This $465,000 Rolls-Royce Cullinan is an unexpected lesson in simplicity

Chris Davies - Jul 22, 2021, 1:03pm CDT
This $465,000 Rolls-Royce Cullinan is an unexpected lesson in simplicity
Editors' Rating: 9/10
Pros
  • Authentic luxury
  • 6.75L V12 is syrup-smooth and immensely powerful
  • Genuine off-road abilities
  • The complexity is hidden behind a veneer of simplicity
Cons
  • Outrageously expensive
  • Ideal candidate for an electric drivetrain

Of all the things I expected from the 2021 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge – an SUV with a near half-million-dollar price tag – a reminder of the value of simplicity was not among them. Launched in 2018, the Cullinan is as luxurious, as excessive, and as attention-grabbing as you’d think, particularly in Black Badge form. Look beyond the glitter, though, and there’s something more important there too.

Simple doesn’t have to mean basic, and clearly simple doesn’t necessarily mean cheap. The 2021 Cullinan starts at $388,000 (plus $2,750 destination and $2,600 “gas guzzler” tax) but, with extras like the striking Galileo Blue paintwork, this particular Cullinan Black Badge is a heady $465,300 all-in.

It leaves a Mercedes-Mayback GLS 600 – at $160,500 – looking positively mainstream; even the $245,000 Bentley Bentayga Speed seems unexpectedly accessible in comparison. Aesthetics are subjective, but few would argue that the Cullinan lacks road presence. From the imperious grille, to the slab-sided angles and those rear-hinged back doors, this is neither a small SUV nor a subtle one.

And yet, there’s simplicity there too. Of a different sort to a base-spec mass-market SUV, where simple means the absence of features, sure, but simplicity nonetheless. In Rolls-Royce’s world, it’s about keeping the annoyance of complexity at arm’s length. The luxury of not having to sweat the small stuff.

In a Cullinan, the doors close themselves when you press a button. It seems lavish at first, and then you ask yourself why pulling a heavy, safety-regulation-reinforced door closed manually ever seemed acceptable. The 10.25-inch touchscreen isn’t some vast, attention-stealing display, and you can hide it behind a motorized screen and do just fine. Rolls-Royce’s crisp 12.3-inch digital instrumentation doesn’t try to serve up every possible map, and engine graphic, and animation; it just tries to give you the cleanest possible dials.

The air conditioning system is monstrously potent, cooling the cabin in record time, but its knobs and buttons are the epitome of simplicity. Rolls-Royce’s 8-speed transmission silently surveys the road ahead, using GPS to make sure it’s never caught unawares of which ratio to slip into, but you’d never guess how smart it is from the simple, slender stalk behind the wheel. There’s a sport mode, of sorts, but the “Low” button that summons it belies the dozen or more options and settings rival fast SUVs love to offer up.

You get the sense that you’ve spent your money on something tangible, rather than gimmicks. The handiwork of craftspeople, instead of a focus group on what feels futuristic and cool.

Little illustrates that ethos so well as the Cullinan’s “Off Road” button. You may, as many did at first, assume Rolls-Royce’s first SUV would be, let’s say, reluctant to get its feet muddy. The silhouette of a truck, but the spirit of a Phantom with it. In reality, it’s very different.

Fear of scuffing these epic alloy wheels kept me on the asphalt, but I’ve pointed a Cullinan at an off-road course before, pushed hard, and come out mighty impressed – shocked, even – at the other end of it. There is, clearly, a vast amount of technical trickery going on behind the scenes; the fact Rolls-Royce hides it behind a single button encapsulates the automaker’s mission perfectly.

Few vehicles seem so well suited to going all-electric as the Cullinan does. Rolls Royce already hides much of the mechanical aspect of the powertrain from you: its soundtrack is damped and distant, a reassuring burble up until you push hard on the accelerator. Instead of expecting you to care about crankshaft speed or anything so mundane, the Cullinan gives you a simple Power Reserve gauge. A reminder that, like those people on the first class deck, you don’t need to know the nomenclature of the engine room in order to appreciate that the yacht sails fast.

Like all super-luxe cars of this pedigree, electrification would seem to suit the Cullinan just grand. All that instant torque, no gear changes to interrupt things – no matter how syrupy smooth the current 8-speed is – and the blissful near-silence which Rolls Royce is so obsessional about providing.

This V12, instead, can raise its voice, though what makes it into the leather-wrapped, starlight ceiling’d cocoon that is the cabin is on the tasteful side of sonorous. It’ll go fast, if you want to, or waft serenely on the blissfully smooth air suspension. Brave souls will find there’s plenty of cornering grip, too, though everything here encourages more measured behavior.

Rolls-Royce will help you make tasteful selections when it comes to cabin treatment, or you can go off piste and introduce a little anarchy. Either way, the end result has the hallmarks both of obsessional detailing and the fact that human hands, not repetitive machines, were involved in its creation. Navy Blue and Cashmere Grey help lift the Technical Carbon trim that comes as part of the Black Badge package; the Forge Yellow highlights are reminiscent of a flash of color from a jaunty bespoke suit’s lining.

You’ll find more tech in a BMW 7 Series, and the Cullinan does without fancies like cabin perfume, hot stone massage programs, and pop-out tablets. Instead you get a 16-speaker, 600 watt audio system which sounds great; seats like padded thrones; and a near-timeless design. When the cabins of this year’s BMW, Mercedes, and Audi flagships are busy looking dated in five or ten years time – or, frankly, even less than that – I suspect Rolls-Royce’s restraint will serve its SUV well. Simple, after all, can also mean making sensible decisions.

2021 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge Verdict

It’s difficult to assess the Cullinan by standard measures. It’s an SUV that costs more than many homes; a hand-crafted rarity that’s as much automotive art as it is transportation. The electric-loving environmentalist in me shudders at its profligacy, and yet it’s difficult not to be charmed by something which takes luxury so seriously.

That’s a very different flavor of luxury to one we’re generally used to. Rolls-Royce seems to approach every gadget, every feature, with the question of “how will this make life easier?” With most high-end cars there’s a sense that you really need to read the user manual to make the most of what you’ve paid for. With the Cullinan, it feels like the SUV read the instructions itself, and that means it can serve up a far more humanized version of its undeniable talents.

Clearly, not every vehicle can be a half-million dollar, hand-made super-SUV. All the same, I think there’s a lesson the rest of us – and the car world – can learn from what the Cullinan offers, beyond just its supple leather and imposing presence. There is something to be said about simplicity, of being able to focus on what’s important. While high-tech toys can certainly be fun, the real luxury might be in being liberated from them.


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