We are living in a new gilded age of the automobile, a time when rolling palaces share the road with plebian hatchbacks.
Driving vertically up the foothills of the Grand Teton mountain range, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan’s power reserve gauge indicates it is using just 40 per cent of the available 563 horsepower. The world’s most expensive SUV – which is also the first Rolls-Royce SUV – isn’t breaking a sweat as it ascends to the summit, and neither are its pampered passengers.
Inside, it’s as if somebody put the world on mute. The side windows are six millimetres thick; the front tires are filled with sound-dampening foam. The only noise that gets through is a feint low-frequency grinding as the massive 22-inch wheels churn over gravel. The 12-cylinder engine under that long front hood – which is itself about the size of a Smart car – doesn’t make a peep. We might as well be in a living room watching the world go by on a 4K television screen.
It’s surreal and alienating – and a super comfortable way to climb a mountain.
Teton County, Wyo., is home to the largest income inequality gap in the United States, according to a 2018 study – although even the bottom 99 per cent of residents are well off with an average income of US$122,447. Dick Cheney has a place here. Kanye West recorded his latest album nearby. The art gallery in the tiny town of Jackson is selling art by Damien Hirst and Monet. The town itself only has a few main intersections and looks like a cross between the set of a spaghetti western and the Beverly Center mall. In short, it is the perfect context in which to drive the Cullinan.
Company chief executive Torsten Muller-Otvos reckons the Cullinan is the fastest-selling model in Rolls-Royce’s 114-year history. Grand Touring Automobiles, the Toronto dealer, already has 20 confirmed orders, even before anyone has driven it.
The Cullinan weighs 2.75 tonnes, is powered by a 6.75-litre twin-turbo V-12 engine, costs $370,500 to start – although some customers will spend that much again in bespoke options – and features the largest-ever version of Rolls-Royce’s pantheon grille.
In other words, the Cullinan is the ultimate example of our insatiable hunger for ever larger, heavier and more powerful vehicles. This is as true at the bottom of the price range as it is at the top.
Ten years ago, making an SUV would have been a jump-the-shark moment for Rolls-Royce.
In 2003, when the British brand was reborn under BMW ownership, an SUV, “wasn’t on the radar at all,” explained Jonathan Shears, product manager for the Cullinan. Since then, the brand’s average customer age has been coming down – from 55 in 2003, to now in the mid-30s. And it’s not just because of new wealth in China. Luxury car customers are getting younger all over the world.
Blame the Kardashians, the Jenners, or the Rich Kids of Instagram, but flashing wealth seems to be cool again.
With this younger demographic, comes new requirements. For the first time, a Rolls-Royce is a family car. The Cullinan’s child seat latches, usually hidden under plastic flaps, are tucked behind zippered leather covers.
This is the first Rolls-Royce with all-wheel drive, which makes it the first Rolls that Canadian customers can use year-round.
Riding high on air suspension, the Cullinan floats along rocky roads and potholed gravel tracks with amazing speed. It’s so smooth you can go faster off-road than you would in almost anything else.
Four-wheel steering makes negotiating tight hairpins a non-issue, while the steering wheel itself is so light that you tend to drive with your fingertips.
Physics dictates this gargantuan thing should wallow and roll into corners, but it doesn’t. It feels taut and precise thanks to an active dual anti-roll bars on the front axle and a super-stiff body structure.
From the driver’s seat, the contours of the dashboard match up with those on the hood. The lines converge on the polished Spirit of Ecstasy mascot that points the way forward. It is strange to see her gliding through a forest.
The lambswool carpets are thick like a duvet. The leather is all from Swiss cows – bulls, to avoid stretch marks – raised in fields without barbed wire that would nick the leather.
Four- or five-seat configurations are available. There are no plans for a three-row option, although you can get motorized tailgate seats – complete with drinks table – that slide out of the trunk at the press of a button. They’re sturdy and just the thing for taking in the Kentucky Derby.
Here are some notable things the Cullinan doesn’t have – neither electric or even hybrid propulsion, nor autopilot-style driver assistance technology.
“As long as it isn’t truly effortless, as long as it isn’t truly driving itself, it doesn’t make sense for us,” Muller-Otvos says of autopilot-style driver assists. Besides, many Rolls-Royce owners have chauffeurs.
“Just five years ago, the luxury industry was split 45-55 per cent car versus SUV body-style, and that has accelerated to 29-71, which outpaces mainstream brands by a little bit,” said Robert Karwel, senior manager at J.D. Power.
“[Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini and Bentley] could place other luxury brands with longstanding luxury SUV offerings – like Land Rover, Porsche, Mercedes, Cadillac and others – in a bit of a lurch as some customers shop upward,” Karwel added.
As a piece of design and as an object of desire, the Rolls-Royce is more successful than its rivals, as it should be. It’s considerably more expensive than the Lamborghini Urus and Bentley Bentayga, which share their architecture with Porsche and Audi SUVs. The family resemblance is noticeable. With the Cullinan, the designers and engineers had the freedom to create a truly gigantic, imposing, luxurious machine – the Rolls-Royce of sporty utility vehicles.
We’ll either look back on the Cullinan as peak-SUV, the natural conclusion to the trend, or merely as the beginning of its next chapter. The smart money is betting on the latter.
Tech Specs: Rolls-Royce Cullinan
Base price: $370,500
Engine: 6.75-litre twin-turbo V-12
Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic/all-wheel
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.9 highway, 21.9 city (est.)
Alternatives: Bentley Bentayga, Lamborghini Urus, Tesla Model X, Mercedes-AMG G65
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.