Let's Off-Road (In a Rolls Royce)
Ben Oliver has little truck with the all-consuming SUV fad, but is still seduced by the most absurdly lavish, and controversial, example yet
By Ben Oliver
April 26 2019
The new Rolls-Royce Cullinan may be the marque’s first four wheel drive, but its cars have been used off the beaten path for more than a century. TE Lawrence used a fleet of armoured Rolls-Royces to sabotage the Hejaz railway, and described them as ‘more valuable than rubies in the desert’. Indian maharajahs specified pistol holsters, rifle racks and even trailer-mounted machine guns for theirs and went elephant hunting in them. The military versions rescued downed early pilots in the Great War, and saw service again in the early years of the Second World War in the Western Desert and Iraq. Unfortunately for Rolls-Royce, conservation and the fact that it is now owned by Germans prevent it from using this history to justify its controversial decision to build an SUV.
Starting with the Phantom of 2003, Rolls-Royce has been brilliantly reinvented by BMW. Its cars have eerie refinement, sybaritic interiors and dramatic, borderline-arrogant design to announce it all. It would be sacrilegious to scratch that mirror-finish paint as you nose through the undergrowth, or to sully the heavy lambswool rugs with muddy boots. Nobody will, of course, and that just highlights the absurdity of the super-luxury SUV, and indeed most SUVs. We seldom if ever use their off-road ability, but we’ve become addicted to the sense of security their bigger, higher bodies give us, and we’re prepared to ignore the resultant deleterious impact on their performance and handling and efficiency.
SUVs are simply less good as cars, yet they’ve leapt from 15 to 35 per cent of global car sales in the past five years, and next year will account for more than half of sales in the US and China, Rolls’ two biggest markets. Even the most desirable carmakers can’t afford to ignore our irrational desire for SUVs.
Almost all of the elite brands have now launched one. Even Ferrari, which once swore on its Mama’s life that it would never capitulate, has confirmed it will build the Purosangue ‘FUV’ from 2022.
The outcry from purists over the Cullinan – which will set you’re looking at upwareds of £260,000 –has been intensified by its looks. I usually try to avoid commenting on design: you can see the pictures and decide for yourself. But seen in the metal it’s certainly not the visual home-run for which Rolls’ is known. It has an oddly upright, static quality, and an unresolved contrast between the long, squared-off nose and the hatchback-like rear. It’s also massive, and even the paddle-steamer sized 22-inch wheels seem lost in those cavernous arches.
It’s more successful inside, sharing the same extraordinary, unmatched tactile quality of the cabins in other Rolls-Royces. The Cullinan adds less glossy finishes as befits an SUV, such as the open-pore wood trim and a box-grain leather finish used on the dashboard which is copied from high-end luggage and intended to resist scuffs. But those squidgy rugs remain: this is not an interior designed to be hosed out.
It shares its six-and-three-quarter litre twin-turbocharged V12 engine with the range-topping Phantom, and despite its 563 horsepower you get only the faintest sense that it’s ticking over through the steering wheel, much as you can occasionally sense the movement running in a Swiss watch when you hold it in your hand. Its refinement trumps every other super-luxury SUV.
As every Rolls should, the Cullinan moves from stasis to motion and back again without even the slightest rocking of its owner’s Botoxed head.
Huge acceleration is there if you need it, of course, as is reasonable off-road ability. But you’re unlikely to. Rolls-Royce’s representatives talk about this as being a car for the ‘last mile’: the snowed-over drive that leads up to your chalet in Gstaad, or the track that takes you from the highway to your Jackson Hole ranch. In truth, a wet polo-match car park is about as much as the Cullinan will have to cope with. Most will spend their lives in cities. Here, the Cullinan’s extra ride height makes it surprisingly wieldy for such a colossal car, as proven by an emergency (lunch) dash from Boisdale of Belgravia to Mayfair for a senior member of management.
This sort of journey is the Cullinan’s true métier, and one for which it is well-suited. Rolls-Royce will doubtless sell all it can build to people who simply must have the most expensive SUV available. The more discerning will probably continue to use both a Phantom and a Range Rover, but be glad that their Phantoms will get ever more opulent on the profits of the Cullinan.