Rolls-Royce Cullinan 2019 overseas preview drive
The test drive for one of the world's most luxurious and expensive SUVs took place in one of the most abnormal locations conceivable, but then again, there's not much normal about Rolls-Royce's opulent new Cullinan.
The location was described to us as the “steepest ski run in North America”.
Called the Snow King, just outside Jackson, Wyoming, it has a vertical rise of nearly half a kilometre, summiting at 2380 metres. Although the Snow King lacked any cold white stuff this autumn day, it had plenty of loose soil, large rocks, culverts, corrugations and hairpin turns.
The hairpin turns were there because we were in fact using the zigzagging access roads rather the almost sheer slope itself. It was still exceedingly steep and very slippery in parts with little margin for error. The town of Jackson was visible, a long, long way down.
The Snow King is a ridiculous place to drive a $675,000 luxury machine with multi-layer mica paint and hand-polished stainless steel body highlights. But the slogan is “Effortless Everywhere”, which meant engineers had to give the car far more capability than almost any owner is likely to exploit. The bottom line is that a four-wheel drive with a Rolls-Royce badge can’t be seen to fail, even in the slippery car park next to the polo field. Particularly in the slippery car park next to the polo field, even more so when hooked up to a horse float.
On that front, it is the first Rolls-Royce with a factory towing pack. This will be upgraded for Australia to give a tow capacity of 3500 kg. There are optional factory roof racks coming too, another Rolls first, but the designers said they drew the line at bull-bar.
And how did it go? Pretty effortlessly up that hill and several others, thanks to a V12 engine putting out maximum torque of 850 Nm at just 1600 rpm, and a clever all-wheel drive system that, among other things, uses the air springs to actively push the wheels into depressions in the road if it senses they aren’t finding enough grip. The car drove down Snow King with as little fuss as it went up, using the hill descent system to cap the speed and maximise the grip.
There is no abundance of controls: no paddles to change gear, no Sports mode. The philosophy is that if you’ve paid this much, you expect the car to do certain things for you, such as adapting to your driving style and the external conditions. In that vein, there is a single button that says “Off Road”. It raises the car 40 mm, changes the throttle mapping and gearbox calibration, stiffens the adaptive dampers and alters the behaviour of the stability system and standard-fit rear-wheel steering system. If you are not happy with the default, though, you can make further refinements on the screen (which happens to be the first touchscreen on a Rolls).
What's the interior like?
Not everyone is going to like the way the newcomer looks. Rolls-Royce claims the Cullinan isn’t a conventional “two box” SUV but a “three box” design. This is predicated on the small notched “bustle back” behind the rear windscreen, supposedly a homage to the external luggage sets carried by Rolls-Royces in the 1920s. You’re excused if you don’t make the connection. The outward shape is still SUV-like, albeit on a different scale to any European SUV we’ve seen before. Even the new BMW X7, the largest BMW SUV ever, is considerably smaller. Similarly, every Cullinan dimension, including the 3295 mm, wheelbase exceeds those of the Bentley Bentayga.
As with all Rolls-Royce four-doors of the BMW era, the Cullinan has suicide doors at the rear. In this case, their outer skin wraps under the bodywork, so that when opened they keep exterior dirt away from the occupants when alighting or, er, delighting. It was mostly a success, though the dust in these parts is much like that found in inland Australia – so fine that not all of it will ever stay on the outside.
The interior is cavernous, with a huge glasshouse and high seating to provide panoramic views. With the full-length glass sunroof you can also view the mountain peaks all around. The standard car is a five-seater. The Individual set-up (an extra $40,000) gives two individual rear seats, separated by a console with fridge, whisky decanter and glasses, and a pair of champagne flutes. When this option is ticked, there is a glass partition between the passengers and the luggage, to further reduce those already stunningly low NVH levels.
With the five-seater, the rear seats can be folded electrically in various combinations via buttons in the boot or the rear door pockets. The maximum cargo area is 1930 litres, nearly four times that of Phantom. The loading length is 2245 mm.
An option we managed to try out is the Viewing Suite. At a price yet to be announced, this consists of a pair of leather trimmed seats with matching cocktail table that deploy at the push of a button out the back of the two-part tailgate. It is described by Rolls-Royce as ideal for spectating at, for example, your children’s sporting events.
It would be too, as long as you didn’t make eye contact with the other parents, in the fold-out canvas chairs they’ve pulled out of their Commodore station wagon.
What's it like to drive?
Even on the roughest roads, the steering gives no kickback. Normally that suggests it will feel dead on normal roads, but that didn’t prove to be the case. Sure, it’s light, but it is also precise and gives quite good feedback. On long flowing bitumen corners, the Cullinan was much more fun to drive than anticipated, with superb body control, particularly considering the 2.66 tonnes and high centre of gravity.
It is also eerily quiet. At 100 km/h the loudest sound was the ventilation fan – and that wasn’t loud. Conversation from front to back never needed even slightly raised voices. This is because there is 100 kg of sound deadening material in the body, the thickest laminated glass in the motor industry and foam-filled tyres, as introduced with last year’s Phantom. You and the outside world need not mix.
The four-wheel steering system that made the off-road hairpins manageable (except in one case, which required a three-point turn) can also keep things tidy during fast changes of direction. That turning circle is 13.23 metres, which isn’t too bad when a Camry takes 12.2.
There is no “off-road” strengthening offered, with engineers insisting the stainless skid plates underneath provide sufficient protection. There are also beefed up drive shafts, steering arms and the like.
The Phantom’s 6.75-litre twin-turbo V12 is said to be substantially reworked for Cullinan, though the results are not much different. You might expect less power and more torque for an off-roader but the specs list the same power (420 kW) and slightly less torque (850 Nm vs 900). One engineer as much as admitted the marketing people weren’t going to allow the flagship Phantom limousine – starting at $855,000 – to be outdone by this new model.
2018 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Price and Specifications
Price $675,000 plus on-road costs and options
Engine 6.75-litre V12 twin-turbo petrol
Power 420 kW at 5000 rpm
Torque 850 Nm at 1600 rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, AWD
Fuel use: 15L/100km
One of the country's most-read motoring journalists, with a library of books bearing his name, Tony is a regular road test and feature contributor to Drive.