When Porsche announced that it was going to launch an SUV in the form of the Cayenne back in 2002, the car-buying world was left slightly aghast.
What on earth was a premium sports car manufacturer doing dabbling in the world of high-riding, off-road vehicles? But customer appetite for the product proved so voracious, Porsche is now no longer considered a sports car manufacturer.
However, despite Bentley and Lamborghini recently joining the list of unlikely SUV producers with the Bentayga and fire-breathing Urus, the fact that Rolls-Royce has ventured down this path still feels a bit, erm, wrong.
Often regarded as ‘the best car in the world’, a Rolls-Royce is long, elegant, graceful, unshakably comfortable and most definitely not practical or utilitarian.
If a Rolls-Royce owner needs to transport something large and bulky from A to B, he or she simply sends a man in a helicopter or purchases a freight company to do the dirty work.
But the spiffing chaps at Goodwood claim that customer demand for an ‘everyday’ Rolls-Royce was so strong, that they simply caved in and gave paying patrons what they wanted.
So this is the first proper SUV Rolls-Royce has ever produced and in a true R-R manner, there has been absolutely no compromise anywhere. This is quite simply the most luxurious 4×4 money can buy.
Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room here: some people find the exterior styling of the Cullinan a little difficult to swallow.
We are not sure whether it’s the shock of seeing a large SUV wearing the Spirit of Ecstasy on its bonnet or simply because the styling is so unlike anything else on sale, but we can happily report that the pronounced snout, the boxy rear end and the myriad chrome accents become more palatable after spending some time with it. And after listening to various designers explain their reasoning, the approach begins to make more sense.
A Rolls-Royce has to be imposing – it must announce its arrival at every occasion – and Cullinan certainly does that, but it also had to boast particularly short overhangs for off-road use and maximise the interior space and comfort for its occupants.
The shape you see in front of you is the result of such thinking but look closer and you’ll spot a number of intricate details that hint at the exquisite craftsmanship on display here.
The chrome window surrounds, for example, are fashioned from one large piece of metal and the enormous 22-inch wheels are finished with the trademark self-levelling centre caps.
The paintwork consists of eight layers, finished with two layers of lacquer, while customers can specify hues that feature real gold flecks, if they so wish.
You might not necessarily agree with the way it looks, but there’s no denying the execution is flawless, which only seems fair when the asking price for such perfection is a staggering £250,000.
Stepping inside a Rolls-Royce should feel special every time and despite the added practicality of this 4×4 set-up, the Cullinan doesn’t disappoint in terms of grandeur.
Most surfaces are covered in faultless hides, the hand-stitching is beyond precise, the wooden veneers are both tactile and beautiful, while the dash is festooned with glorious chrome switches, organ stop levers that control the air vents and dazzling metal switches. Everything has a certain weight that only comes with handcrafted premium products of this nature and the deep seating is plush and unfathomably comfortable.
Of course, buyers are also treated to heating and ventilation for the posterior, massaging functionality and carpets so deep, you can easily lose a foot in the fabric. There is also the option to fit the rear of Cullinan with a standard three-person bench seat or two individual seats for the true First Class experience.
Typically when this option is specified, the car will also receive side curtains and a glass screen behind the rear passengers that stops any pesky drafts entering the cabin when the boot is opened.
Most functionality is automated, so owners never have to reach for a door handle (a button closes the doors) and seat-back tables in the rear fold down with a stab of a digit.
Thanks to the thickest glass this side of an armour-plated limousine and tonnes of sound deadening material, the interior is class-leadingly quiet.
Even if the driver should decide to pin the throttle to the floor, there’s little more than a feint hum inside the cabin. You could whisper a conversation at 90mph and it would still be heard.
Cutting edge tech
Where other manufacturers like to shout from the rooftops about the latest in-car technologies, Rolls-Royce takes a much more understated approach. But that’s not to say Cullinan is void of neat gizmos.
The instruments, for example, are now fully digital, but designers have added physical chrome surrounds to keep that hand-made feel to it all.
They are extremely easy to read and the upshot of introducing this tech is that more information can displayed, which makes life easier when using cruise control, for example.
Rear passengers can enjoy fold down touchscreens that are hooked up to a DVD player or can accept USB and HDMI inputs that are discreetly stashed in the centre console.
The relatively small infotainment screen is now touch sensitive too – rather than just being controlled with a rotary dial – and it takes care of everything from navigation to multimedia duties.
Tethering a smartphone is as easy as you’d expect and navigation the system is as intuitive as any premium system on the market, but perhaps a small section of the customer base will want more impressive connected features.
But as is the way with all Rolls-Royce products, the technology is tastefully finished rather than being mind-blowingly cutting edge. So it’s possible specify a Rolls-Royce Bespoke sound system, which is crafted in-house and pumps out some phenomenal sound.
Coupled with the soundproof cabin, it’s possible to stick on a favourite tune and convince yourself you are hearing it played fresh from the studio in which it was recorded.
There’s also plenty going on underneath the skin, too, with a satellite-assisted gearbox continuously reading the topography of the road ahead to ensure Cullinan is always in the correct gear and self-levelling suspension that constantly irons out creases in the road surface or actively pushes a wheel into the ground if it detects a loss of traction when venturing into the rough stuff.
On top of this, Cullinan introduces all-wheel steering, which makes turning the large SUV around in road about as easy as piloting a family hatchback.
It’s part of the reason why the driving experience feels so effortless and wafting (more of that later), while specially developed tyres, which are puncture resistant and also feature noise-suppressing foam, only add to the comfort. // But perhaps the piece de la resistance is an optional ‘Viewing Suite’ that can be added to the large boot.
Here, two leather ‘event’ seats majestically and electronically appear from the floor, along with a small table for resting one’s G&T, allowing owners to enjoy the polo or watch the sun go down over the Wyoming’s numerous peaks in comfort.
This is the part of the review that historically has meant the least to a Rolls customer, simply because most of them have drivers and rarely set foot in the front seats.
But Cullinan is different and because it is designed with everyday use in mind, it’s surprisingly easy feel at one with. Yes, there’s plenty of power from the mighty 536bhp 6.75-litre V12 engine, but it is delivered so smoothly it’s very easy to tickle very illegal speeds without noticing.
Rolls-Royce chose to launch its new vehicle on the enormously wide highways of Wyoming, so it’s difficult to say what Cullinan will feel like on the cramped B-roads of the UK, but it rides perfectly and the performance is punchy.
The 2.4-tonne mass is tangible when slamming on the big brakes or barrelling into a corner too fast, but this is arguably one of the most driver-focussed Rolls models to date.
Ok, so a Bentley Bentayga or a Lamborghini Urus feel more taught and eager, but there’s no experience quite like silently breezing along the highway as the powerful motor effortlessly delivers power by the bucket load.
The test drive proved the vehicle could handle itself off-road, too. At one point, the Spirit of Ecstasy adorning the bonnet was pointed directly at the piercing blue sky above as we slowly but confidently scrabbled up the side of Snow King Mountain just outside the town of Jackson.
Activating the all-wheel drive system is as simple as pressing just one button, which raises the suspension and instructs the traction control system to work its off-road magic.
There’s also a downhill descent mode that when activated, keeps the vehicle at a set speed when traversing steep declines, without the need to brush the brakes.
As impressive as it is, the system arguably isn’t as rugged as that seen on today’s Range Rover or Mercedes G-Class, but that isn’t really the point here.
Instead, most owners will want the added peace of mind the technology provides when driving in snow, traversing the odd sand dune of scrabbling across slippery rocks on the way to a prime fly-fishing spot.
Rolls-Royce Cullinan initial verdict
A Rolls-Royce has always competed in a league of its own and the introduction of Cullinan doesn’t change that sentiment.
There are more capable, faster and – dare we say it – better looking premium SUVs out there, but nothing can match the sheer opulence, luxury and bespoke craftsmanship found in the debut SUV from the British marque.
Never before has there been a more comfortable and satisfying way to barrel down the side of a mountain, it’s just a pity that only a select few individuals will ever get to experience such a thing.