2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan first drive review: Tetonic shift

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In Jackson, Wyoming, things get a little weird. Something like a half a million people live in the entire state, but Jackson’s filthy rich, overrun by Cheneys and Gateses and their ilk. The working cattle ranch next door might belong to Harrison Ford—or Kanye West, who took the cover photo on this year’s Ye  basically from his doorstep.

Maybe it’s the altitude?

Jackson’s rolling in more prosaic pickups and Subaru Outbacks, too, but we’ll guess that, soon, it’ll be rolling in Rolls-Royce Cullinans.

With the Cullinan, Rolls-Royce doesn’t just have its first SUV. It also has the most ingenious tool for prying ultra-wealthy drivers from their Range Rovers and Bentaygas, which we assume have now been rendered hapless scrap. The Cullinan lays claim to plenty of firsts and bests, with one big most thrown in: at $ 325,000 in standard trim, it’s the most expensive SUV offered by a mainstream manufacturer.

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

Flying brick

We enthusiasts throw shade at SUVs when we call them flying bricks, and the Cullinan totally calls us on our bullshit. Its front end’s as flat as a marquee board, ring-lit to to an Instagram sheen. The rear roof pillars could hold up a beachfront home. The midsection’s built like a powerlifter. It shouldn’t work well, but it does, exceedingly.

Yes, the Cullinan—it’s named for the 3,107-carat diamond mined in South Africa and sent to the British crown as a colonial spoil—wears its immense ribbed grille without a single pang of guilt. Rolls believes the Cullinan has “the prominent brow of a Saxon warrior,” something we wish the public would recognize in our visage. (Our hubris limiters stopped working at Wyoming’s lofty altitudes.) Its rugged, square-rigged roofline ends in a subtle wing that hides a wiper blade. A slight rear decklid lends a bit of the classic London-taxi shape, bracketed by tiny rectangular taillamps.

Don’t miss: Get ready for the bulletproof $ 2M Rolls-Royce Cullinan limo

Coach doors part way at the middle of the car to expose an interior built around a massive twin-binnacle dash, wide swaths of digital displays, and somewhat less of the formal wood and chrome trim than in other Rolls-Royces, though they’re certainly available on order.

The austerity of a Range Rover is nowhere to be found here, except maybe in the digitally rendered gray-on-black instruments. Woodwind-style metal window switches grace the door panels, and the dash wears leather stamped with the texture of a pricey piece of luggage. The dash cap’s composed of leather shoulderpads and the entire cabin’s wrapped in wood trim cut from a single roll of veneer.

That’s a bare description for what’s really a bare canvas. Rolls pairs Cullinan drivers with Cullinan designers to plot out custom-trimmed vehicles; some drivers even bring “look books” with ideas that can be interpreted by the designers into whimsical flourishes of fashion—a glovebox lined in turquoise leather, seats piped in peppermint green, or a zebra-striped wood dash framed in mandarin orange leather.

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

Remote control

From the view over the tall, long-nosed hood, the Cullinan attempts to divorce its occupants from the outside world as much as possible. It’s an amicable split.

The first four-wheel-drive Rolls-Royce wagon demands copious power just to motivate its 6,069-pound curb weight out of its parking space. The Phantom’s twin-turbocharged 6.8-liter V-12 sates that need. With 563 horsepower and 627 pound-feet of torque, developed as low as 1,600 rpm, the V-12 arrows the Cullinan through the air at a hugely respectable pace. It consumes just 5.0 seconds in the rush to 60 mph and vaults to a 155-mph top speed.

The assertive push that presses passengers in their seats comes with just a distant ripple of V-12-induced whir. It wouldn’t take much to transpose the Cullinan’s light dose of engine music into an electric-car key. (Though there’s no talk yet of other powertrains, the architecture is designed to host different propulsion systems, like a plug-in hybrid that’s sure to come.) It’s so quiet, you have to study a spec sheet to realize the Cullinan has an 8-speed automatic. The shifts could be happening in another car. Or next door in Idaho. Who knows what goes on over there.

MORE: Customize your Cullinan: Rolls-Royce launches configurator for SUV

The Cullinan balances power front to rear with all-wheel drive, slightly biased to the rear . at a nominal 40:60 power split. It can shift 90 percent of torque to the rear wheels, but it has no differential locks and no true torque-vectoring; it relies on anti-lock braking to damp down excess wheelspin, and hill descent control that toggles from 2 to 18 mph to handle the downhills.

Can it off-road? The toboggan trails and rocky but mostly dry dirt trails we overtook check that important SUV box, but the Cullinan’s not endowed with the harder-core controls of a Range Rover. There’s an “Off-Road” button on the console that can toggle through six traction modes (snow, wet grass, sand, rough trails, mud, and gravel), and it can wade through about 21 inches of water, but intense rock-crawling just isn’t its game, not with standard 21-inch summer tires and 5.7 inches of ground clearance, though that increases by 1.6 inches with its air springs at full rise.

No, the Cullinan’s an all-weather wagon at heart, and it’d rather think out the traction plan for you, than have you fret about it. Those big air springs team with adaptive dampers and a multi-link suspension to absorb big breaks in the ground (or pavement), and dissolve them into slight jostles that move through the cabin unnoticed, like a 2.5 earthquake in L.A.  

The heavy emphasis is on unflappable ride control, and the Cullinan has it.  The same self-leveling air suspension that can lower or raise the vehicle as it courses over pavement, or as it slogs through trenches, can push down on individual wheels when they spin, to reinstate grip. There’s no Sport mode to dial in a firmer ride, and instead, the Cullinan cruises along, almost oblivious to the conditions of the world beneath it.

Despite all that, the Cullinan steers with the feather-light but accurate touch you’d expect from a vehicle with a large-diameter steering wheel, lots of electric steering boost, and rear-wheel steering that can counter-steer rear wheels up to 3 degrees at speeds of up to 54 mph. The Cullinan changes direction crisply, dives into curves with plenty of body lean, but maintains poise all the while.

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