If you don't like the idea of a Rolls-Royce SUV, blame the brand's customers – or "patrons of luxury", as company calls them. For it was they who asked the Goodwood-based marque to build the model now known as the Cullinan. They wanted "luxury, performance and usability", a reflection of the younger demographic Rolls now attracts worldwide. As Bob Dylan sang, the times, they are a-changin'.
Not too much, though: there is pedigree for a Rolls-Royce off-roading in inhospitable terrain. T E Lawrence put armoured Silver Ghosts through their paces as he in the Arabian desert, remarking famously that "a Rolls in the desert is above rubies", a quote that the peerless brand is naturally fond of recounting this month, as they launch the Cullinan to the expectant world of the ultra-rich.
We have been waiting to drive this car since it was announced in 2015. Whether by design or not, Rolls was fortunate that Bentley brought its Bentayga to market first. That car was the first ultra-luxury SUV the world had seen, and took the bashings for its slab-sided appearance and the outrage that such an inveterate maker of luxury sports cars and endurance racing should “sell out” to the consumer demand for SUVs. But now that our eyes have grown accustomed to the light, the way is paved for a much smoother ride for the Cullinan.
Named after the largest diamond ever found, which now sits in the British Crown Jewels collection, the Cullinan has the same unadorned sheets of metal as the Bentayga, with unapologetically large features. There are strong vertical and horizontal lines everywhere, giving the car, in the words of Rolls, “the prominent brow of a Saxon warrior”. From the side, the bodywork runs down the car like a sheer cliff face, and at the front, those inset headlamps and air intakes give off an unmistakably aggressive air. But then Rolls has never shied away from conquering the horizon, and that’s why it remains the builder of the word’s most coveted cars today. If that sounds like hyperbole, stop reading now: everything about Rolls-Royce is magnified, heightened and extreme.
How has Rolls managed to stay ahead of the competition?
With an extreme take on luxury. In hotel terms, one might put Bentley as the Ritz-Carlton of the automotive world, and Rolls-Royce as the Aman portfolio, which is convenient, because the international launch is at the Amangani in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Aman hotels go beyond five-star luxury. They are unafraid to combine Brutalist concrete architecture with desert landscapes, or let the views of the Rockies be framed by simple grasses and huge windows. The natural materials are carefully curated to speak for themselves, which is pretty much what Rolls-Royce does with its architecture, design and interiors.
The inside of the Cullinan is a palace of decadence, and a triumph of simplicity. That should be an oxymoron, but Rolls-Royce thrives on creating the combination. In the back, which is where one starts with all Rolls-Royces, you can choose a bench seat to take three passengers, or two individual seats with a huge console between them, housing whisky glasses, decanter, champagne flutes and refrigerator. The rear doors open outwards from the back, and there are acres of leg space, your feet sinking into the footwell carpets. The rear passengers can be separated from the boot by a glass partition, which is a glorious addition, stopping passengers from freezing (or, in the UAE, boiling) when the tailgate is open. There are even beautiful zips hiding the Isofix mounts.
The electrically folding rear seats don’t lie flat, but the boot floor rises to create a seamless ramp to the front seats, creating a loadspace longer than that of an extended wheelbase Range Rover.
In the front, the driver can control functions via the BMW Group’s fine touchscreen, or via the Spirit of Ecstasy-adorned knob.
Luxury carmakers often feel they can get away with less advanced technology than mass-volume manufacturers, because the money buys the powertrain and kerb appeal. Thankfully, here, Rolls-Royce makes full use of its BMW parentage. The Cullinan has night vision, pedestrian- and wildlife-collision alerts, four cameras –including overhead for manoeuvring – active cruise control, collision warning, cross-traffic warning and lane-change warning systems. The driver can lower the air suspension from the centre console, then there are the off-roading systems.
A gentle thumb on the starter button breathes life into the purring 6.75-litre, twin-turbo V12. In an act of genius understood only by the chief engineer and her mother (yes, gasp, she’s a woman), the Cullinan maintains the infamous magic-carpet waftability of the marque. That’s enough of a challenge for a 2.7-tonne car with a higher ride height, but to extend that treatment to the car off-road is something else. Partly it’s achieved by creating bigger air struts to cushion the jolts to the wheels. The rest is witchcraft.
For the first time in the brand's venerable history, power is sent to the front as well as rear wheels. On road, you wouldn't notice any difference – the power is still seamless and sublime, the suspension gorgeous. Off-road though, this is capable. Surprising? Perhaps history tells us it shouldn't be: in an excerpt from The Tank Corps Journal, from October 1922, it was written that "not a single Rolls-Royce armoured car was laid up for an hour [in West Africa], except as a result of the enemy's fire".
Here it is then, possibly the most consummate Rolls-Royce ever.