I see a deep, muddy puddle and stab the throttle, turning the big steering wheel to align the passenger-side tires with it. Water sprays across the long hood, dousing the delicate chromed Spirit of Ecstasy and the acres of real estate behind it in brown, murky water.
This isn't normally how I'd treat a $325,000 vehicle, but it's precisely the rough treatment that the team behind the 2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan is encouraging when nearly half the drive route is rough, rutted, dirt two-tracks that are ubiquitous in the rural areas near Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park.
If dirt roads seem like an odd place to test a Rolls-Royce, it's because the Cullinan is unlike any car to roll out of Goodwood in the company's 114-year history. That's not just because it has all-wheel drive, a button marked “Off Road”, or usable ride height (Rolls-Royce has an overland history dating back to T.E. Lawrence, after all). See, as Rolls-Royce tells it, the Cullinan is a family car, rather than a limousine driven by a chauffeur or a two-door tourer designed for well-heeled couples. And that pitch is working – Rolls-Royce says it's had excellent responses from ultra-wealthy consumers with families during ramp-up events, and that over half the Cullinans currently on order are for first-time owners.
“We wanted to have open space, and a luggage compartment with enough space to bring all the stuff for the kids and for the family into it,” Caroline Krismer, the Cullinan's engineering boss, told me.
That space in the cabin is obvious from the moment I open the suicide doors and easily step over the thin side sills. Not only is ingress and egress effortless and the cabin physically expansive, but because Rolls-Royce designed the body with very tall, upright windows and (in the U.S. at least) a standard panoramic sunroof, it's airy. Visibility is fantastic from every seat. And unsurprisingly, every seat is fantastic.
Rolls-Royce could show La-Z-Boy a thing or six about seat comfort.
Rolls-Royce could show La-Z-Boy a thing or six about seat comfort. The Cullinan's backseats are exemplary, regardless of whether the car in question has “Lounge” or “Individual” seats. The former is your typical bench, or as typical as something can be in a Rolls-Royce.
The rear bench isn't adjustable but it is thoroughly comfortable and supportive. It also folds down – electronically, of course – to increase cargo space. Folding the seats is simply a matter of pressing a button and watching as the bench folds theatrically and, in the coolest touch, the headrests automatically retract to make sure they don't catch on the front seat backs. The Individual seats feature a fixed center console and two adjustable rear seats, which should appeal to more traditional Rolls-Royce owners (or parents who prefer a physical barrier between the kids). This setup also adds a glass partition between the cabin and the luggage compartment, cutting down on what little road noise enters the cabin in the first place.
The Cullinan's front chairs don't offer the absurd level of adjustability of some other vehicles, but the seats themselves are so perfect from the start that adjustable bolsters and 28-way controls simply aren't necessary. And naturally, the material quality is immaculate – Rolls-Royce will happily give you leather in any shade you want, but no matter what, it's going to come from bulls raised away from barbed wire (so as not to nick their precious hides).
This leather dominates the cabin and is easily one of the finest materials available on any new car today. Soft, supple, and richer than a 12-pound brick of Swiss chocolate, the Cullinan's leather could change PETA's mind about animal hides. Beyond material quality, Rolls makes the Cullinan’s innards feel special by offering an array of colors for buyers to choose from, as well as opportunities to create delightful contrasts, be it with thin leather sections, or through the stitching and piping.
My test Cullinan is a prime example of this design freedom. Thin strips of Charles Blue – almost like a pale North Carolina Tarheel blue, which you can see in the above video – leather lined the dash’s inner lip, separating the top of the dash from its face. While the dash topper wore traditional leather in Navy Blue (that is a refreshingly normal name for a shade of leather), Rolls-Royce borrowed from the world of high-fashion handbags for the dash's face, pairing box-grain leather with the usual high-quality wood.
Rolls-Royce borrowed from the world of high-fashion handbags for the dash's face, pairing box-grain leather with the usual high-quality wood.
Box-grain leather is a new thing for Rolls-Royce, so – at the moment – it's only available in black. Using a metal press on the leather during the manufacturing process and then putting down a layer of lacquer, this technique yields an inky dark, glossy finish and a texture that feels more durable than the smooth leather found in the rest of the Cullinan's cabin. It's absolutely lovely and contrasts with the available wood trims nicely.
In a world where automakers are splashing cabins in ever deeper layers of technology, I have to admire Rolls-Royce's restraint. Where a Mercedes-Benz S-Class has a digital surfboard on the dash, the Cullinan has a simple, but very pretty, display at the top of the center stack. The instrument cluster is all digital, but the housing for each individual display looks no different than traditional gauges.
At the bottom of the stack, simple physical climate controls sit below two beautiful, chrome air vents. Between those is a subtle physical volume knob. How subtle? My co-driver spent a portion of his seat time only adjusting the volume of the fantastic Bespoke audio system with the steering wheel – it’s not until I get behind the wheel and use the knob that he realizes it’s there. The infotainment is nothing more than BMW's iDrive system with Rolls-Royce graphical touches – that's no bad thing.
This smart integration of technology is most evident in the Cullinan's inconspicuous Off-Road button. The small, polished black button, which sits at the four o’clock position in relation to the oversized iDrive knob, primes the Cullinan's systems for some light trail work by raising the air suspension to its off-road setting and instructing the computer to manage the various off-road modes based on the surface below.
“You press one button, and that's it, the car does everything else for you,” Cullinan designer Alex Innes told me. “You are not burdened by trying to select different modes for different conditions and trying to work out what those conditions could be.”
“You're on road; you're in one mode. You go off road; press a button, and the car does everything else for you.”
The engine is a cattle prod for this cow-skin-covered cruiser
This convenience permeates every one of the Cullinan's systems, and in particular, its stunning powertrain. A 6.7-liter (Rolls-Royce cheekily calls it a 6.75-liter, or a “six-and-three-quarter-liter” in conversation), twin-turbocharged V12 and a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic make for a serious piece of kit, with the former packing 563 horsepower and 627 pound-feet of torque and the latter sending it to all four wheels.
The engine is a cattle prod for this cow-skin-covered cruiser, and it gets it up and moving with a Queen Mary II-worth of torque. Meanwhile, the automatic transmission fades into the background like no other gearbox I've ever experienced. Aside from wide-open throttle launches at a standstill, the shifts are imperceptible.
Rolls-Royce doesn't release information on a metric as uncivilized as zero-to-60 mph performance, but I'd estimate the Cullinan did the deed in the low five-second range – this in spite of the limited oxygen that comes with driving a car at 7,000 feet above sea level. The top speed is electronically limited to 155 miles per hour.
But the power isn't what impressed me most – to use the old Rolls-Royce-ism, it's “adequate.” No, it's the lack of noise from under the long hood (or “bonnet” to the Brits) and from the four-corner air suspension that truly stuns. This might just be the quietest SUV on the planet.
At least a third of the Cullinan's nearly 6,000 pounds must come from sound-deadening material, because short of the British SUV taking a Buddhist vow of silence, there's simply no other explanation for the cabin being this whisper silent. This is a four-wheeled isolation chamber that does to noise what a bazooka would do to a squirrel: completely eradicates it. Only when you bury the gas pedal and wind out that big, luxurious V12, does engine noise creep into the cabin, and even then, it's the smoothest, most refined sound on a car today. And when I say the noise “creeps” into the cabin, it has all the volume of elevator muzak – a barely perceptible thing that fades perfectly into the background of everyday life.
That silence pairs with Rolls-Royce's legendary Magic Carpet Ride, a hilariously ostentatious title for the plushest, most luxurious, most refined driving character on the planet. On paved roads, the Cullinan simply glides over road irregularities. It doesn’t just absorb bumps, imperfections, and potholes; it completely ignores their existence. The Cullinan is utterly unflappable.
It's nearly as good off-road, too. No automaker can prevent the sound of stones clanking about in the wheel wells or the sudden impact of a large rock on 22-inch rolling stock (I experience impact noises aplenty on the dusty almost-roads that crisscross the Grand Tetons), but when sent flying down a dirt road, the Rolls-Royce makes a Range Rover feel like a Jeep Wrangler.
When sent flying down a dirt road, the Rolls-Royce makes a Range Rover feel like a Jeep Wrangler.
That said, even Rolls-Royce admits that the Cullinan is merely an all-terrain vehicle, rather than some mountain goat with fenders and an internal combustion. Its transfer case lacks a low-range gear and its differentials don’t lock. Furthermore, the tires are all-seasons aimed at quiet and comfort rather than rock-scrambling.
“We have made our specific decision to be an all-terrain vehicle, providing the drivetrain system to do this, but we do not want to be a heavy off roader,” Krismer said. “That won't fit our company's key characteristics, which are maximum comfort on-road and off-road and acoustical performance, and this is a basic decision we made up front.”
If you decide that driving a Rolls-Royce off-road isn't abuse enough, then you can also drive it like a boob on the road. Here the air suspension manages to offer a composed, predictable handling experience. The outright handling limit is surprisingly high for a vehicle of this size and weight – I tossed the Cullinan into multiple tight turns, allowing its four-wheel-steering system to essentially shorten the wheelbase and negotiate bends with ease. Rolls-Royce's four-wheel steering is so seamless, I nearly forgot about it until a member of the product planning team mentioned it. It's vastly better than the ham-fisted implementation in the new BMW X5 – Munich would do well to look to Goodwood for advice on this front.
The Rolls does roll quite a bit, but it's never sloppy or unpredictable. It's easy to dial in more steering angle or speed, until the car very gently nudges its pilot and, much like Desmond Llewelyn’s Q (of James Bond infamy) suggests I “grow up.” The way the Cullinan’s ultra-stiff body offers feedback is so gradual and progressive that the car never feels unstable – it is very communicative for its size.
The Rolls-Royce Cullinan is a sublime vehicle that does everything expected from a brand with a 114-year history of building the finest luxury sedans the world has ever known. But that pedigree comes with a hefty price tag of $325,000. And that's merely to start. Dip into the options catalog, or the Bespoke collection of paints, upholsteries, and trims, and the price can escalate quickly. A well-equipped Cullinan without those ultra-premium options would likely sit in the $375,000-to-$400,000 range. As sublime as it is, I can’t help but think that this is a ludicrous sum to pay for a family vehicle. But I can't sit here and pretend that I wouldn't already have an order in for a Cullinan if I had close to a half-million greenbacks burning a hole in my pocket. The Cullinan is too good, too quiet, too refined, and too stunning in every way to ignore.
That's true of every Rolls-Royce, really. But the Cullinan is the only car in the family that's all of those things while also being a load of fun to get dirty. Is that a silly reason to choose it over the rest of the range? Sure, but who said spending $325,000 on a car made sense?
Gallery: 2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan First Drive
2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan