizing unnecessary climate control of the cargo area.
Equally, it keeps the cabin cool or warm when the cargo area is open and exposed to any harsh conditions to which you might take the Cullinan. That idea of taking the Cullinan to remote and harsh environments is central to its purpose. Rolls-Royce has a few ideas of what activities potential owners might like to undertake. To that end, it offers a number of bespoke “Recreation Modules” that can be commissioned for avid enthusiasts of some common, familiar hobbies like fly fishing, photography, rock climbing, or snowboarding, and more exclusive, adrenaline-junkie pursuits like parascending, kite boarding, base jumping, and something called volcano boarding I'd never heard of until now.
Each Module is designed to slot into the trunk of the Cullinan, but slides out under its own power to present compartments for the specific equipment you would typically need for those activities. It took Rolls-Royce some time to hop on the SUV bandwagon and study the segment as it evolved, and it has spent its time wisely, designing a vehicle that fits with the brand in appearance and content, and offering the very best that this segment can offer. While it’s not intended to sling mud and crawl rocks with Wranglers, the Cullinan can handle more challenging terrain than the brand’s car, taking its owners to far-flung reaches of whatever country they choose to explore.
Rolls-Royce also makes it clear that its targeting a new generation of millionaires and billionaires with plenty of time on their hands and an adventurous mindset to conquer new experiences and new places. It also offers a different perception of status to those that grew up with icons like the , , and filling their screens. Rolls-Royce needed to get into the SUV segment, and it's done it in a fashion suitable to the storied marque. The Cullinan is sure to broaden the appeal and sales of the brand, limited only by how many it chooses to build in the interests of maintaining standards and exclusivity.