The Cullinan is a real Rolls-Royce, but not the best one

Rolls-Royce Cullinan

Can you believe that there was a time in recent history where Rolls-Royce knowingly downsized its cars? It’s true. The firm’s former styling director, Graham Hull, details a few such incidents in his fascinating book, Inside The Rolls-Royce & Bentley Styling Department.

The Silver Seraph, which was developed during the firm’s Vickers era, was originally intended to be slightly longer than the long-wheelbase 1996 Silver Spur, but after considerable internal discussion it was decided that the public would not accept a Rolls-Royce that stretched a full 214 inches, so the Seraph was released at 212, a few inches short of a New York taxi. When owners complained, a complicated ballet of mechanical realignments was performed to restore the missing rear-seat room, but it was not until years later that an “Executive” Seraph would receive a proper extension.

Rolls-Royce’s Cullinan SUV is no longer than a Seraph, but it loads the scales with almost eight hundred pounds more weight and when viewed in the metal appears to be of a completely different size class entirely. As tall as a Chevrolet Suburban, considerably heavier, and nearly five inches wider, the Cullinan—like its showroom sibling, the Phantom—laughs in the face of Graham Hull’s amusingly outdated ideas about not offending or oppressing the proles who might find it looming in their rearview mirror. In 2019, the rich no longer worry about such things. 

In fairness, however, the rest of Western (and, of course, Middle Eastern) traffic has been suffering from a long bout of hypothyroid disorder, so this super-sizing of Rolls-Royces perhaps merely keeps pace. The Cullinan relates to a Honda CR-V the same way a Silver Shadow related to an Austin 1300 or Ford Pinto, and it offers its owners the same approximate sense of standing out from the crowd. Which is good, because the pricetag certainly stands out: $325K to start.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan
Rolls-Royce

Make that $335K to start, because only a deaf person or someone allergic to excellence would skip the $9950 Bespoke stereo option. Although Rolls-Royce has offered a few different upmarket audio options in the BMW-ownership era, none of them could hang with the very best of Harman’s offerings for the United States market (think Revel Ultima in the Lincoln Continental) or even the Bose Panaray system in Cadillac’s CT6. The Bespoke system effortlessly exceeds these benchmarks. Prior to driving the Cullinan, I’d been listening to a $40,000 Bricasti amp/preamp setup through Magnepan speakers; the Cullinan punches very close to that weight, offering superb isolation, staging, and presence while never fatiguing under the most dynamic of orchestral (or hip-hop) music available. At 10 grand, it’s a bargain. It would be worth buying, for the same price, in a Chevrolet Spark. 

The rest of the Cullinan is a mixed bag. It doesn’t ride as well as its stablemates, no doubt due to the weight of the thing and the sheer size of the running gear involved. The rapper Ludacris once said, “I can’t lose with 22s,” but some ride quality is certainly lost when you choose a 22-inch wheel with 40-series tires. This is the same approximate fitment used for a Chevrolet Silverado LTZ. At least the Cullinan has none of the “head toss” found in live-axle trucks and SUVs, courtesy of a sophisticated suspension that does everything possible to dampen the tremendous inertia of both body and wheels.

The immovable object of the Cullinan’s weight is handled pretty well by the irresistible force of a 563-horsepower twin-turbo BMW V-12. While kickdown into a passing gear takes a discernible second or so, after that it’s the proverbial jump to hyperspace. There’s a reason you can see so much brake hardware behind the spokes of those 22-inch wheels; this truck stops about as well as it goes. What it doesn’t have is the Phantom’s surreal affinity for high-speed corners, in large part because even the modest amount of body roll permitted by the suspension feels like quite a bit when you’re sitting this high.

There are certain things expected of a Rolls-Royce nowadays, and the Cullinan generally provides them: coach (“suicide”) doors for easy entry and exit, umbrellas in the doors, first-rate fitting of diverse and expensive materials within the cabin, chromed-metal controls with discernible clicks and stops, a “power reserve” meter in place of a tach, and a deliberate analog simplification of audio and climate controls, which in the corresponding BMW-branded sedans are purposely high-tech and digital. The entire cockpit appears to be designed so Prince Philip would understand how to operate it, which is both a blessing for the oil-rich potentates who buy it overseas and a bit of irony for the tech-and-banking Illuminati who do so here.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan
Rolls-Royce

If you’re going to use the cargo area, you’ll find that it has a clamshell split in the style of the old Range Rovers, with the lower tailgate half extending for impromptu picnicking. There is about a Tahoe’s worth of space behind the second row of seats, which have glossy wooden dining tables but which do not have as much legroom for the privileged passengers as, say, a downmarket Ford Flex. About the front seats, however, nothing bad can be said. They are infinitely adjustable, hugely supportive, and trimmed just as well as their counterparts in an old Silver Shadow or Silver Spirit, despite the fact that they don’t contain nearly as much hand work. 

Viewed in isolation, the Cullinan is an absolutely proper Rolls-Royce, from the tremendous presence of its Flying-Lady-equipped bonnet when viewed from both street and the driver’s seat to the perfectly silent manner in which it goes about its business. If the dashboard clock had a mechanical tick, you’d be able to hear it. The problem is that the firm also had a Wraith coupe on hand for evaluation. The Wraith, which sits on old 7-series mechanicals and which shares much of its hardware with the “right-sized” Ghost sedan, is a perceptible generation behind the Cullinan in design and execution, but it glides where the truck clomps along, and it offers subtlety where the Cullinan can only loom. It is also a true joy to drive, whereas the Cullinan never quite stops feeling like a vehicle which should be chauffeur-operated. 

From a business perspective, Rolls-Royce absolutely needs a truck. Many of its owners will be delighted to own it, and they should be; it’s as far above a Range Rover or Bentayga as a Silver Shadow was above a Jeep Wagoneer. But in the company of the Wraith, it feels like a bit of a cynical and commercial effort. Perhaps it’s merely the fact that the coupe is about the same size as a short-wheelbase Silver Spirit. Is that as big as a Rolls-Royce should be? Was Graham Hull right all along?