Rolls-Royce had to build an SUV - its extremely affluent customers practically demanded it - and so the British luxury marque set out to make the Cullinan a vehicle that is 'Effortless Everywhere'. Mission, emphatically, accomplished.
In the metal
The Rolls-Royce Cullinan is likely to become the company's best-selling vehicle worldwide, such was the yearning consumer demand for the brand (known for making the most opulent of saloons, coupes and cabriolets over the years) to venture into this segment of the market. Thus, adopting the marque's historic styling themes to the high-riding, two-box shape of an SUV was always going to be a challenge. And, when images of the Cullinan were first released, it's fair to say there wasn't a widespread roar of critical acclaim for its looks.
But, having spent plenty of time in its company, we're inclined to say the Rolls SUV isn't half-bad to behold. Oh, sure, you can gaze upon it or photograph it from unflattering angles; the worst being if you crouch down at the front three-quarters and take in the entire car, whereupon the elevated passenger compartment can appear a trifle distended. Yet, actually, look at it for longer and the design starts to work. The front end is bluff and unapologetic, but rather neatly resolved. There are some interesting swage and side detailing lines to take the bulk out of what is a 2.7-tonne hunk of luxury, the 22-inch wheels fill the arches nicely and the rear is unmistakably a Rolls, what with those distinctive light clusters framing the boot lid. Truth be told, modern Rolls-Royces are not what you'd call pretty - they're grand and imposing, but not classically beautiful - and the sort of people who can afford one and who are interested in the Cullinan have not cooled their jets as a result of the exterior aesthetic.
Once those HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals - do keep up) step aboard the Cullinan, the deal will be done in an instant. This is textbook Rolls... i.e., it's peerless. You might start using the HMI for the infotainment and recognise the BMW iDrive structure that underpins the Cullinan's system, but other than that there's nothing inside that is familiar from anywhere else bar the interiors of other Rolls-Royces. There's a digital instrument cluster that is most easy on the eye, including a 'Power Reserve' gauge that is a Rolls-Royce hallmark. The material finishing is exquisite wherever you look and touch (no matter how low down in the cabin you prod and poke in an effort to find any substandard tactility), with the possible exception of the box-grain leather for the upper fascia (although it took Rolls' interior designers two years to perfect that, so who are we to quibble?), while the space onboard is ample to the point of being cavernous.
Rear-seat configurations vary from a pair of super-luxury rear chairs that don't fold, or a bench seat layout that allows for five people onboard. This latter set-up features electrically folding seats, which balletically collapse down and then move their headrests to prevent the Rolls-Royce logo on their faces from imprinting the seat-base leather, and the legroom/comfort in either configuration is beyond reproach. Out back is a big 600-litre boot that is accessed through a two-piece, split tailgate, meaning that Rolls-Royce is having to use unfamiliar words like 'utility' and 'versatility' for the first time to market one of its products.
In terms of luxuries, you can have the lot - crystal glasses with a decanter in the rear armrest, a fridge, fold-out tables hiding touchscreens in the backs of the front seats, seat heating and cooling functionality and so much more besides. All the doors on the Cullinan can be closed electrically at the touch of one button and the ambience within is pure Rolls-Royce - you sit high and imperious, looking over that great, flat prow of a bonnet, the Spirit of Ecstasy figurehead riding proudly out front, and you know that no other SUV in the world is going to offer an ownership experience quite like the Cullinan.
The 'Effortless Everywhere' theme we mentioned earlier links directly to the fact the Cullinan has to go places no other Rolls-Royce (save a few notable exceptions, such as that weird Paris-Dakar Corniche that Thierry de Montcorgé once knocked up in the 1980s, and the 'Blue Mist' Silver Shadow T.E. Lawrence famously drove through Arabia) has ever gone. By the same token, the company is realistic about just how far into the wilderness Cullinan owners are plausibly going to venture, with around 90 per cent of global customers only ever likely to stray down a rutted gravel track, at most, to go fly-fishing on the banks of a Scottish river or some such. So, while the Cullinan has a decent four-wheel-drive system, Hill Descent Control (HDC) and impressive ground clearance, it's not as if it has to ford its way into places akin to the Darien Gap.
Still, having sampled it on some pretty vertiginous tracks up the side of an 8,000ft mountain, you'd be surprised how easy the Rolls-Royce SUV is to drive in the semi-rough stuff. And there's still nothing to prepare you for the shock value of spotting the Spirit of Ecstasy in your eyeline, as you're creeping down a 1-in-4 rubbly gradient with nothing more than HDC controlling nigh-on three tonnes of matter that costs comfortably more than half a million Euro. So yes, the Cullinan can go off-road, and it should also provide extra peace of mind to customers in low-grip conditions, as it has remarkable traction - we drove it on light snow while it was wearing summer tyres and, even with traction control switched off, it was remarkably biddable. Perhaps the greatest strength of the Cullinan will be its abilities as a tow car, because Rolls-Royce is going to offer the option of an electronically deployable tow bar so that the well-heeled SUV owner can lug their horsebox/motorboat/vintage car or motorcycles out behind the Cullinan.
However, on road, it is once again like any other Rolls-Royce you can think of, which means it's completely magnificent. Based on the same 'Architecture of Luxury' underpinnings as the Phantom VIII, the Cullinan is quite simply silent at 90km/h. You hear nothing whatsoever of the 6.75-litre V12 working away up front, while tyre and wind noise are smothered into oblivion by masses of sound-deadening and acoustic double-glazing about the cabin. It also has faultless ride quality, its twin-axle air suspension working marvellously to smooth out every conceivable road into a good approximation of glass-like surfaces. It even rides better on loose gravel at 80km/h than some road cars do on pretty decent tarmac, so you just cannot fault the ride and refinement, which feel leagues above any other SUV we've tried - and that includes previous doyens of the business like the Range Rover and the Bentley Bentayga.
With light controls and good visibility out, the Cullinan is also easy, or you might say 'effortless', to pilot. It rarely feels like a gargantuan mass as it moves about, the only exception to this rule being (as it so often is with heavy vehicles that mask their weight) when you're braking and you feel like you need to bleed on a little more pedal pressure than is sometimes strictly necessary. The 570hp engine provides it with a quite indecent turn of pace - although long gearing in the silken eight-speed auto does mean that some cogs can haul the SUV from about 70km/h to numbers well beyond 160km/h in the blink of an eye. When revved out, the V12 imbues the cabin with a muffled snarl but that's about as loud as the Cullinan ever gets on the inside. Which is wholly befitting of its status, we might add.
With no drive modes, save for the 'Off-Road' button that raises the ride height, you can't sharpen up the Rolls-Royce's manners for a bit of spirited driving. The company has fitted the Cullinan with two front anti-roll bars and one at the back, all of which are electronically controlled to provide active roll cancellation via a 12-volt system, while four-wheel steering gives the SUV added agility, but a handling marvel, the Cullinan is not. It's not bad, because grip levels are immense and - after a slight squidge of lean to the body during initial turn-in - it contains its bulk admirably on its air springs. However, to throw a Cullinan about in the corners is, frankly, unseemly, as its raison d'être is to cruise you along in the most unruffled, delightful and downright gratifying silence and comfort imaginable. Hence, why it deserves five stars for the driving experience, even though there are plenty of 'lesser' SUVs that could outhandle it with their LED headlights shut.
What you get for your money
Look, no Rolls-Royce is going to be anything less than terrifically expensive and the Cullinan will not be officially sold in Ireland, where the price (once imported) is likely going to be approaching €600,000, but you're paying for that brand name, the unparalleled interior finishing and the fact you're in the first SUV from the world's foremost prestige automotive brand. So, while we can't call it a bargain, as an unmatched luxury good the Cullinan is not what you would call outrageously overpriced, either.
You really can't argue with the Cullinan. It is exactly what it needs to be: a Rolls-Royce, only one that rolls a little higher and which can, er, royce a little bit further into the scenery. Seriously, you might think you can pick holes in it - such as its appearance, its tremendous price and the fact there are plenty of very good SUVs available at a fraction of the cost of the Cullinan. But, to the target market, these three things will not matter one jot. What will matter to them, however, is how the Cullinan feels to own and drive - and, on these two crucial scores, it is nothing short of sensational.