We spent a week behind the wheel of the Rolls-Royce Cullinan – the world's best (and most expensive) SUV
by Freddy Sherman
What's it like to drive a $409,000 Rolls-Royce SUV? It's better than I ever could have imagined. I spent a week with the fantastic 2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan and can attest it really does deliver on Rolls-Royce’s “Effortless, Everywhere” mantra. Responding to demand from its luxury lifestyle customers, in 2015 Rolls-Royce set out to create its first SUV. The model rolled out in 2018 and it continues to be the world's only true ultra-luxury vehicle in the class. The Cullinan provides the luxurious environment, perfect craftsmanship and “magic carpet ride” the brand is known for. The challenge was packaging that environment and experience to go anywhere, whether you're driving to the opera in Paris, cruising across a frozen lake in Iceland or climbing sand dunes in the Dubai desert.
The Drive I drove the Cullinan all over Southern California, spending a few days in Los Angeles, and then headed out to the desert of Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. I drove on crowded freeways, mountain roads and even did some off-road driving in the desert and really had a chance to experience a Cullinan as a daily driver.The experience is quite wonderful. I was able to hop right in and immediately felt at home both on surface streets or even bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic. The Cullinan really does float down the road. And you’re constantly reminded what you're driving with the shining silver-winged Spirit of Ecstasy always flying at the bottom of your field of vision. It's a big SUV but not unmanageable. The driving position is elevated, giving a wide field of view. The vehicle feels no larger than other full-size SUVs like the Escalade ESV or Suburban (as a comparison, the Cullinan is 14 inches shorter than a Suburban and 4 inches wider). The design of the hood, huge side-view mirrors and other elements ensure excellent visibility on all sides, supplemented by a wide range of safety sensors and technology.
Luxury Torsten Müller-Ötvös, chief executive officer, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, summarized their view on luxury. “The super-luxury lifestyle is evolving. Luxury is no longer an urban concept. More and more it is about embracing and experiencing the wider world. Our customers expect to go everywhere in luxury, effortlessly and without compromise, conquering the most challenging terrain to enjoy life’s most enriching experiences.”The bespoke interior is a joy to experience. Everything you see, hear and touch has been carefully designed and engineered for quality. Vents and switches are solid metal and there are really no plastic bits. The leather is buttery soft on the seats yet textured and durable on the dash and other surfaces. One of the coolest features is how the massive doors (both front and rear) can be closed automatically with the push of a button.Part of the Rolls-Royce purchase experience is about personalizing your Cullinan pretty much any way you want. Custom colors, special wheels, monograms, even special picnic and polo packages (the “Viewing Suite”) which turn the rear luggage compartment into your own private bistro. With this option two comfortable seats extend from the rear lift-gate with the touch of a button. Rolls-Royce takes it even further with their “Recreation Modules.” Based on your personal favorite activity, from parasailing to fly fishing to golf, they will design a bespoke, automated organizer system to elegantly hold your stuff.That customization filters down to the infotainment and interior environment. Everything can be personalized, from the colors of the lighting to the alert chimes. Luxury is also evident in the details like six heated areas in addition to the seats – any of the four armrests, the steering wheel, even the front center console lid and the rear center armrest. Even the shafts of the Rolls-Royce umbrellas that insert into the rear doors are carbon fiber.
Performance The Cullinan is powered (or should I say launched) by a massive twin-turbo V12. Calmly and quietly, it pumps out 563 horsepower and 627 lbs.-ft. of torque giving you a spirited driving experience when called upon. Handling is good with little body roll. Rear-wheel steering helps make it feel much smaller than it is. I also need to talk about off-road performance here. Most of the process is automated, with a single “Off Road” switch. You can then select different conditions based on the terrain, including rough track, gravel, wet grass, mud, snow, or sand. You can even go through up to 21 inches of water with no problem. There's also a Hill Descent Control system with allows you to automatically go down a hill at a set speed (like off-road cruise control).The air suspension allows the Cullinan to push down on any of the four wheels that might lose traction. It also lowers the Cullinan almost two inches to ease entry, then rises back up once you get underway. Multiple sensors and cameras constantly adjust suspension settings. Up front you have a double-wishbone front axle with a 5-link rear axle.
Technology While the luxury blew me away, the technology of the Cullinan really impressed me, created to deliver the ultimate ride (and performance) regardless of road conditions. The Cullinan has the first all-wheel-drive system ever designed by Rolls-Royce and all-wheel (rear-wheel) steering, which makes this massive vehicle, dare I say, nimble.
Design I think the Cullinan is striking. The exterior is like a Phantom on steroids with its vertical front end led by a huge signature grille and Spirit of Ecstasy ornament. The lines are bold and I also like the gentle styling hints recalling the Silver Cloud or Phantom VI. Inside, the design is refreshingly modern, yet classic, with lots of metal, wood, silver and leather.The rear seat is the place to be, with two options available. You can go for the traditional lounge seat for up to three people that folds down (60/40 split) also at the touch of a button. Or you can order it with two, individual rear seats (with a drinks cabinet and refrigerator in between). In either case the rear seats are positioned higher than the front seats, which Rolls-Royce refers to as “Pavilion Seating.” The two-piece rear hatch, known as “The Clasp,” opens and closes automatically as well. The “three-box” design is a first for the SUV world. Three boxes means three separate environments: the front seats, the rear seats and the cargo area with its glass wall that totally separates it from the rear seats, like the divider in a limousine.
Cost All that luxury, performance and technology comes at a price. The 2019 Cullinan starts at $325,000 and goes up. My press vehicle had $79,250 in options and most owners go for an even more personalized vehicle. Those options ranged from the $11,500 gunmetal gray custom paint to the $9,950 Rolls-Royce Bespoke Audio system. Two of my favorite options were the $4,500 “up-lit” hood ornament (with dramatic night lighting) and the $6,800 “Technical Bespoke Clock.”
Verdict If you want the world's best SUV, there simply is no competition. The Rolls-Royce Cullinan lives up to its “Effortless, Everywhere” mantra regardless of where you want to take it, on-road or off.