Test Drive: Behind The Wheel of the Ultra-Luxe Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge - Maxim

Behind The Wheel of the Ultra-Luxe Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge

The three-ton steel, leather and carbon fiber super SUV is a totem of affluence aptly named after the largest diamond ever discovered.
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It was time to get the hell outta Dodge. Like almost every human in the known universe we’d just spent the last few months staring at the same four walls, and our minds were beginning to play tricks on us. Like that trash compactor scene in Star Wars, the room was starting to squeeze in, tightening every day. One thought kept boomeranging back to mind: road trip. You know that classic American rite of passage, the treasured summer excursion of jumping in your favorite vehicle, stretching your legs and throttle foot, and discovering what the world has to offer. And seeing as Rolls-Royce—arguably the most esteemed luxury marque the world has ever known—volunteered a Cullinan Black Badge for adventure, our steed for this voyage was obvious. 

Only one question remained: where to? This is where cosmic fate stepped in, in the form of a visiting small Solar System body called Neowise. The brightest comet to pass by Earth in almost 25 years, Neowise was the rare SSSB that could be seen by the naked eye—the first  since Hale-Bopp in 1995.

So we booked an architectural gem near Palm Springs to call home base, loaded up the Cullinan Black Badge with gear, and vowed to locate the darkest corner of desert we could find in nearby Joshua Tree for some comet spotting. Part #roadtrip, part luxury Palm Springs weekend getaway, part off-road hillbilly adventure; the Cullinan called. 

Leaving Venice Beach in late morning we head due east, through the towering skyscrapers of downtown and into the eastern industrial edge of L.A.—a vast tract known for both its smog and world-class taco destinations. Further inland you begin creeping through areas that shift into some of the best Sichuan, Chengdu and Taiwanese restaurants in all of America, but we have one thing on our minds before heading deep into the desert: fish tacos. The renowned Tacos Ensenada calls our name, so we set the Cullinan’s nav and head to fill our eager bellies.

Ou La Quinta destination of desert style and leisure. 

Ou La Quinta destination of desert style and leisure. 

Since most places are currently takeout only, the Cullinan’s rear seating compartment—envisioned for white-gloved chauffeured pampering—is a godsend. There are few things more perfect and yet wonderfully paradoxical than freezing Mexican Cokes in the center champagne chiller imagined for bottles of Armand de Brignac costing literally 100 times our entire meal. We crawl into the posh rear thrones and press buttons on the sides of the front seats that lower mahogany-paneled trays. They are heavy and sturdy, framed in shiny chrome like so many of the contact points in the luxurious cabin; and they expose flatscreens behind. But we’re too enraptured to be distracted by movies or other infotainment—the crunch of Tacos Ensenada’s golden fish batter is sublime, loaded with crema and salsa roja; the ceviche might be even better. 

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Fully sated we set sights for the furthest edges of the Desert Cities, La Quinta, not far from the Polo Fields where every year they throw the bacchanalia known as the Coachella Music & Arts Festival. Back in the driver’s seat we aim the Spirit of Ecstasy, the hood ornament otherwise known as Eleanor, onto Pomona Boulevard and steer her onto the 60. The expansive bonnet seems to stretch out to the horizon, its hand-polished Salamanca Blue paint glittering in the sun like a giant sapphire. 

Driving the Cullinan is a unique experience unto itself. Most vehicles that float in this rarefied air are speed/performance-based. Even if they’re enormous executive saloons, they’re still motivated by mammoth V12 powerplants boasting absurd horsepower and acceleration numbers. The Cullinan is as well, for the most part. In its Black Badge trim its Brobdingnagian 6.75-liter V-12 generates 600 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque—a generous uptick from the standard model’s 563 horses and 627 pound-feet. 

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Despite enough force to uproot Sequoia stumps, however, the Cullinan never feels especially sporty. Rolls-Royce, after all, does not make sporty cars. The term implies an interaction between man and machine. In other words, labor—anathema in Rolls-Royce parlance. There isn’t even a Sport setting, although the “Low” button on the gear stalk—which boosts throttle response and raises shift points on the eight-speed automatic—performs a similar function. The SUV sleepwalks effortlessly, and yet with a tap of your handmade Berluti loafers the full breadth of its 664 pound-feet of torque comes rumbling to life like the purr of a napping dragon. 

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The sensation recalls a conversation with Rolls engineer Dr. Philip Harnett we had back in 2014 during a Wraith launch, when he told us the coupe’s intoxicating waves of power were “not for drag racing—it’s so you can have effortless torque.” The hypnotic, endless straights of California’s highways underscore that sentiment beautifully. There’s no term associated in a word bubble with the venerable British automaker more than waft. And here you can see why. The Cullinan doesn’t drive so much as float across the asphalt, swallowing potholes—and later even sizable speed bumps— like nips of creamy chocolate soufflé. 

If you’re looking for a vehicular analgesic, the Black Badge is your SUV of choice. Although the ultra-lux Cullinan dances with the half-million-dollar territory—ours optioned out at a paltry $493,650— it should never be confused with über-utes from contemporaries like Bentley and Lamborghini. While these carry lofty price points, they’re still barely half the cost of the Black Badge Brit. Perhaps more importantly, their emphasis on performance readily separates them from Rolls-Royce territory.

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Even cheaper options like the Porsche Cayenne GTS, Audi RS Q8 and Jeep’s gamma-ray blasted Grand Cherokee Trackhawk would blow the Cullinan away on twisties. But that’s clearly not the point of the Cullinan Black Badge; it’s to swaddle you in cushy clouds of comfort, dazzle you with superlative technology and materials pulled from a metallurgy shop, and stun starry-eyed onlookers with imposing presence and audacious dimensions. Not to mention the two-inch-thick lambswool used for the floor mats, which are a sumptuous experience unto themselves.

After a couple leisurely hours we pull off the 10, heading south towards La Quinta’s distinguished Cove district. Apparently Kim and Yeezy own a mansion nearby. Our weekend house lies just on the edge of the Santa Rosa Mountains, staring straight into a wall of ochre earth, scrubby foothills and crooked cacti. The gate opens to reveal a classic Palm Springs mid-century ranch house, with blue pool glowing bright in the afternoon. We strip down to our trunks and loudly belly flop into the deep end; against the 100-degree heat of the pre-evening air, the water is cool and refreshing.

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But we have a comet to catch, after all. So we towel off, climb back into the Cullinan and call into Rolls-Royce’s voice command system: “Take us to Joshua Tree.” It takes about an hour of driving through indistinguishable desert shrub to reach the edge of the park, but our photographer knows a secret spot down some dirt roads to best escape any light pollution—our best hope of securing the darkest corner of Southern California to spot Neowise. As evening approaches, the Rolls senses the oncoming darkness and lights up the Starlight Headliner—a stunning exhibition on the cabin roof of twinkling digital stars that mimics the night sky. 

Available for the first time in a Cullinan in this Black Badge trim, the Starlight Headliner represents a level of bespoke luxury that stretches personalization to terminal lengths. Rolls-Royce will even arrange the 1,344 fiber-optic “stars” to exactly emulate the position of the constellations on your birthday. For real. You can dim them to a romantic setting, brighten them enough to read by, or even shut half the Starlight down in case one of you wants to sleep. For the first time ever, Rolls has even integrated falling stars that randomly shoot across the sky. 

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So we follow Eleanor into the gloaming, the dark chrome angel leading our way as the Cullinan Black Badge rides the undulating dirt roads of the Mojave Desert. The hood ornament’s smoked high-gloss chrome is matched on the front grille, exhaust and exterior trim, lending a sense of sinister elegance to the sparkling blue behemoth. The air suspension, tightened in Black Badge trim, allows the Cullinan to loll over the waves of dry earth like a 6,000-pound yacht in a storm. Still, the SUV is surprisingly capable considering we’re driving a half-million-dollar RollsRoyce-built block of metal through fiery roads. 

When we finally arrive at the clearing we open the heavy suicide doors and spill out, giddy eyes trained to the northwest near the horizon. We look for the Big Dipper, having read Neowise can be found there somewhere in the black, tail searing the sky. Some are stressing out—supposedly the next time the comet will make its way across our heavens will be the year 8786. But as we stand in the warm desert air scanning the horizon, I can’t help but look back at the Cullinan. Despite the epic road trip and extraordinary celestial event, I kind of just want to slip back in that chauffeured seat with no one noticing. Sip a cold Coke from the chiller and wait for a fiber-optic shooting star to fire across the roofliner. Suddenly those four walls don’t seem so tight. 

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Diamond Chiseled Opulence

No wonder this three-ton steel, leather and carbon fiber totem of affluence was named after the largest diamond ever discovered — a gem currently secured in the Tower of London as a Crown Jewel of England. The Cullinan is a rolling ode to superlative wealth and prosperity. And now with Black Badge status, the SUV reaches another level.

The opulence of the Cullinan Black Badge knows few limits. It boasts a 3D-looking "technical fiber" carbon trim across the cabin, illuminated rocker panels, and embroidered thrones of sumptuous leather — all four heated, AC ventilated and massaging. There’s thick acoustic glass separating rear passengers from the trunk space, ensuring a tomb-quiet cabin. The unique 22-inch silver-and-black two-tone wheels feature “anti spinner” caps with offset counter weights; they spin independently so the “RR” logos always remain upright. How polite. The trunk even hides mechanized twin leather seats that slide out from a slim cabinet, rotate and fold out with the push of a button for luxurious tailgate picnics. And, of course, there’s the chiller that keeps a bottle of champagne and twin flutes cold for rear passengers on long drives.

Perhaps our favorite touch, however, is the two-inch-thick lambswool used for the floor mats. Jumping in to grab some steaks after the pool, bare feet were suddenly coddled so sumptuously it felt like cashmere pillows massaging our toes.