The $325,000 2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan can drift on a snow-covered fire road outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming like a World Rally Championship racer, crossed up, with all four wheels flinging muddy slush onto the road’s shoulder.
And it does it without feeling one whit its true size. If this dynamic image of a Rolls-Royce SUV doesn’t fit your image of Rolls-Royce, it might be time to update that impression.
The Cullinan is, somewhat infamously, the first SUV from Rolls-Royce. SUVs appeal to drivers because of their ability to traverse the kind of terrain a Rolls-Royce driver might encounter en route to the ski chalet, summer cabin or fishing spot.
The car’s name is a hint to its new mission for Rolls-Royce. While models like Phantom, Ghost and Wraith evoke the ethereal, ‘Cullinan’ is borrowed from the world’s largest diamond, which was incorporated into the British crown jewels. Now, Cullinan is one of Rolls-Royce’s crown jewels.
We are supposed to reel in shock that the posh Rolls-Royce could dirty its hands, and image, with something so crass as a truck, but I’m not, and I’m skeptical that anyone else cares either.
This is because SUVs are cars to most people these days. Why wouldn’t Rolls sell an SUV? Most drivers in the US buy an SUV when they go to the dealer and that does not change just because they’ve got a fat wallet. Everyone wants to be able to pack luggage, transport passengers and drive confidently in even the most inclement of weather.
The Rolls-Royce Phantom, which we loved when we drove it last year, is built on the same ‘Architecture of Luxury’ aluminum chassis as the Cullinan, but the new SUV feels like a completely different vehicle. Sure, it is still whisper-quiet, thanks to thick, 6mm glass windows that resist wind noise and foam-filled tires that quell road noise.
But where the Phantom’s steering is fingertip-light and isolated from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the Cullinan’s steering is taut and informative, providing the necessary confidence for sliding a three-ton, half-million-dollar, aluminum-bodied guest house through snowy mud at the kind of speed that is possible courtesy of its 563-horsepower, 627 lb.-ft. (!) 6.75-liter V12. Sixty miles per hour is never more than five seconds away.
It is the same for the brakes and the handling: Still posh and polite, but newly energized and engaged with the driver, for those do-it-yourself owners.
The Cullinan’s rear seat remains the exclusive preserve it should be in a Roller, coddling the occupants in the finest leather and wood. But the seating position is a bit higher in the Cullinan than the Phantom, and there is an expanse of glass all around. With the panoramic sunroof’s shade retracted, the Cullinan provides rear-seat passengers with views of the Grand Tetons like that of Amtrak’s glass-topped Great Dome Car.
There are actually two choices for the back seat. One is a traditional SUV-style fold-down seat that provides the expected ability to load large objects (de art?) into the Cullinan’s cargo hold. That hatch opens in a two-part fashion, with an upper hatch and a lower tailgate that flips down into a horizontal position, in the manner of the Range Rover.
If carrying passengers is the priority over cargo, then there is an available non-folding rear seat option that features a fixed center console, reclining seats and a glass partition separating the rear seats from the rear luggage compartment.
The console contains liquor cabinet with Rolls-Royce whisky glasses and decanter, champagne flutes and refrigerator. Even the fold-down back seats coddle occupants in the hushed, plush comfort expected of every Rolls-Royce.
What really sets the Cullinan apart from the Phantom is the experience in the driver’s seat. Switching to Off-Road mode stiffens the shocks and raises the suspension an inch and a half for increased ground clearance and longer suspension travel to help soak up bumps.
The car’s chief engineer refers to the ‘Off-Road’ button as the ‘everywhere’ button. That’s because those stiffer shocks are also helpful for on-road driving. It only takes a press of the car’s ride-height button to lower the Cullinan back to its standard road-going height while in off-road mode to enable what is effectively a sport mode for highway driving that makes the SUV an even more capable strafing mountain passes.
Cullinan’s cornering prowess is partly attributable to its rear-wheel steering system. The car automatically steers the rear wheels as much as three degrees to give Cullinan the nimble reflexes of a smaller car on twisty roads. This pays dividends when parking too, as the rear steering slices three feet off the Cullinan’s turning circle.
But if tawdry details like parking are left to your chauffeur, no worries. Life in the Cullinan’s back seat is as plush as expected from Rolls-Royce despite its newfound handling. This is exactly the kind of no-compromises capability that makes SUVs popular with drivers, now applied to the rarified upper reaches of the car market.