Posh folks who drive a Rolls-Royce have always boasted about what the company describes as a “magic carpet ride.” But with the 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan—the traditional luxury icon’s first foray into the SUV segment—translating customer expectations of that smooth ride into what is ostensibly an off-road bruiser would seem to be a challenge.
But happily for those fancy Rollers, Rolls-Royce’s engineers have been able to deliver on the magical status quo, perhaps with some secret assistance in the bowels of their Goodwood, England headquarters from unseen wizards.
After all, the famous Rolls-Royce World War II fighter plane engine, employed in the Supermarine Spitfire and the North American P-51 Mustang, was called “Merlin.” Coincidence? You decide.
Our opulent test car’s “Twilight Purple” finish is a reasonable approximation of the royal color. The name “Cullinan” refers to the largest diamond ever found; it was cut into the British Crown Jewels.
The off-road part of SUVs like the Cullinan is mostly illusionary. Drivers like to think they might go off-roading sometime, when what they really want is all-weather on-road security and the ability to occasionally navigate a rutted driveway to a cabin in the woods without tearing the muffler off their car.
The mantra guiding Rolls-Royce in the development of the Cullinan and its adaptable air suspension system is “Effortless Everywhere.” On startup, the Cullinan automatic lifts an inch and a half, providing a touch more ground clearance, permitting it to ford streams as deep as 21 inches without risk of the engine inhaling water.
As the first Rolls-Royce with all-wheel drive, the Cullinan represents an impressive first effort. The Off-Road button on the console activates the air-spring suspension and the computer-controlled all-wheel drive system to maximize traction. That includes actually extending the suspension when the computer thinks a wheel might be in danger of losing contact with the ground.
In an earlier test, we had the chance to hurl a Cullinan along a snow-frosted, high-altitude gravel fire road. Driving on the Cullinan’s specially designed 22-inch tires, which are optimized for a quiet ride, the vehicle performed amazingly. Even with its near-6,000 lb. mass and surely handicapped by less-than-ideal rubber for the situation, the Cullinan flew like a rally car in that test. It was like witchcraft.
Speaking of the tires, the Cullinan’s “RR” wheel centers are separate from the wheels themselves, so they don’t spin. Instead, the “RR” emblems remain perpetually upright and composed, as one would expect from a Rolls-Royce.
Pop the bonnet and it is easy to see why the Cullinan is so quick; here’s the abode of the 571-horsepower, 627 lb.-ft. (that’s a lot!) 6.75-liter twin-turbocharged V12 power plant. It may not be a Spitfire’s Merlin V12, but its design definitely descends from the know-how that built Merlins in wartime.
Shifts by the 8-speed automatic are stealthy, as changes to the pitch of the V12′s exhaust note are hushed and the shifts are executed slickly; it’s difficult to detect them. This comes in part from the fact that the Cullinan has a cheat sheet. Like the rest of us, it can turn to the internet for information, in this case, about the road ahead, so it knows when it is approaching a hill, for example, and can shift accordingly.
And then there’s the tailgating feature, perhaps to observe a horse race. The Cullinan takes this business very seriously. There is none of that unloading of folding chairs or anything else so ordinary. No, our Cullinan is fitted with the available Viewing Suite, which is a built-in pair of folding seats that extend out to the tailgate with the touch of a button. There’s a pop-up cocktail table too, ensuring that refreshments are close at hand while cheering for your favorite equestrians.
There are other activity centers available too, in case you’re allergic to horses. Consider the Hosting Service, if you’d rather be able to tend bar in the backcountry. And there’s an available Urban Photography module that includes a DJI Mavic Mini photo drone, Apple iPad Pro, and MacBook Pro, along with Sennheiser headphones, to permit in-the-field photography and photo editing.
Naturally, the Cullinan includes a crystal ball that shows the future. It comes in the form of the head-up display which, in addition to the usual vehicle speed information, also shows warnings from the Wildlife and Pedestrian Warning system.
During our drive home from dinner, an apparition of a yellow deer appears to me, seeming to float in the air over the Cullinan’s massive bonnet. I slow, and the passenger immediately points out the deer standing on the right shoulder. The Cullinan knows there’s a deer in my future and helps prevent a messy situation with a timely preview of things to come.
Perhaps we should expect nothing less than a magical experience from a vehicle that costs $426,700. Maybe sumptuous hides, warm wood trim and all-encompassing 16-speaker Bespoke audio aren’t enough when your car carries a condominium’s price tag. The base price is actually $330,000, but our test car is loaded, so it runs a bit more. Some of the goodies include the eye-catching two-tone paint, the tailgating seats, rear-seat entertainment, and opulent lambswool floor mats. Maybe it’s money that makes the magic.