The Rolls-Royce Cullinan is already one of the biggest names in the luxury SUV arena. Big, bold and unapologetically luxurious, it's a celebration of craftsmanship, power and comfort - all wrapped up in a boxy 4x4 body. But for those who want something even more distinctive, there's a new Black Badge model. But under the (relatively) stealthy skin there's more equipment and more power, as well as a little more sporting intent. But can a Cullinan ever really be called 'sporty'?
In the metal
The Cullinan Black Badge certainly doesn't look sporty, despite the best efforts of the company's designers. At 5.3 metres long, two metres wide and almost two metres tall, the Rolls might be imposing, but there's nothing athletic or dynamic about its appearance - even if the Rolls-Royce marketing material claims otherwise.
Yes, as the Black Badge name suggests, the grille is finished in glossy black trim, rather than the usual chrome, and the fabled 'flying lady' - the Spirit of Ecstasy - is finished in the same manner. Not that you can always see that particular addition, because it can be folded away under a little trapdoor in the car's nose. More obvious, therefore, is the black finish for the exhausts and the red-painted brake callipers.
Inside, the Black Badge is marked out primarily by the carbon-fibre dashboard trim, which has a specially made weave that looks a bit like the marquetry you might see in a 1960s school assembly hall. The X graphic woven into the trim is unique to the Black Badge cars, as is the little infinity logo stitched into the upholstery on the back seats.
Then there's the famous Rolls-Royce roof lining, laced with little LED lights that can be dimmed or brightened depending on how much light you want in the cabin. Illuminated regardless of whether the headlights are on, or the vehicle is in motion, it can even send the occasional shooting star dashing across the roof. It certainly adds a bit of wow factor, but then the Cullinan's cabin didn't really need any more of that.
There are fantastic touches everywhere you look, from the buttons that operate the doors for you (no need for a grab handle here, although one is provided) to the thick carpets that seem to swallow up your toes, it's a lovely place to sit. A great showcase of the Rolls-Royce artistry is the tray tables, which fold into the seat backs. Operated by a button (sense a theme yet?) they fold out like a luxurious airline tray table, revealing rear infotainment screens that fold out when you press yet another switch.
Then, in the boot, the luggage bay floor sits about 10cm higher than you might expect. Press a little button buried in the chrome trim and a tray extends from its compartment under the floor, bringing with it a pair of folding seats that allow you to perch in comfort on the split tailgate. It even comes with a little table for your coffee or, more likely, champagne. Apart from making the rear bumper a more comfortable place to change footwear, it's supposed to be used for watching the kind of sports with which Rolls-Royce owners might normally be associated. Polo, for example. Or maybe clay pigeon shooting. That kind of thing.
If that wasn't enough, there's a cover for the front infotainment system to stop it getting mucky and there are some traditional features, including the plunger-style switches for the air conditioning vents and the column-mounted gear change. Ergonomically, it isn't perfect, but it's fine once you're used to it and it adds a little occasion.
Cool features aside, though, the Cullinan's cabin is a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, there are some beautifully crafted components, and everything looks pretty classy, but some of the quality is a little disappointing for such an expensive car. The buttons with which you can close the doors, for example, feel a bit cheap, as does some of the steering wheel switchgear. And although the digital instrument cluster is unique to Rolls-Royce, the infotainment system is essentially parent company BMW's iDrive system in a fancy frock.
There's nothing wrong with that in essence - the iDrive system is brilliant, and the Rolls-Royce graphics do little to damage its competence - but it doesn't feel as expensive as the big, fluffy carpets or the leather-bound door panels. Aside from that, though, the Cullinan's interior is a beautiful place to be, and those spectacular features largely make up for the occasional shortfall in quality.
It's spacious, too, with acres of legroom and ample shoulder room, while the massive seats allow you to relax and recline in perfect comfort. Even the front seats are incredibly comfortable, although perhaps not supportive enough for what's supposed to be a slightly sportier model. But that's being picky. The Rolls' interior is spectacular, and that's what matters in a car like this.
The Black Badge might be designed to offer a sportier edge, but even this version of the Cullinan is still a Rolls-Royce. Power comes from an enormous 6.75-litre V12 engine, which burns petrol at an alarming rate but makes no fuss at all about doing so. There's a subtle burble as the engine fires up, but from thereon in it's near silent, making itself heard only if you stamp on the throttle pedal or press the somewhat unassuming 'LOW' button on the gear selector. That opens a few baffles in the exhaust system and gives the exhaust a slightly more guttural note. Even so, it's hardly raucous by most performance SUV standards.
And the figures suggest the Cullinan is definitely a performance SUV. Where the 'Silver Badge' car has 571hp, the Black Badge adds an extra 29 to give you a nice, round 600hp. And even though this car weighs the best part of three tonnes, it's still capable of 0-100km/h in 5.2 seconds. Flat out, this hulking great lump of metal can theoretically travel at 250km/h.
Perhaps more importantly, Rolls-Royce also claims to have given the Black Badge a little verve in the corners, tweaking the suspension to give the car greater body control and reduce lean. It's difficult to tell exactly how well that's worked without driving the two cars back to back, but suffice to say it hasn't transformed the Cullinan driving experience. This is still a big, tall, heavy car, and it still feels that way.
The steering is surprisingly light and short on feel, and it doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence, but the most alarming thing is the way the car leans in the bends. It still feels soft, leaning heavily from side to side as you corner. In any flavour you care to mention, the Bentley Bentayga is more fun to drive.
But that car is nowhere near as comfortable, and nor is it anything like as refined. On a motorway, the Cullinan enters a league all of its own, where the outside world is merely something that flashes past the window. The engine is near-silent, there's little in the way of road noise and though there's a whisper from the air passing over that boxy bodywork, it's far from intrusive. As a long-distance cruiser, the Cullinan takes some beating, but that's true whether you opt for a black or silver grille.
Around town, the Cullinan is less wieldy. The size becomes an issue in narrow streets and on tight corners, and though the ride is still incredibly good, the engine makes a few subtle grunts as it tries to haul that heavy bodywork around. If you're just pootling to the shops, the quieter Silver Badge would probably be a better bet. And for all Rolls-Royce's claims about presence, the Silver Badge is just as effective on that count. If you see one of these coming the other way, you aren't going to argue over who has the right of way.
What you get for your money
There are currently no Rolls-Royce dealers on the island of Ireland, so if you really want a Cullinan of any description, you'll have to bring it in from the UK. And if you want to do that, you'll need a chunky bank balance.
With Rolls-Royce's personalisation options, you can make your Cullinan as expensive as you like, but you're easily talking twice the cost of a Bentley Bentayga. Admittedly, even a Bentayga can't compete with the Rolls' craftsmanship, but it's hard to call the Cullinan good value when you consider the chasm in costs. But that isn't really the point. This is a car for the super-rich, and value isn't quite such a concern. Those who want a Cullinan Black Badge and can afford to pay for it will be quite content to do so.
On the face of it, the Black Badge is a bit of a pointless exercise. It makes no real difference to the Cullinan's performance or handling, but it costs even more to buy. The real draw here is the styling, with the blackout effect on the grille and the carbon-fibre interior trim. If that floats your superyacht, then the Black Badge will be the car for you. If not, you'll likely be quite happy with the 'Silver Badge' Cullinan.