Closer look: Rolls-Royce Cullinan and the unlikely intersection of rugged and luxury
We've now had our first chance to take an up-close look at Rolls-Royce's most fascinating car in a long time. An ambitious and almost self-contradictory attempt to blend rugged off-road capability with uncompromising luxury, the Cullinan is a muscular, six foot-tall tank, chock full of technology and creature comforts.
This car speaks to a different kind of millionaire – somebody younger, a little more adventurous and possibly even with a young family. Somebody who wants to take driving to certain extremes – but a millionaire nonetheless, who demands complete luxury both on-road and off, and who won't settle for anything less.
We already know most of the specs; 6.75-liter, twin-turbo V12 engine, 563 horsepower, 678 pound-feet from 1,600 rpm for effortless, smooth, hand-of-god acceleration at all times despite this Roller weighing 5,864 lbs (2,660 kg), or roughly the weight of a full-size African elephant.)
So let's take a look at some of the details. Like the stereo cameras poking out of the windscreen, with a further camera mounted in the top center of the hulking front grille, and an infra-red camera tucked away in the right side of the grille, and the radar mounted almost at road level right at the front.
All these profligate sensors are actually necessary to drive Rolls-Royce's ambitious active suspension system, which reads the topography of the road ahead of you and pre-arms the self-leveling air suspension to deal with it as comfortably as possibly.
And it's been no small task for the company to re-engineer this famous "magic carpet ride" to be as comfortable off-road as on. For starters, it's the first 4WD Roller, so the front-wheel-drive systems needed to be accommodated. But it's more than that – Rolls-Royce is deadly serious about making this thing genuinely rugged and trail-worthy, so the air struts are larger and tougher, and there's a bigger volume of air in there to handle rocks and bumps and ruts.
If a wheel starts losing traction on an uneven, slippery surface, the suspension will push it down against the ground in search of more traction. The suspension lowers itself an inch and a half when you open the doors, so it's easy to get in, then centers itself for driving, and rises up an inch and a half when you select off-road mode to give you pretty decent ground clearance and a river wading depth of 540 mm (21.3 inches), which is impressive as hell for an ultra-luxury car.
The transmission does the old trick of reading GPS and topography maps for the roads ahead, so it can pre-select the right gear if you're headed toward a hill or a corner you might want to downshift for. Is there a low-speed transfer for super-slow rock crawling? No. The design team has instead gambled on massive torque at low revs, saying the Cullinan has so much effortless grunt down low with that giant motor that ultra-low gearing isn't needed.
But there is four-wheel steering, and it's implemented in a typically extravagant Rolls-Roycey sort of way: below 70 km/h (~45 mph), the wheels turn opposite to one another, adding three degrees to the steering lock for a tighter turning circle and easier parking. Above that speed, the system reverses and the wheels turn in the same direction. Why? Because it can help reduce yaw movements in the cabin as you make small steering corrections or go to move between lanes, helping reduce the feeling of carsickness in the back seats. A lane change is now like a sideways step the car doesn't have to turn for at all. Remarkable.
The seals on the dramatic coach-style doors extend down lower than they look like they need to, and that's to keep even the bottoms of the door frames from picking up dust or mud that might brush against your clothes on the way into the back seats. Naturally, there's Rolls-Royce's signature umbrellas in the doors, teflon coated and sitting in a receptacle that can air-dry them during your jaunt so you're not shaking drops out at your next stop.
The Cullinan we took a look at was a four-seater, with a central column that folds down to reveal a chilled bottle of champagne and a pair of glasses. Touch-screen theatre units ease their way out of the seats in front at the touch of a button, if champagne and conversation isn't doing it for you.
The back end features another first for Rolls-Royce – the clamshell folding tailgate that opens up into a large, glassed-off luggage section. Apparently in the olden days, one would never travel with one's luggage if one was of a certain class. One hopes one remembers to keep one's phone charging cable in one's glove box, in that case, because there's no reaching back and digging it out of one's bag.
The bottom section of the clamshell is Rolls-Royce's very first tailgate. The design team has specified it to hold 300 kilos if you want to sit down and enjoy the scenery wherever you've four-wheel-driven to.
For a personal touch, you can spec up the Cullinan to jive with your choice of lifestyle hobbies. Rolls-Royce provides "recreation modules" that can be fitted into the back compartment in a modular fashion. These include, and I'm not kidding, modules for drone racing, photography, fly fishing, picnicking, rock climbing, snowboarding, base-jumping and a sport called volcano boarding that I'm going to have to go and google. These modules plug in, some powered, some folding out, to make the back of the Cullinan work like an obsessively designed leisure rack for your toys and gear.
As with anything on this ultra-luxury tier, the closer you look, the fancier things get, in an ever-ascending spiral of fine details. You could spend a week sniffing, licking and rubbing your face against every surface in this car, and your level of appreciation still wouldn't line up with the amount of thought the designers have put in.
Take it as read that every surface and material in the car feels perfect in the exact way it's been specified to feel perfect. If it's not perfect enough for you, then you've stuffed up somewhere along the extravagant process of selecting your colors, materials, options and finishes. It's probably your failure, and not the car's.
At a starting price around US$325,000, it's the most expensive stock SUV the world has ever seen. But it's mid-range for a Roller, and according to Global Client Sales Manager Ian Grant, it's attracting a fresh horde of late-thirties entrepreneurial types into the fold.
Well, jolly good. It looks like a cracking car to us, dripping with opulence and technology, a symphony of small comforts and nice thoughts that you'd damn well better appreciate. If you're not up to the responsibility of appreciating it, go buy yourself a Land Rover like every other Philistine chump, and miss out.