Customer demand is an extraordinary thing. Take Rolls-Royce, for instance. You might think that this ultra-prestigious brand would not be swayed from its time-honoured traditions of making the finest of luxury limousines, with maybe the odd coupe and cabriolet thrown in, but — these days — the customer is king. Just look at the infinite personalisation options available to the well-heeled buyer through the Rolls-Royce Bespoke programme, if you want to get an idea of the lengths to which Rolls will go to satisfy its clients.
And so, despite the fact that this most regal of carmakers might appear as if it were immune to the vagaries of the of the wider automotive market, when Rolls’ customers started demanding the company make an SUV with the Spirit of Ecstasy riding proudly on the prow, then the marque simply could not refuse. Which is why we’re standing next to a huge, 2.7-tonne machine, measuring 5,341mm long, fully two metres wide, 1,835mm tall and with a 3,295mm wheelbase. They might sound like ‘normal’ Rolls-Royce stats in the main, but the height is the giveaway: this is the Cullinan, Rolls-Royce’s first-ever SUV. It’s a break with Rolls-Royce’s past machines in so many ways, not just in its form but also because it’s the first-ever Rolls to have four-wheel drive, and even its name (derived from the huge diamond mined in South Africa, which went on to form part of the British royal family’s Crown Jewels) doesn’t follow the marque’s usual usage of ethereal words, like Spirit, Shadow, Ghost, Cloud, Dawn and Wraith.
And trying to fit Rolls’ usual styling themes onto the large, two-box profile of an SUV (Rolls itself says the Cullinan is three-box, but that’s pushing it somewhat) has proven contentious, with much of the pre-launch criticism of the Cullinan revolving around its appearance.
For what it’s worth, we’ve grown to quite like the look of the Rolls-Royce SUV. It’s not traditionally pretty, of course, but then few Rolls-Royces ever are, preferring to adopt a grand and imposing look, instead of displaying delicate features. The Cullinan is much the same and, while it can appear a little top-heavy from some angles, from others it’s actually quite appealing — the bluff front end with the Parthenon grille and the side detailing that takes the visual bulk out of the SUV being particular highlights. Another big plus is that, while the Cullinan is obviously a physically big machine, it doesn’t feel ridiculously over-sized as you approach it.
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Sitting on the aluminium spaceframe chassis that underpins the Phantom, and which Rolls-Royce christens the ‘Architecture of Luxury’, the Cullinan features the same 6.75-litre twin-turbo V12 engine as the Phantom VIII, and the same eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox too. It also shares the rear-hinged ‘coach’ back doors of the Phantom, which swing open gracefully to reveal a cabin that is peerless in the SUV sector — even the Bentley Bentayga’s interior can’t match the Cullinan for sheer opulence. The fit and finish of all the materials used in the Rolls is impeccable wherever you look and/or touch, there’s simply acres of space in the rear passenger compartment and a wealth of high-end technology (including a digital instrument cluster and cutting-edge infotainment) ensures that, while the Cullinan’s cabin has a stately appearance that is redolent of historic affluence, it feels thoroughly up-to-date in every key regard.
Of course, the big changes to Rolls-Royce interior architecture come at the back. The Cullinan can accommodate either four or five, depending on one of two optional seating configurations: with four seats, a pair of electrically-reclining, luxury leather chairs are fitted and there’s no way to access the boot from the main cabin; alternatively, a ‘bench’ rear can be optioned, in which the 60:40 split rear seats electrically fold down to enlarge the standard 600-litre boot to 1,930 litres of cargo capacity. And don’t worry — the ambience in the rear is exceptional, no matter which of these seating options you go for.
The best news, though, is that, while the Cullinan feels every inch the Rolls-Royce when you’re just sitting in it at a standstill, that elegant air is carried over into the driving experience. Rolls has fitted its pioneering SUV with twin-axle air suspension, four-wheel steering and no fewer than three electrically-powered anti-roll bars (two at the front and one at the rear) to ensure that the Cullinan is up to snuff dynamically, while it features the company’s inaugural four-wheel-drive system — this is Rolls-Royce’s own development of its parent group’s technology, BMW xDrive. There’s also 100kg alone of sound-deadening wrapped around the passenger compartment, while 6mm-thick double-glazed glass resides in the windows.
So, while the handling is on the softer side of the spectrum, with a fair degree of body roll and light steering making the Cullinan unsuited to spirited cornering, in terms of its mechanical refinement the Rolls-Royce is second-to-none. At 100kph, barely any noise from any of the usual sources (the V12 engine, the 22-inch tyres rolling on the tarmac and wind flowing around the structure) infiltrates the cabin, to the extent that even whispered conversations within sound like you’re shouting at each other. Everything is silky smooth in operation, the view out is commandingly imperious, performance is more than ‘adequate’ and the feel-good factor of being in a Rolls-Royce SUV simply cannot be underestimated. It’s a fact that the Cullinan does make the previous market leaders in this arena, namely the Range Rover Autobiography and the aforementioned Bentayga, feel a little bit ordinary.
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There’s also plenty to be said for the shock value of seeing just how capable the Cullinan is off-road. It maintains its unruffled ride, even on washboard gravel surfaces and, with Hill Descent Control and a special Off-Road mode jacking up the ride height, it’ll go to places no Rolls-Royce has ever done before. Granted, it may not be as rough-road capable as the Range Rover, but for Cullinan owners, it has more off-road prowess than they could ever need. Its 850Nm means it should also make a pretty impressive tow-car, for hauling things like speedboats, horseboxes and classic vehicles on trailers.
All of which means that, fittingly, the Cullinan really is the diamond-standard of SUVs. If you like its brash, unapologetic looks and you are in the market for a hyper-luxury vehicle of any shape or size, then you’ll encounter nothing here that will put you off buying this unusual new Rolls-Royce. True, there are other SUVs that will teach it a thing or two in terms of handling ability, but — to be fair — Rolls-Royces have never been about sharp chassis. Instead, they aim to provide an exquisitely refined, unparalleled ownership experience. And, on this evidence, the Cullinan SUV satisfies this requirement in a near-flawless manner — truthfully, customer demand has rarely delivered such an alluring product as this.