No one struggled with the concept of a Rolls-Royce SUV more than Rolls-Royce.
In 2015, after 100 years of producing opulent sedans and coupes, the brand announced that an SUV would be joining the fleet. You know how it is, they murmured. Extensive customer requests. Luxury is evolving. You always wanted a brother.
It felt blasphemous. Coarse. Luxury SUVs were for people who made bank selling illegal substances, or people who replaced the Ss in their names with dollar bill signs or, at the very least, for convoys of villains approaching desert lairs in a certain brand of action movies. They were not for the whispered ancient luxury of Rolls-Royce.
Nevertheless, the prophecy has come to fruition in the form of the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, a 5864-pound all-wheel-drive leviathan powered by a turbo V12 and appareled in rich history.
Early in October, I traveled to Wyoming to watch Rolls-Royce roll the stone away from the cave and show us what emerged. For two days, a handful of other journalists and I would live the high life with Rolls in Jackson Hole, home to the highest per capita income in the country. Later, they promised to give us the opportunity to see if we believed the Cullinan was an accomplished off-road vehicle.
But first, they wanted to make sure we believed it was a Rolls-Royce.
At the Salt Lake City airport I was handed the keys to a car with an uncontested Rolls-Royce pedigree: a Black Badge Ghost.
On the curb, the Ghost looked imposing, pensive. As someone who ordinarily batters tuner cars around midnight streets, I didn’t think the sword would come free from the stone under my hand, but the V12 came to life when I pressed the ignition button. The sound was restrained. Capable. The interior was hushed behind several layers of sound-proofing. The dash felt permanent and ageless: dark wood, glinting toggles, black leather. Above me, tiny stars glowed; a whimsical and indulgent fiber-optic galaxy studded the headliner. Outside, mouths formed angelic Os, an admiring silent choir of onlookers. On the hood, the Spirit of Ecstasy—shrouded in darkness like the rest of the Black Badge touches—guided me out onto the wide, raw highways of Utah and Wyoming. The ride was as unrippled as a mirror lake. This was what it meant to drive a Rolls-Royce.
But even the Black Badge represented the beginning of an evolution. On the phone, Elizabeth Williams, product communications offer, explained that recently younger customers had been “murdering out” their Ghosts. Kids these days. Putting black rims and smoked taillights and black leather on everything. When Rolls-Royce noticed what was going on, they gently took the winged eyeliner away and said, darling, you can’t go out like that, allow me. The tasteful Black Badge was the result. Evolution.
One doesn’t have to speak to the small, proud Rolls-Royce team for long to understand that the relationship they have with their customers is not a typical car company-customer dynamic. They don’t make decisions to grow their sales numbers—the market for those who buy Rolls-Royce is those who already have a Rolls-Royce. , collects a new custom car every Pebble Beach. He’s up to seven, I think. The latest one is a white Phantom with an interior in an exclusive shade of fuchsia named "Fuxia."
Who needs that many Rolls-Royces? asked one of the other journalists.
It’s the wrong question. No one needs any number of Rolls-Royces. The team demands their vehicles perform as art, not automobile. You don’t need art; you want it.
It is impossible to understand the dynamic between Rolls-Royce and its buyers unless you understand it as an artist-patron model. Rolls is making beautiful things, and wealthy customers enable it to continue making beautiful things, at its pleasure.
But this patron-artist relationship meant that Rolls-Royce had to take the requests for an SUV seriously, no matter how deep a challenge it represented to construct an SUV within the constraints of Rolls-Royce tradition. How to incorporate a vehicle defined by work into a brand defined by art? Richard Carter, Director of Global Communications, laughed with light disbelief as he introduced us to the Cullinan. Would you believe, he wondered aloud, that we’d ever be using the words utilitarian and Rolls-Royce in the same sentence?
Alex Innes, designer, described the struggle of designing an SUV that looked like a Rolls. Rolls-Royces are known for their long hoods, deep front overhangs, and a 2:1 ratio of the height of the roofline to the height of the wheels. Passengers are ordinarily hidden from the unseemly world, reclining deep behind the C pillar. He said, “We all know the silhouette of the Rolls-Royce is sacred.”
It was our turn to see how well they did.
Outside, two Cullinans bided in the grimacing Wyoming cold, one in Tungsten gray and one in Ensign red. The first impression was a sense of gravitas—perhaps not so much in the flippant red, which felt too close to Roll$-Royce, but certainly in the deep Tungsten gray. The front fascia looks like a sage cousin to the Phantom, if not a full sibling. The side and rear views aren't quite as successful; handsome enough, but not dissimilar to the current Range Rover (pertinently, the SUV that the automaker noted was most likely to share garage space with a Rolls).
But the Cullinan is outfitted with unmistakably Rolls-Royce touches: deep front overhang, hand-polished grill, suicide doors that open at a touch. It towers on optional 22-inch wheels (an inch smaller is standard). Inside the Tungsten specimen, the leather was Rolls’ shocking arctic white, a striking and elegant contrast. It was beautiful; whatever had died for those seats hadn’t given up its skin in vain. Rolls offers two rear configurations. The Tungsten model sported the traditional Rolls set up, two individual seats with a luxurious center console. The flippant red Cullinan wore a more pedestrian bench seat for families who need a fifth seat for a complaining middle child.
As with the sedans, every detail that can be hand-stitched is hand-stitched; every piece that can be hand-polished is hand-polished. The steed even kneels for you to mount; once you climb in, the Cullinan's air suspension rises an inch and a half to its standard ride height.
And it’s all topped off by the Spirit of Ecstasy, gazing down from higher than ever before.
A Rolls must function as art.
The Cullinan does.
But the Cullinan also functions as an automobile, marvelously so.
Rolls-Royce is a century-old brand with a fresh start. “We’re a 100-year-old start up,” quipped Williams. In 1998, BMW bought the name. (Cars only; trains, planes and power supplies belong to Rolls-Royce PLC.) But Rolls-Royce is adamant that its cars are not BMWs. Each Rolls sits on the all-aluminum “Architecture of Luxury,” a platform exclusive to the brand.
That meant that the all-wheel drive system for the Cullinan had to be built from scratch. As a Rolls, it has to be good at what it does. Preferably the best. But also as a Rolls, it has to obey three mandates: to provide the legendary “magic carpet ride”—to float, even off-road. To be silent—even striving up an incline. And to be effortless—to do all of this with the single press of a button.
To accomplish this, Caroline Krismer led a team of 300 engineers for three years. Into a stiff frame the team put a new double wishbone front axle, five link rear ankle, air struts, three electronically controlled stabilizer bars and four-wheel steering. The Cullinan wears tires made of a newly-developed compound. All play together thousands of times a second to hopefully balance the required “magic carpet ride” with the agility and precision needed in off-road conditions.
In order to accomplish the required silence, Rolls used the thickest glass possible, stuffed foam inside the front tires, and added 220 pounds of sound-deadening material to the cabin.
And to make it effortless, the multiple on and off road modes are accessible with the touch of a single button.
The team’s rallying cry was: “Effortless everywhere.”
And it was.
Jackson Hole is home to the steepest ski slopes in the U.S., and after breakfast, we went out to climb them in the Cullinan. As promised, the Cullinan glided over loose stones, sparing us the boring details of off-roading.
“It’s like your eyes are telling you one thing and the ride is telling you another,” said the Rolls-Royce rep as we climbed. The Cullinan is equipped with more cameras than the FBI, which took all the guesswork out of perilously tight switchbacks. It can wade through 21 inches of water. A button on the steering column puts the car into LOW, which holds the gears longer and gives a more urgent ascending experience. Crawling back down an even steeper slope involved hitting the button for hill assist and removing one’s feet from the pedals. I’ve got this, the Cullinan murmured. Enjoy your mocktail.
It was all quite unexciting, which is the entire point. Anything I pointed the Cullinan at, it gently crawled over, all while displaying my speed and current musical selection on the heads-up display. On the road, it was equally quiet and gentle, if lacking some of the poised muscle of the Ghost. This is fine, I thought.
In the afternoon, they unleashed us upon deeply rutted mountain roads. I asked how hard I was allowed to push it. “Don’t cut a tire,” they advised. “These are road tires.”
I pushed it.
I took rally lines and threw it into corners and searched for grip as I teased ever faster. The Spirit of Ecstasy bobbed and flew as the four wheel steering worked hard. It was incredible to feel a nearly 6000-pound vehicle’s rear turn out beautifully and predictably when set correctly into a corner; equally astonishing to feel it drift predictably and controllably along the line you’d set for it. Body roll was negligible; that stiff frame paid off. I tried to make it stumble. The Cullinan refused to stumble.
We stopped at the top of the mountain. The Rolls-Royce rep hugged me. He said, “That was spectacular driving!”
But, really, it was a spectacular vehicle.
A work of art.
On the last day, one of the Rolls-Royce team tried to explain luxury to me. “True luxury is experiential and exclusive, fake luxury is just...”—he struggled to put it into words—“things.” I thought about this as I drove the Ghost back to Salt Lake City. I made a long detour to a ghost town in Bannack, Montana, taking the time to enjoy four extra hours in the car.
As the big western sky stretched over me outside and the twinkling Rolls galaxy stretched over me inside, I felt perfectly still. When I glided into the ghost town, the sense of history outside the Ghost matched the sense of history inside. The ghost town’s grand old hotel was long since empty, but the bones were just as good today as they were 100 years before.
Sitting in a Rolls has the same feeling as walking through a ghost town; even when you’re alone, you have a sense that you are where hundreds have been long before you. Like history, you can’t truly manufacture luxury.
The Cullinan has already begun to earn its place in both.