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TROY, Mich. — Rolls-Royce is the epitome of the vehicle as a luxury good. It has features that are expensive and luxurious rather than functional, and they create an image that separates a Rolls-Royce from almost everything else, save perhaps Bentley. I recently spent a few days in the 2022 Rolls-Royce Cullinan, the brand’s first and only SUV. It’s a legit people-hauler. Good luck getting your retriever and her food in the Ferrari Purosangue, but the Cullinan borders on a #vanlife operation. Here’s three things I learned after driving in the opulent $429,400 Cullinan.
The intimidation factor is not what I expected. The Cullinan is about as long as a Chevy Tahoe and four inches wider. It does not drive that way. The steering is light but direct and communicative. Factor in four-wheel steering, and it’s like driving a much smaller car. The driver’s seating position is excellent and provided a clear view of my surroundings. With the Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament leading the way, it felt majestic. That’s what Rolls is going for, but the setting also gave me confidence with both corners clearly visible. It doesn’t matter how much a car costs if you feel like you know what you’re doing.
Rolls’ famous Magic Carpet Ride makes for perhaps the smoothest experience I’ve had in any car or SUV. The suspension is always adjusting, and almost no bumps or potholes could bother me or my passengers. It really is next-level comfort. Given that the chassis is working with 22-inch wheels, it’s all the more impressive. The V12 engine puts out 563 hp and 627 lb-ft of torque. Get on the throttle and it will move, but with decorum.
I’ve driven plenty of luxury cars that don’t live up to the hype. The Cullinan is not one of them. My Rolls had the Shooting Star headliner, a $7,975 option that turns your vehicle into a rolling planetarium. It’s one of those features that sounds contrived until you experience it. The celestial sky is mesmerizing, and when your passengers see the shooting-star feature, get ready for the oohs and ahhs. Rolls first launched the headliner in 2006 as a custom option, but now it’s on most of its vehicles. The stars are illuminated by fiber-optic cables and six powerful light cannons, according to Rolls-Royce, and there’s up to 1,600 hand-cut holes in the headliner. You can personalize the constellations. Like everything with Rolls, there’s a backstory, and the standard configuration depicts the skies over Goodwood on Jan. 1, 2003, marking the date the first Rolls-Royce was built there after years in Crewe.
While the headliner is captivating, the Spirit of Ecstasy is the Cullinan’s grandest feature. The nearly four-inch hood ornament rises and descends from the front of the car when it’s locked or unlocked. It’s even more attention-getting than pictures indicate. Few cars have hood ornaments these days, so anything stands out. But the hand-finished sculpture of a woman with robes trailing behind her (those are not wings!) is a head-turner. This one is stainless steel, but carbon-fiber, gold-plated steel and silver are also available. Given that the Spirit of Ecstasy dates back 111 years, it makes even an SUV instantly recognizable as a Rolls.
Rolls-Royce was one of the last luxury or sports-car makers to create an SUV. Given that some of its clients ride rather than drive, it was a long time coming. I’d argue Rolls has more business making an SUV than Porsche, but the keyword is business. Porsche needed to make an SUV to keep making 911s. Rolls could afford to take its time.
Still, the company says its customers are changing and seek the active lifestyle an SUV can support. By the time the Cullinan arrived back in 2018 there was pent-up demand. With record sales last year fueled in part by the Cullinan, the SUV is justifying its existence and solidifying that of its maker.
Rolls-Royce likes to call back to its origins as the ride of T.E. Lawrence during the First World War to reinforce the brand’s surprisingly rugged streak. He famously called it “above rubies” during his desert campaigns. There’s about as much DNA in the Cullinan as the Escalade summons from John Pershing’s Cadillacs in that same war. But it’s a good story. And after a few days motoring around in the Cullinan, it’s clear to me that this SUV is set up to be a legend in its own right. The mythology isn’t necessary.
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