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It began a new era for the brand, but now Goodwood’s big, bold super-luxury SUV braves the road test microscope

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Park your indignation for a moment. The Rolls Royce Cullinan might be yet another obscenely large and heavy capitulation to the market’s appetite for SUVs but, in the world of ultra-premium manufacturers, Rolls-Royce stands on firmer ground than any other in terms of precedent.

From 1914, armoured cars built upon its Silver Ghost chassis were equipped with water-cooled .303 Vickers machine guns and sent to serve in the First World War. Squadrons a dozen strong made it as far afield as the Middle East, where they helped TE Lawrence conquer Turkish forces in the desert.

The black on silver colour scheme of the classic Rolls-Royce ‘Double R’ badge has been inverted for these edgier Black Badge models. It looks delightfully inappropriate when caked in mud

“More valuable than rubies” was how Lawrence of Arabia famously described these fantastically ugly 7.5-litre 4.7-tonne machines and, in one form or another, Rolls-Royce’s front-line service endured until 1941.

Even during the time between Rolls-Royce’s 1904 founding and its involvement in conflict, its vehicles often functioned as what would now be called SUVs. They had to be luxurious and reliable but were expected to deliver those attributes on often appalling ‘road’ surfaces.

Fitted with shooting brake bodies, they also provided motorised support for the many off-road activities of the privileged. European aristocracy needed ground clearance and roomy cabins for hunting excursions and one Indian maharaja later ordered his 1925 Phantom with taller wheels, searchlights and an elephant gun mounted on the rear bumper.

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We think it’s unlikely modern Rolls-Royce would entertain such a request (although surely it receives them from time to time) but the 6.75-litre 2.7-tonne Cullinan nevertheless has true utilitarian lineage. And even if it didn’t, as the management watched the Bentley Bentayga instantly outsell all Bentley’s other models combined, and the Lamborghini Urus double Lamborghini’s output in its first year, an SUV must have seemed from a commercial standpoint the only sensible option for the brand. So that is what we now have.

The Cullinan line-up at a glance

Customers who move in the rarefied atmosphere where new Rolls Royces are sold don’t use anything as ordinary as equipment levels with which to define their cars. Through its Bespoke Collective, the company will do its best to produce any kind of equipment or accessory in your car that you can design, conceive of or might have a use for. You can also commission your own paint colour, should none of the available 44,000 ‘ready to wear’ hues be suitable.

The firm’s Black Badge extra-special design and performance treatment, as featured on our test car, first appeared with the Rolls Royce Rolls-Royce Wraith in 2016 and has since been applied to the Rolls Royce Rolls-Royce Ghost and Rolls Royce Rolls-Royce Dawn.

Price £306,935 Power 591bhp Torque 664lb ft 0-60mph 4.9sec 30-70mph in fourth na Fuel economy 18.6mpg CO2 emissions 343g/km 70-0mph 48.0m

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Rolls Royce Cullinan 2020 road test review - hero side

Rolls-Royce has a fine history of producing motor vehicles whose imposing designs tread the line between aristocratic glamour and ostentatious vulgarity with graceful effectiveness. With the Rolls Royce Cullinan, however, it seems this delicate sense of visual balance has been knocked off kilter.

Proportions are key in this respect. At 5.34m long and 2.0m wide, the Cullinan is shorter and narrower than the Rolls Royce Rolls-Royce Phantom VIII, but its extended roofline and lofty 1.82m height serve to stretch Rolls-Royce’s imperious design language past the limits of what can be regarded as universally tasteful, which is probably the point. This Black Badge model – with pseudo-sporting styling cues that include red brake calipers, a black chrome Spirit of Ecstasy and darkened Pantheon grille – only solidifies this impression.

Vertical bars of the front grille are polished to reflect the surrounding blackened surfaces. Rolls-Royce says this helps to create a “frisson of movement” that hints at the car’s dynamic intent. Quite.

The mechanical specification of Rolls-Royce’s first 4x4 is far easier to appreciate. In standard guise, the Cullinan’s 6.75-litre twin-turbo petrol V12 has been reworked to develop 563bhp and 627lb ft, but this is raised to 591bhp and 664lb ft for our Black Badge model. Drive is delivered to all four wheels in a 50:50 split via strengthened drive- and propshafts, and an eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox. This has a unique calibration for Black Badge models, with a more urgent throttle response.

Meanwhile, the all-aluminium ‘Architecture of Luxury’ spaceframe first seen in the Phantom VIII has been reproportioned and adapted to feature a tailgate for the first time on a series-production Rolls. Underneath it are active four-wheel steering and 48V active anti-roll systems, too.

Suspension is by way of specially developed axles: a new double-wishbone arrangement at the front axle, with a multi-link configuration at the rear. Larger air struts with greater volume were added to the company’s existing self-levelling air suspension system for improved off-road shock-absorbing capability and an electronically controlled air compression system can increase pressure in the shocks to lower a wheel if it detects lost traction.

Meanwhile, the brake pedal’s bite point has been raised, its pedal feel retuned to aid confidence during fast driving, and greater brake cooling capacity has been provided.

The upshot of all that is a car that weighed 2739kg on the scales, which is heavyweight even by super-luxury class standards. Before decrying this an abomination of brainless excess, however, critics might like to consider that the Phantom saloon we tested two years ago was some 41kg heavier still on our scales.

INTERIOR

Rolls Royce Cullinan 2020 road test review - front seats

That the Rolls Royce Cullinan doesn’t seem like such a high-rise vehicle when you first get in may well be because the car automatically lowers its body by 40mm as you unlock it and open the door. Its ‘coach’ doors are heavy to pull but have intelligent hinge stays that will hold each firmly in place once you’ve arrested its progress. They then motor-close automatically either as the passenger holds down an adjacent button inside or after the chauffeur presses the exterior keyless unlocking button.

The interior doesn’t quite match a Rolls Royce Rolls-Royce Phantom for spaciousness in both rows, and some testers reported just the merest sense of restricted access to the rear of the cabin as they boarded through those ‘suicide’ rear doors – but neither is a problem about which it would even occur to you to complain. The cabin can be laid out like that of a large, fairly conventional five-seat SUV, with split-folding back seats and an expanding boot (the Lounge seating option) or in more Rolls-Royce-typical four-seat fashion, with individual motorised rear chairs, a fixed centre console and a fixed rear bulkhead partition.

Oversized wheel and column stick shifter are both Rolls-Royce hallmarks and grant plenty of the right sense of occasion. Visibility is excellent.

The latter keeps luggage separate from the cabin, boosting on-board refinement and preventing any unnecessary disturbance to the cabin as the driver opens the boot (which is considered a selling point in colder markets). Our test car had the five-seat Lounge layout, with motorised folding seatbacks that stowed completely flat and a motorised boot floor that could be raised to produce a handily flat loading surface.

The driving position has an SUV-typical vantage point and is wrapped in Rolls-Royce-grade opulence and sense of occasion very cleverly. The Phantom itself is, after all, a large and fairly high-riding limousine with quite a raised roof and hip point, and so by transposing all of that upwards by nine inches or so, the Cullinan delivers a more commanding view of the world outside but doesn’t need to redefine a familiar and beautifully enveloping interior theme.

The cabin’s Black Badge alterations include an attractive if predictable mirror-shine carbonfibre veneer that the firm calls ‘Technical Carbon’, and red-tipped needles for the car’s hybrid analogue and digital instruments.

They’re the subtle touches you’d hope for in a gently warmed Rolls-Royce, but perhaps not the ones you’d expect of a Cullinan. For those who’d prefer something brasher still, meanwhile, leather upholstery in Forge Yellow is available – although you can’t help thinking that actually ordering it probably ought to come with a custodial sentence.

Rolls Royce Cullinan infotainment and sat nav

The Cullinan must have missed out on getting the very latest ID7 infotainment technology of Rolls-Royce parent BMW by a pretty narrow margin. The system the Cullinan uses instead remains very good, though – and it’s debatable whether Rolls-Royce would have integrated some of the newer set-up’s functionality even if it could have. Still, there’s a chance that at least some of the younger, more tech-literate owners that Rolls-Royce is reaching out to with this car may feel just a little short-changed.

The system it has fitted is smartly presented and easy to use, whether you’re sticking with the iDrive-style rotary controller or going touchscreen (as no Rolls-Royce before has permitted). The voice control set-up likes you to input addresses in a slightly unintuitive order (town, street, house number) but it works well in other respects.

Wireless smartphone charging is standard, as is wireless phone mirroring. Our test car had a Rolls-Royce Bespoke audio system fitted, whose amplification level wasn’t specified, but it had excellent power and clarity.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Rolls Royce Cullinan 2020 road test review - engine

Judging exactly how much extra performance a 560-horsepower Rolls-Royce may need in order to begin justifying a 20% price premium cannot be an easy task. Add too little urgency and the owner – who may not even be driving, don’t forget – simply won’t appreciate where his or her money has gone.

Add too much, though, and you risk piercing the balloon of indulgently smooth luxury, which, more than any other dynamic quality, remains Rolls-Royce’s true calling card. Understandably perhaps, Rolls Royce has chosen to err on the side of caution here – even with this, the biggest and brashest Black Badge to date. The Cullinan’s engine is the usual audible picture of gentility and reserve in normal running order. It takes on the faintest sporting growl if you thumb the ‘low’ button on the car’s column-mounted gear selector, although it’s still one you’d struggle to hear over a lightly modified hot hatch that happened to be idling nearby.

Not sure I’m a fan of the Black Badge’s raised brake bite point and shorter pedal travel. They work fine when moving at pace but can affect how smoothly you bring the car to a halt at town speeds. It doesn’t feel quite as dignified as it should.

The car’s initial responses are likewise idiosyncratically gentle, as if ‘a hurry’ would be the single most graceless state in which any Rolls-Royce might ever find itself. Flatten the accelerator from rest and the Cullinan’s first few metres are all smoothness and composure. A couple of strides in, however, the car begins to gather accelerative force around it like an A380 on take-off.

It nips under 5.0sec to 60mph from rest and, more impressive still, gets from 30mph to 70mph in just 4.2sec, besting its bigger sibling, the Phantom, as performance tested by this magazine in 2018, in both respects. The latest Bentayga Speed would most likely be quicker from a standard start, and a Urus quicker still; but it’s the Cullinan’s combination of huge and seamless speed, served up with a total lack of savagery, that really distinguishes it.

Responsiveness in roll-on acceleration remains progressive. Because there’s no means of selecting a gear manually here, the only way to ready the car for an imminent sprint is to use that ‘low’ transmission mode; and while doing so certainly makes the car quicker to react to your right foot, it does feel like a slightly Machiavellian abuse of the Cullinan’s good nature.

It doesn’t create much extra in the way of sporting engagement, either – something that you wouldn’t expect of any Rolls-Royce, let alone a Rolls-Royce SUV, but which the extra-special positioning of this one somehow makes seem like a missing jigsaw piece nonetheless.

RIDE & HANDLING

Rolls Royce Cullinan 2020 road test review - on the road nose

For the most part, the Cullinan Black Badge handles exactly as you’d expect a big Rolls-Royce might.

Except for right at the margin of its dynamic potential, it is not a car that will surprise you with keenness, or whose outright stability or body control urges you on to great speeds. It is, almost to the base of its contact patches, a pretty simple, relaxing conveyance, and its dynamic mission is clearly not to equal the versatility, capability or grip of some of its rivals, but instead to do ‘luxury’ well – with just the merest hint of sporting seasoning sprinkled thereon.

Graceful, unruffled and comfortable progress remains a higher priority than sheer sporting prowess but the Black Badge will deliver an extra hit of agility if you demand it

The car wears its size and heft on its sleeve, with steering that isn’t heavy but is quite gentle and slow around the centre. That allows you to guide and position the car with the finely metered precision that has marked out Rolls-Royce’s cars for decades and makes it change direction quite softly – up to a point.

The suspension permits some body roll to build as you turn in, only to check it at an entirely comfortable angle as you’ve dialled in about a quarter turn of steering, just as you’re sizing up the apex of the tight bend you happen to be negotiating.

It’s at this point, however, that the chassis of the Cullinan Black Badge delivers its final, carefully hidden year-end bonus: an extra dose of cornering purchase and agility, coming perhaps as the four-wheel steering system finally empties its pockets, or possibly thanks to an acceleration in directness from the front axle. Whatever the reason, this Rolls-Royce chooses to keep its dynamism under a bushel until it’s absolutely required, rather than waving it under your nose with every twitch of the wheel or vertical fidget of the ride; and you can’t help quite liking that about it.

The car’s vertical body control is fairly soft and permissive, but there’s an impressive ultimate sense of composure to it as you add speed or topographical complexity, or both, to its workload – just as the dampers seem to say “this far and no further”. And that’s rather likeable, too.

Comfort and Isolation

Were you to list the buzzwords for any Rolls-Royce model from any era, ‘isolation’ would be either at or very near the top. And the Cullinan duly delivers. Recording 61dB at 70mph, the cockpit doesn’t so much summon church-like calm as that of an anechoic chamber buried six feet beneath the granite crypt floor. By comparison, the Bentley Bentayga manages only 65dB, which is still commendably quiet but, given this is a logarithmic scale, sits in an entirely lesser division to the Rolls.

The efforts of the mammoth V12 are particularly well suppressed, and with no tachometer to give the game away, the Cullinan can generate a convincing EV-like glide under light loads. The perched driving position is also more lounge-like than for any comparable car, but while the absence of sporting presence is totally appropriate, greater lateral support and suppleness from the flat chairs would improve matters. Bentley still has the upper hand in this regard.

However, ride quality is one area in which we would expect the Cullinan to do conspicuously better. For an SUV, on the move it replicates the long-wave grace of lower-riding Rolls-Royce cars well, but the air suspension can labour over smaller corrugations in the road and isn’t immune to bump-thump at town speeds. This is a typical complaint with such cars, and evidently not even Rolls has solved the engineering challenge posed by huge, heavy wheels and suspension designed to offer robustness, substantial ground clearance and generous travel.

Assisted driving notes

Rolls-Royce is maintaining an evidently circumspect attitude towards the adoption of the latest driver assistance technology. The Cullinan will automatically detect and adopt variable motorway speed limits and it does have a tunable autonomous emergency braking system (which can only be deactivated in Off-road mode).

The car’s lane-keeping capacities are limited to a lane change assist system that will warn you clearly if you’re about to veer into the path of an overtaking car or more gently if you’re departing your lane. It does not have a conventional ‘active’ lane-keeping assist system, though.

The Cullinan’s intelligent cruise control will allow undertaking. The standard-fit night vision system, meanwhile, is a little gimmicky, but because it does seem to make for effective pedestrian detection after dark, it’s worth its place.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Rolls Royce Cullinan 2020 road test review - hero front

The magnificent Rolls Royce Rolls-Royce Phantom can justify its stratospheric asking price in relation to rivals such as the Bentley Mulsanne and Mercedes-Maybach S650 but, as we’ve now seen, the case for the Cullinan may be slightly less convincing. Starting at £264,000 but rising steeply with options, it’s £100,000 more than a W12-engined Bentley Bentayga. Equally, that’s also around £100,000 less than for a Phantom.

In any case, cost is unlikely to trouble most ‘patrons’, and in practical terms the Rolls Royce Cullinan is on a par with some of its ultra-luxury rivals. Even with a touring economy of only 23.6mpg, a 90-litre fuel tank gives the car a range of nearly 500 miles – enough to drive from London to Frankfurt non-stop.

Deep-pile lambswool floor mats from the Phantom look and feel fantastic but don’t expect them to take kindly to muddy shoes. We’d probably leave them out when configuring the car.

Real-world testing does, however, indicate that urbanite owners should expect closer to 11.0mpg, but this would still do for 40 trips from Chelsea to Mayfair and back before needing to visit a forecourt.

Meanwhile, servicing requirements, aside from an annual oil change for the V12, are dictated by the car’s sensors and recommended on an ad hoc basis.

VERDICT

Rolls Royce Cullinan 2020 road test review - static

For a great many, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge will be at least one convention-defying subversion too far. However, it does add versatility and usability to the Rolls-Royce model portfolio – and both in transformative doses.

It manages this without departing so far from the demure and genteel dynamic mould that remains so powerful a selling point for these incredible luxury cars that 95% of owners might notice the difference. As such, it succeeds where it really matters.

Far more likeable to drive than look at, for those who’ve a use for it

If, for a moment, we think like a Rolls-Royce owner, with Rolls Royce Rolls-Royce Phantom at the Hertfordshire estate and a Rolls Royce Rolls-Royce Wraith in Monte Carlo, we might easily imagine having a Rolls Royce Cullinan at the desert ranch or ski lodge – where you might freely use it and where it would be a delight to use.

At the request of its customers, Rolls-Royce has delivered a world-class luxury SUV here – and the Black Badge version will appeal to nobody more powerfully than those who believe money grants them the ultimate freedom: to care so little what the world thinks of you that you can even advertise it in the most extraordinary of terms.

 

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Rolls-Royce Cullinan First drives