: The Rolls-Royce Cullinan
Text & Photos Nicholas Biebuyck

When the Cullinan made its debut in 2018, there was no shortage of debate about whether Rolls-Royce should be making an SUV. Aside from the simple fact that a large swathe of the brand’s customers have asked for a more elevated vehicle, and it would be leaving money on the table not to service them, the company does have a history of producing cars for more challenging environments.

From its 40/50hp Silver Ghost “London to Edinburgh” model that was tested to endurance, driving back and forth between the two points during the 1910s, onto its entry in the Peking to Paris rally, T.E. Lawrence’s use of modified Phantoms in the desert, and a privateer entry Corniche in the 1981 Paris-Dakar Rally, there is a decent amount of inspiration in the back catalogue for the design team at Goodwood to draw from.

So with at least some of the questions around the legitimacy of the Cullinan’s existence put to rest, it really comes down to a question of whether the vehicle is sufficiently well executed and considered to wear the double Rs. Just a cursory external glance makes it abundantly clear that this is indeed a Rolls-Royce, not only due to its sheer size, but thanks to the many details giving the strong familiar reference to the current Phantom VIII.

It is not an easy task to provide finesse to so much sheet metal, but the design team has done an admirable job of providing a degree of elegance to the proportions of the Cullinan. Neat details such as the strong and high waistline break up the profile, without resorting to a fussy mixture of styling elements that some other larger SUVs have required. The front end has the various sensor arrays well hidden to make them virtually unnoticeable, and the lighting units are among the best integrated designs of the modern ultra-luxury class.

The vehicle tested was a Black Badge model that featured noir-tinted metal elements, including the window frames, grill, door handles, and even the Spirit of Ecstasy, that makes the whole vehicle feel a bit more subdued. It is also a car that is rewarded by bolder colour choices in contrast to the black hardware; the particular shade of purple the test car was finished in certainly raises eyebrows under harsh lighting conditions, but once on the road it is a neat balance of measure and interest, a nice departure from the sea of silver and black that dominates the landscape today.

On the road, the Cullinan represents an interesting change in direction for RR, as the car is clearly intended to be driven, as well as driven in. With extremely smart speed-sensitive power steering that makes the car feel like a significantly smaller vehicle, and the impressive 360 degree cameras and wide angle lenses to give excellent visibility all ‘round, the Cullinan does a stellar job of hiding its dimensions (5.3 metre length, 2.6 metre width and 2.7 tonne mass). I should admit that I was slightly hesitant about being handed the key in one of the more ancient Hong Kong parking structures, but it was surprisingly easy to manoeuvre and I felt well acclimatised within a few minutes.

With its column-mounted gear selector and fully automatic transmission, the excellent ZF 8-speed which is so widely used now, it’s extremely straightforward to drive, although there are a few additional settings to play with when arriving. Together with a “low” button on the selector lever that holds RPMs high to give more tractability, there is also hill descent control that can be selected from a button on the centre console, near the controls to set ride height and a dedicated Off Road button.

It’s always fun to play around with the power reserve indicator on the dashboard of Rolls-Royce cars, but with the best part of 600 hp and 850 Nm of torque available on tap from the twin-turbocharged 6.75 litre V12 residing under the bonnet of the Cullinan, it’s hard to deplete it more than 30% under usual driving conditions. As the first car to feature both a Spirit of Ecstasy on the radiator and permanent four wheel drive, the Cullinan certainly has no problem with traction, and its vast brakes are highly capable of bringing the entire operation to a firm halt when required.

Perhaps discussing driving dynamics is a moot point for many, but as already mentioned this is a car meant to be driven, and it provides an impressive balance between the legendary “magic carpet ride” that the company is famous for, while also giving sufficient feedback to place the car with confidence, even at relatively brisk speeds. This is a testament to the ability of the engineers at Goodwood as it is no small feat to achieve, especially on a platform of such scale, with an incredible amount of trickery taking place in the double wishbone front, and multi-link rear suspension, combined with GPS tracking and stereo “Flagbearer” cameras to map the road ahead and make continuous adjustments to the dampeners. It is an amazing application of technology to a fundamental principle of vehicle dynamics that has existed from more than a century, and really does make one come away from it feeling like there genuinely is some magic to it.

While there is always much discussion about the relationship between Rolls-Royce and its parent company, BMW, there is a surprisingly small amount of crossover for the physical components. The Architecture of Luxury platform that the Cullinan is built atop is unique to Rolls-Royce and shared only with the Phantom VIII, while the army of craftsmen and designers operating in the English countryside of West Sussex clearly operate at a different pace from those in Munich.

Where there is some noticeable overlap to those with experience is in the infotainment system; a good chunk of the code base is obviously a part of the excellent iDrive system, as is the input device, but it’s a clear case where there is no logical reason for Rolls-Royce to take on the gargantuan task of building a similar product from scratch. The hardware elements, such as the rotator and buttons are nicely engineered and have a pleasant tactility, fitting of the environment. The design elements and skinning taking place in the software is sympathetic to the Roll-Royce aesthetic and is well carried over to the two screens serving the rear occupants.

This forms the ideal segue to discuss the area that a large swathe of future Cullinan owners will be most curious about: the experience in the back seats of the vehicle. As one might assume, it is easy to summarise by simply saying that it is a truly exceptional place to be; the aforementioned trick suspension makes the ride extremely smooth, while the incredibly low levels of external noise lend the overall sensation of being in a cocoon. This acoustic environment is achieved through multi-layer glass, tires specially developed with Continental that have a foam core, double-layered bulkhead and floor sections, significant amounts of noise deadening material, and dutiful application of sealing on the doors to ensure there is as little of the outside world getting in as possible.

The ample leg room and electronically reclining seats with luxurious upholstering ensure maximum comfort, either for resting or working, the later of which is aided by the electrically folding tables in the back of the front seats, sufficiently large for a table or small laptop. The variety of occupants the Cullinan is designed for is perhaps best summed up the juxtaposition between the small zips that cover the ISOFIX mounts, to accommodate compatible baby seats, that are in relatively close proximity to a fridge hidden behind the centre armrest specifically tailored for a bottle of champagne and two flutes.

The vehicle tested was optioned with the Starlight Headlining, consisting of hundreds of fibre optic cables to give the impression of the night sky above one’s head, and can be adjusted for brightness. Complemented by a variety of lighting options, it is easy to find the right luminary ambiance. There is some interesting skeuomorphism going on in a few places, a side-effect of making things feel effortless when they require more effort or computer-aided assistance. A prime example are the levers to actuate the vents, which have the appearance of those from Roll-Royce models of yore, but rather than operating in a purely mechanical fashion, are actually attached to an electronic switch.

There is no shortage of examples of considered design which anyone who has spent significant time around Roll-Royce cars will recognise from other models, but have been even further refined on the latest model. The umbrellas that pop out of the door body continue as a defining feature, as well as the button to electronically close the rear doors so that the occupants don’t have to bend forward once in situ. The carbon fibre trim fitted to the Black Badge is a nice balance of craftsmanship and contemporary design, as are the polished covers for the Bespoke Audio sound system, consisting of 18 channels for 1300W total. The voluminous boot is accessed by a power assisted split tailgate, with the lower portion serving as a bench that can be optioned with folding seats and a comprehensive picnic set.

Overall, the Cullinan represents a worthy addition to the Rolls-Royce range, one that can easily fit within the lineage of the brand, not just from an absolute quality perspective but as a natural evolution in the history of the company. It will serve its client base well, and offers a window into the possible future evolution of the products from Goodwood, one that features a younger demographic who are increasingly interested in driving themselves and integrating these high-luxury objects into their day-to-day lives.