First Drive: The Cullinan Wants to be the Rolls-Royce of the SUV World

November 09, 2018 by Jaclyn Trop, @jaclyntrop

The world’s most expensive SUV is big, hulking and finally here.

Starting at $325,000, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan – the British marque’s long-awaited utility vehicle – will join a growing cadre of fancy, six-figure SUVs when it reaches dealer showrooms in January.

From the Bentley Bentayga to the Lamborghini Urus, these implausible models are capitalizing on an appetite for high-end SUVs cast in the image of an ultraluxury sports car.

But don’t ask Torsten Müller-Ötvös, chief executive of Rolls-Royce, how many Cullinans he hopes to sell.

“Have you ever heard Hermes talking about how many Kelly bags they are selling next year?” Müller-Ötvös said at the vehicle’s global launch in Jackson Hole, Wyo., last month. “No luxury brand talks about volume,” he said. “Volume is a contradiction of luxury.”

Instead, Müller-Ötvös wants to discuss driving dynamics.

“The level this car drives is nearly impossible to describe,” he told “You need to sit behind the wheel to feel its magic carpet ride off-road. It is an engineering masterpiece.”

2019 Cullinan cockpit. (Photo: Jaclyn Trop/

A mid-October day driving through Grand Teton National Park supported Müller-Ötvös’ claim. Drawing from its 6.75-liter, twin-turbocharged V12 engine, all-wheel drive system and all-wheel steering, the 563-horsepower Cullinan breezily tackled mountains, rocks and snow with aplomb.

By the end of the day, the entire fleet was speckled with mud, but Müller-Ötvös said it looked better that way. “It doesn’t matter if SUVs are dirty,” he said. “That’s a completely different proposition from limousines, coupes or convertibles.”

Rolls-Royce says it’s a necessary move to keep customers from wandering over to Bentley or Lamborghini for their utility vehicle needs. Although exotic SUVs make up less than 1 percent of total new light-vehicle registrations in the U.S. – .006 percent of the market for the first eight months of the year, according to IHS Markit – volume is expected to double by 2025.

Just as the Maserati Levante, Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus have catapulted to the tops of their lineups, the Cullinan is poised to lead Rolls-Royce’s portfolio and boost the brand’s global annual sales far beyond its current 4,000 units.

“The Cullinan is hugely important to Rolls-Royce,” said David Bailey, an automotive industry expert at Aston University. “While a Rolls SUV may seem odd, it’s in a sense true to Rolls’ roots.”

“The [brand] historically has much experience with its ‘high-sided’ cars performing in rugged terrains,” Bailey said. “The car will appeal to the wealthy all over the world but especially in emerging countries where infrastructure may be less developed and the car’s off-road capabilities are valued.”

For the project, engineers reimagined Rolls-Royce’s “Magic Carpet Ride” technology to deliver all-terrain torque off-road. The Cullinan’s air-suspension system makes millions of calculations every second to adjust the shock absorbers based upon body and wheel acceleration, steering inputs and data gleaned from the SUV’s cameras. The result is light-as-a-feather steering combined with an overall sense of stability.

Of course, marvels of modern engineering like the Cullinan come at a price. Early orders are expected to top $400,000, but “you can do a nice one for $360,000 or $370,000,” said Gerry Spahn, a spokesman for the brand.

“No one buys a Rolls-Royce off the floor, and none are at MSRP,” Spahn said, adding that, on average, the marque’s models comprise 20 percent bespoke content.

Setting out nearly five years ago with a blank slate and a mandate to create a “high-sided vehicle,” designers combed Rolls-Royce’s early models for inspiration. Parallels among the high running boards of the World War I-era Silver Ghost and the designer trunks early 20th century sojourners strapped to the rear of their Phantoms helped establish the vehicle’s shape.
“Silhouette is sacred,” said Felix Kilbertus, head of exterior design for Rolls-Royce. From there, they conceived an elegant roofline, short overhangs foreshadowing off-road capabilities and an angular rear screen.

2019 Cullinan. (Photo: Jaclyn Trop/

The result is a stately presence with exaggerated vertical proportions and sharp angles. The body’s only set of diagonal lines connect the grill to the front air intakes. “All the other lines are very disciplined,” Kilbertus said.

Rolls-Royce also tapped history books to find inspiration for its moniker. Executives, whittling a list of thousands of names, departed from the brand’s tradition of unearthly names like Ghost and Wraith and looked below ground, to the largest diamond ever mined.

The 3,106-carat Cullinan diamond was found in South Africa in 1905 and sent as a 66th birthday present to King Edward VII. Legend holds that the man tasked with cleaving the diamond fainted, overcome with the anxiety of damaging the specimen. Two stones – roughly 530 carats and 317 carats – now reside in Queen Elizabeth’s crown jewels.

The precision of the cabin is “unforgiving,” Kilbertus said.

The grain of the wooden veneers, for example, runs perfectly symmetrical, straight from the legendary wood shop at Rolls-Royce’s headquarters in Goodwood, England. “Everything you touch is a real material,” he said. “If it looks like leather, it is leather. If it looks like wood, it is wood.”

But it doesn’t cling to tradition. Instead of a starlight headliner, an option that can cost tens of thousands of dollars in a Phantom, the Cullinan gets a sunroof.

Just as he is loath to discuss sales volume, Müller-Ötvös prefers to avoid discussion of competitors. But he said that the Cullinan’s closest match in size and performance is the industry-leading Range Rover.

“For us, it’s not so much that our competition is other cars,” he said. “We see very often when customers are in love with two cars at the same time, they buy both.”

Bentley, the brand’s nearest rival, is not a serious foe. The Cullinan’s starting price tag is nearly twice that of the $169,000 entry-level Bentley Bentayga, Müller-Ötvös said.

“That already indicates this is a different world,” he said.

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