BACK WHEN TIGERS were plentiful and Rolls-Royces were rare, the rajahs of India would commission special hunting cars, from which their owners could comfortably blast away at charismatic megafauna. The most famous such car is a 1925 Barker-bodied Phantom I, owned by Maharajah of Kotah, Umed Singh II. His Highness’s Roller was built on a raised chassis and was powered by an 8-liter inline-six and four-speed gearbox, with a low-speed ratio for off-roading. It towed an antiaircraft machine gun for extra big game. Nice.
And so in a way Rolls-Royce has returned to form with the 2019 Cullinan, the British firm’s new SUV for a new generation of dead-eyed aristocracy.
Built at the home sheds in West Sussex, the Cullinan—named for the largest rough-cut diamond ever found, or whatever—will be limited to about 2,000 units annually, of which the U.S. market will take about one-third. Officially, the Cullinan starts at $325,000, but buyers can spec one out unto the seven figures, depending on how many sharks you would like in the aquarium.
Our test vehicle was priced at $406,225 and it did not include two of the most gotta-have box-tickers: the motorized foldout tailgating seats; or the splendid picnic set with china and crystal. Rolls-Royce doesn’t put that gear in test cars because people keep nicking the silverware.
2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan
Base Price: $325,000
Price as Tested: $406,225
Powertrain: Twin-turbocharged direct-injection 6.75-liter DOHC V12; eight-speed automatic transmission; permanent all-wheel drive
Power/Torque: 563 hp at 5,000 rpm/627 lb-ft at 1,600 rpm
Length/Width/Height/Wheelbase: 210/85/72/130 inches
Curb Weight: 5,864 pounds
0-60 mph: 5 seconds
EPA Fuel Economy: 12/20/14 mpg, city/highway/combined
Cargo Capacity: 21 cubic feet
Some might be appalled that Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, owned by BMW Group, would build such a vehicle, but that’s only because they’ve seen it. As a car person, I have a lot of warm feelings toward the Cullinan. For one thing, it’s not a Bentley Bentayga. The Bentayga, the other ultraluxury British SUV, was designed over a shared VW Group architecture. This expedience cursed it with mass-market proportions and anonymous silhouette, within the same dimensional/visual template as the Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7. Meh is the technical term.
What was lost in the Bentayga’s conception was retained in the Cullinan: the special, the sense of occasion, the arrival of audacity. The Cullinan is, first, titanic: 210 inches long, 85 inches wide at 72 inches high in its standard ride height, poised over an immense wheelbase, 130 inches. Under that decadent hood is a bi-turbo 6.75-liter V12, thrumming as through a mahogany deck.
Again, as someone who appreciates classic Rolls-Royces, I salute the profiling of the Cullinan SUV’s rear tailgate, reminiscent of 1949 Hooper-bodied Silver Wraith’s boot. The grille form, formerly known as the temple grille, is set like a bauble in the prongs of the raised hoodline, peeling apart amid two vestigial wings. I see what you did there.
While the Cullinan discretely uses modified components with BMW offerings—the eight-speed transmission, the four-corner air suspension with active anti-roll bars, the infotainment software—it has its own, quite peculiar architecture. You are looking at a vehicle with an all-aluminum space-frame, hung with mostly aluminum body panels, and it still weighs nearly 6,000 pounds.
Why? Well, it does have a V12 engine (also aluminum). But a big part is due to the structural reinforcement and safety systems required by the rear coach doors. These doors are hinged at the rear, which means there is no conventional B-pillar between the doors for stiffness or side intrusion. This feature, unique to Rolls-Royce, dominated the design-engineering of the company’s new space-frame architecture, which will underpin all future models.
You may ask, “Why go to the trouble of engineering these elaborate coach doors?” Why does Rolls-Royce get up in the morning? The coach doors are the company’s sine qua non, its brand, its jam. I adore them myself and think they are way cool.
But on an SUV? The doors are insane and impractical, a stuffy British version of Tesla’s top-hinged falcon wing doors. For one thing, as I discovered when I took the Cullinan for some soft-roading in the mountains, the motorized, push-button coach doors won’t activate if the vehicle is tilted or leaning more than about 5 degrees. In that case, the occupants must reach out and close their own doors, like bloody peasants.
For another, packaging: There are some magnificent thrones aboard the Cullinan, wrapped in couture-quality leather upholstery. The rear cabin can be ordered in three-seat configuration, like our tester; or owners can opt for the private-jet vibe with two reclining seats and amenities installed in the center armrest: crystal decanter and glasses, refrigerator, tea set, gun safe. Rolls can hook you up.
“ ‘What’s lost in the Bentley is found in a Cullinan: the sense of occasion, the arrival of audacity.’ ”
However, between the epic styling, the coach doors, and the overstuffed furniture inside, there is almost no room for anything else. The Cullinan has an impoverished 21 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, barely enough for a weekend trip with a family of four. Except this family has two standard poodles who had to ride in the back with the kids. This required that I cover the entire interior of the test car with blankets, like the Mr. Wolf scene in “Pulp Fiction.”
Asking “How’s it drive?” is naive. First, the average owner isn’t driving. That person is an employee. It rides wonderfully, though, a big old cloud on auto-leveling air suspension. At low speeds and on fine-grain road imperfections, I could feel a touch of transient oscillation from those immense 22-inch wheels and all-season tires. The chassis engineers probably would have been happier with smaller wheels but they would have been dwarfed in the wheel wells. The wheels, not the engineers.
The Cullinan does have a low-speed off-road mode and three-stage air suspension affording a maximum 21 inches of, um, fording. I’m sure it works as advertised. But I was terrified to take it to the grocery store, never mind off-roading it. The tigers are safe from me.