Can Rolls-Royce’s bold new SUV conquer the peaks of luxury?
Just as the vast majority of supercar owners never venture anywhere near a race track, most luxury SUV owners wouldn’t dream of going dune bashing or bog snorkeling in their lavishly upholstered vehicles. Such machines, whether insanely fast or impressively hardy, are all about their embedded potential, all wrapped up in the warm embrace of brand recognition.
Rolls-Royce now has its very own SUV, a shot across the bows of arch rivals as well as a long-awaited treat for eager customers who didn’t want to abandon their loyalty. The Cullinan is an automotive dreadnought, a high-sided vehicle that blends the bluff cliff of Rolls-Royce’s ‘Parthenon’ grille with a hefty glasshouse, finishing off with a bustle-backed rear. Lengthy design development was required to translate the RR stance into SUV form and result pleases the people who matter most – the customers – who responded with a healthy number of pre-orders. For the rest of us, the Cullinan’s unapologetic attitude to its scale and status will either delight or infuriate; it is impossible not to have an opinion.
Press trips are all about exploring these possibilities, and Rolls-Royce’s decision to venture west to Jackson Hole ticked many boxes. This spectacular landscape is one of the wealthiest counties in the whole US, a place hewn from real Western mythology and evolved via the ersatz image of the Hollywood cowboy and the lure of luxury living, all served up with a folksy twist of the pioneer spirit. Think hunting bows and Stetsons spliced with Sotheby’s International Realty. With hunting and hiking in the summer, skiing in the winter and favourable taxes all year round, this part of Wyoming is SUV heartland, its low-lying peaks scattered with upscale redwood clad retreats, resorts just a short drive away. Jackson Hole itself has a high celebrity quotient, yet cowboy bars jostle with one another on Broadway Avenue even while the town’s compact airport suffers seasonal jams of private jets.
It was the perfect spot to test the Cullinan’s mettle. We set off through the sun-dappled Teton mountains with the Wyoming autumn canvas in full effect. Every available contour was strewn with yellows, oranges and the occasional fiery red. Our route, starting from the impressive Amangani Hotel just north of the town centre, took in the steep slopes of the Snow King Mountain, the grid laid out below us, the mountains beyond, as well as gravel tracks deep in Wyoming’s striking interior.
Rolls-Royce talks a lot about two core technologies, its famous ‘magic carpet ride’ and the integral ‘architecture of luxury’. The former has been put to an extreme test by the Cullinan. Gliding smoothly and silently along tarmac is quite different from rugged tracks and backwoods gradients, but a clever suspension set-up ensures the Cullinan is never ruffled, even when driven hard on rapidly changing surfaces. Translate the Rolls-Royce experience to every environment is what this car was built to do. It achieves this with aplomb, soaking up bumps and lumps with a minimum of fuss. Whereas a Range Rover makes a great show of being able to ford rivers and tackle impossible gradients, Rolls-Royce doesn’t expect Cullinan owners to go nearly as far; it’s the security that such ability brings that is the point, combined with the lofty driving position and famed RR attention to detail. The car can do all these things, no question – and did – but it will not necessarily be a pioneering Spirit of Ecstasy.
The ‘architecture of luxury’ is marketing speak for a clever modular platform that allows for commonality of components between Rolls-Royce’s models. The Cullinan has a fair amount in common with the Phantom, although the manufacturer is at pains to point out that it’s as different as it is similar, thanks to the way in which the aluminium chassis can be shuffled about and extended depending on the proportions required. The design team went to great lengths to shape a volume that has a bit of style, sloping down at the rear and extending out in homage to the trunk-bearing grand tourers of old.
Yet, where a Phantom is long and (relatively) low, the Cullinan rides high, with coach style rear doors that open into a classically well appointed passenger compartment; a Savoy suite on wheels. Everything you see here can be tweaked to your heart’s content, with four individual seats offered as an option, complete with integral champagne cooler and double rear windscreen screen to keep the elements out when the mighty two-part tailgate is opened. A neat pair of folding tailgate seats can be specified, ideal for eventing or for avoiding the al fresco elements of picnicking.
Many were surprised when Rolls-Royce admitted it was venturing into this sector, but that was years ago. The car that decision spawned is, in many respects, not in the slightest bit surprising, but that says more about Rolls-Royce’s carefully curated image than anything about the car. With SUV and crossover style vehicles recently launched by Bentley and Lamborghini and cars in the offing from Aston Martin and also reportedly Ferrari (and perhaps even Bugatti), it’s clear that the super-luxury sector is still in love with the big and the bold. For now, Rolls-Royce has the strongest claim to the top. §