Written by Bridget Williams
Invincible. It is the word that sprung to mind when Alex Innes, bespoke designer for Rolls-Royce, asked me to sum up in a singular term, my initial impression after a day behind the wheel of Cullinan, the super-luxury SUV that made its global media debut in Jackson Hole, Wyoming a few weeks ago. From our base camp at the Amangiri resort, we spent two days immersed in all things Cullinan.
During a welcome reception, Richard Carter, Director of Global Communications for Rolls-Royce, explained that Cullinan was borne from both client demand as well as the potential to increase market share with a foray into the SUV segment. As part of a careful quest to discern whether or not an SUV was right and proper for the Rolls-Royce brand, an examination of the company’s archives illuminated the fact that owners had been taking their cars off-road for more than 100 years; from alpine trials staged at the dawn of the 20th century, to armored Rolls-Royces that were developed for use on the battlefield beginning in 1914 and continuing up to the 1950s.
With its hulking front end and a massive elevated grill of hand-polished stainless steel, this is a vehicle that demands attention. “The silhouette of a Rolls-Royce is sacred,” stated Innes during a presentation on the design process. “We had to understand how to transfer this familiar form to an SUV while conveying a sense of capability and maintaining the feeling of elegance.”
Key to the creation of Cullinan is the “Architecture of Luxury”, Rolls-Royce’s proprietary all-aluminum architecture. Engineering Project Leader Caroline Krismer explained that Cullinan was engineered from the ground up in such a way as to be scalable to the size and weight requirements of different future Rolls-Royce models. As the first “three-box” car in the SUV-sector, Cullinan’s rear partition wall creates a distinct environment for passengers, separated from the luggage compartment, ensuring that utility will never supplant luxury.
Cullinan is the first Rolls-Royce with four-wheel drive, and maintaining the brand’s signature driving experience across a multitude of challenging road conditions was of paramount importance to the engineering team. “The drivetrain system we engineered for Cullinan had one key job to do,” explained Krismer. “To bring the famed Rolls-Royce ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ to all other terrains possible, while ensuring class-leading on-road behavior in the SUV sector.” This was accomplished via a thorough re-engineering of the existing air suspension system, and a complete reworking of the 6.75-liter twin-turbo V12 engine to deliver just the right level of torque (850Nm) at the lowest possible revolutions (1,600rpm). When driving off-road, the electronically controlled shock absorber adjustment system uses air compression to actively push down any wheel it detects losing traction, thereby ensuring that every wheel is constantly in contact with the ground and maximum torque is being provided to all wheels. “Put simply, what makes the car great on-road makes the car great off-road,” said Krismer.
When it came time for a name, the company eschewed what Carter called the tradition of selecting “ethereal and slightly spooky” monikers that have included Dawn, Wraith, Phantom and Ghost, in favor of something completely different. “Cullinan” is derived from the appellation given to the largest diamond ever mined. The 3,107-carat stone was unearthed in South Africa in 1905 and eventually sent in a biscuit tin via Royal Mail to King Edward VII for his 66th birthday. When the rough diamond was finally cleaved, the two largest pieces made their way into some of the most significant pieces that comprise the British Crown Jewels: the Sovereign’s Scepter and the Imperial State Crown.
In all, there were more than a dozen Cullinans cavorting over the river and through the woods in Jackson—not to mention the fleet of other members from the house of Rolls-Royce that were on hand for use as shuttles and support vehicles—and it was a site to behold, even in a county that boasts the highest income per capita of any the United States. “For Rolls-Royce, this is a seminal and phenomenal moment,” said Carter. “Cullinan is so completely different to anything we’ve done before, which called for a launch location that is completely different, but links with the car and tells the story of where we are as a brand.”
The Cullinan entrusted to me for the 147-mile test drive boasted a Smokey Quartz exterior. The cabin was a thing of absolute beauty and craftsmanship. Befitting a couture handbag, the two-tone leather (Armagnac and Dark Spice) with contrast stitching was exquisite, as was the Mimosa Negra wood veneer used extensively throughout, including the central console and second row tables that fold out to reveal a touch-screen entertainment system. Underfoot were plush lambs wool floor mats.
I was understandably anxious about taking a three-ton, $325k SUV up narrow and twisty gravel mountain roads, complete with deep ruts and hairpin turns. Further, Cullinan is so aesthetically pleasing inside and out that I (almost) felt bad about getting it dirty. “That’s what it’s designed for,” Carter assured me, before citing the “It is Effortless, Everywhere” apothegm.
Reaching out to the stainless-steel door handle, the SUV lowered slightly for ease of entry. Both front and rear passengers can close the iconic Rolls-Royce coach doors at the push of a button; once they shut, there is an immediate sense of being securely ensconced in the luxury confines, thanks to more than 220 pounds of sound-deadening insulation. All four doors wrap low under the sill to ensure that dirt remains outside. Once the start button is depressed, Cullinan returns to its commanding ride height.
Our first challenge of the day was ascending Snow King Mountain, the steepest overall slope of any ski hill in North America. A simple push of a button on the center console activated Off Road mode. From there I used the Spirit of Ecstasy controller to select the road condition I was expecting, and away we went. What I was immediately struck by was the shock absorption. In a lesser car, I almost assuredly would have needed to visit a chiropractor following the incessant jostling. Confident in the Cullinan’s agile handling, my senses switched to focus on the sound, or rather lack thereof. You could discern the muffled pop and crunch of pebbles and larger stones as the SUV’s 22-inch wheels powered along, but there was no audible indication that the engine was being taxed in the least by the steep climb.
Steering was a breeze, and having to wrangle the steering wheel to stay on course was never an issue. I was amazed by the way the substantial SUV seemed to bow around tight corners. In fact, I was so relaxed in the off-road environs that I found myself stealing glances of the Tetons splayed out before us. Having to undertake a three-point turn on one particularly sharp curve with a sheer drop, I was immensely grateful for the 4-Camera system with Panoramic View, all-round visibility and helicopter view, as well as the impressive torque that delivered me authoritatively from the edge.
At the top of the mountain, our entourage took a break to admire the snow-capped peaks, compare notes with our fellow drivers, and check out some of the other features of Cullinan. The SUV’s two-part ‘D-Back’ format tailgate is designed as a nod to an era when luggage was mounted on the exterior of the motorcar. ‘The Clasp’ opens and closes in two sections with a touch of the key fob button. Another push of a button in the boot or rear door pocket enables the rear seats to fold flat and create an impressive amount of cargo space.
After exhausting every photo opportunity presented by the picturesque precipice, our group loaded back up for the descent. I couldn’t help but remember the last time I was in a similar situation here more than three decades ago. Back then, my father manually downshifted our VW camper van into a lower gear and then waged a battle with speed and gravity as my sister and I whimpered and hid our heads under pillows, quite certain that a plunge off the side of the mountain was imminent.
In stark contrast to my past experience, Cullinan takes the uphill battle out of going downhill. Depressing the hill descend button on the center console automatically adjusts speed and breaking; using up and down buttons on the steering wheel allows you to adjust speed in 1 mph increments. At no point did I detect even a hint of slippage on the exceptionally steep gravel road.
While we didn’t forge any streams, I was told that Cullinan delivers the deepest wading depth of any super-luxury SUV. While driving was certainly exhilarating, it was equally satisfying being a passenger. Skirting the boundary of Grand Teton National Park was ideal for the large side windows and panoramic glass roof. During a pit stop to ogle a moose and her calves as they munched on vegetation in the Snake River, the presence of Cullinan was enough to divert attention away from the natural wonders to a manmade one.
Cullinan offers two rear seat configurations: Lounge Seats or Individual Seats. The Lounge Seat configuration in “my” Cullinan is presented as the more functional of the two options, providing space for three passengers in the rear. Other journalists experienced the opulence of the Individual Seat configuration; the striking Optic White leather in this variant obviously geared towards customers prioritizing luxury over practicality. The two individual rear seats are separated by a fixed rear center console that incorporates a drinks cabinet with Rolls-Royce whisky glasses and decanter, champagne flutes and refrigerator (the velvety ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ nearly ensuring that nary a bead of bubbly will bubble over on bumpy roads).
Speaking at a post-drive champagne reception with RollsRoyce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös, his eyes seemed to sparkle as he recounted glancing up and seeing the Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament silhouetted against the equally majestic Tetons. “It is my first time in Jackson and I can’t imagine a better place to introduce Cullinan to the world,” he commented. He went on to state that orders from existing Rolls-Royce customers began to come in as soon as the SUV was announced, but before design sketches were even made public. “Our clients are very loyal and trust us completely.” He added that the goal of Cullinan is to broaden the customer base of the 114-year-old marque by evolving to meet the demands of adventurous, well-traveled and well-heeled patrons of true luxury.
While Rolls-Royce didn’t invent the SUV, with Cullinan they have certainly redefined and refined the sector. “We didn’t come to the party first,” said Carter. “We came when the time was right.”
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