2023 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge Review: Made to Be Driven
A Rolls isn't just for special occasions; it's for using every day. Even if that means taking on the grit and grime of winter.
Odds are good you don't think about a Rolls-Royce as the sort of car you'd take on a winter road trip. Rolls-Royces, after all, are genteel, elegant icons of absolute luxury — wheeled events, rolling special occasions. They're the sort of car people leave their wedding in, cars for proms and celebrations — not the sort of daily driver you zone out behind the through the grit and grime of salt-and-sand-coated roads.
At least, that's the impression society gives us. In reality, of course, a Rolls-Royce is every bit as much a car as any other automobile — meant to transport several people and their gear long distances at speeds fleshy limbs can only dream of achieving in space and comfort. (Especially comfort.) So, given the chance to put that to the test with an 800-mile trip from New York City to Vermont in the dead of winter in a Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge, I quickly said yes...and then immediately proceeded to dirty up its gorgeous Salamanca Blue paint.
Don't believe me? Let's face it: at the end of the day, the most important features a car needs to deal with the cold and the snow and the ice are four-wheel grip — which boils down to both winter tires and power heading to all four of them — and ground clearance. The Cullinan has both, assuming you can track down a set of winter rubber capable of fitting its might wheels.
Sure, it's no Land Cruiser — you'd still want something with low-range four-wheel-drive to handle serious off-roading — but the Cullinan is capable of clawing through 99 percent of whatever the world throws at it short of an overlanding expedition.
Weight is also your friend in low-traction situations; the more you have on your contact patches, the harder you press down, and thus the more friction you can create. So while it's no benefit to, say, fuel economy, it's something of a blessing in this case that the Cullinan has plenty of mass for gravity to yank toward the Earth's core. Roll it onto a scale, and you'll find this Roller weighs in at a hair over three tons even before you step aboard.
Not that you'd realize it has all that weight when you put the hammer down. The twin-turbo V12 in the Black Badge cranks out 591 horsepower and 664 lb-ft of torque, with the latter showing up as soon as 1,600 rpm. Smash the throttle, and the nose rises like a Chris-Craft on plane as the Cullinan smashes towards the horizon with no fuss but surprising fleetness. Car and Driver clocked the slightly less powerful non-Black Badge Cullinan as doing 0-60 mph in 4.5 seconds; I can't confirm that for sure, but it feels about right based on my butt dyno readings.
Still, you'll rarely use more than a quarter of that power on the highway. (And you'll know it's only a quarter of the power, because like all Rolls-Royces, it has a power output gauge instead of something as gauche as a tachometer.) Rather, you'll cruise along in peace and quiet, barely aware of the road beneath you unless the potholes grow big enough to upset big rigs. Rolls-Royce calls this the "Magic Carpet Ride," a trick suspension system that syncs up adaptive dampers with forward-looking cameras and even GPS data to dial in the settings your dampers need before they need it. (Even the quickest reacting system can't act faster than a prediction.) It makes for a truly relaxing, low-stress ride — something that comes in very handy when battling the hell that is holiday traffic in the greater Tri-State area.
While the Cullinan is more than capable of handling the nastiness that winter can throw out, you'll still feel bad about it ever time you drag your salt-stained, mud-and-snow-coated boots inside and onto the thick lambswool carpeting. This Rolls-Royce doesn't need waterproof floor mats so much as it needs a mud room to take your boots off before you climb inside.
There's no bad seat in the house, either — at least, unless you're desperate for a car laden with giant glossy screens everywhere, in which case you'll likely be a bit disappointed. The woven carbon fiber trim of my Black Badge notwithstanding, the Cullinan is rather old-fashioned inside; the only displays are the comparatively small infotainment running a reskinned version of corporate parent BMW's iDrive and an instrument panel trying so hard to resemble analog gauges, it even rings its dials in chrome.
But sink into those deep leather thrones — oh, the thrones — and you won't think twice about any of that. Screens are distractions — not just from the road, but from the impeccable craftsmanship and elegant materials everywhere to be seen. Even the controls — yes, still very tactile and physical — are a pleasure to use, with the smooth, well-oiled action of high-quality audio equipment. (Speaking of which, the $10,800 Rolls-Royce Bespoke Audio stereo system could put some high-end stereos to shame.)
Unlike, say, the Phantom Series II with which the Cullinan shares its "Architecture of Luxury" platform, the rear seats are ultimately second fiddle to the front ones here. Still, they're plenty comfortable, with stunning legroom and the same elegant materials found elsewhere. They're also the best place from which to ogle the Shooting Star Headliner, which peppers the inside of the roof with constellations and even throws in the occasional imitation bolide to liven things up. It's a $7,975 option, but if you're already ponying up for a Cullinan, you might as well go hog wild.
Sure, some parts of the experience may seem better suited for the design studio than the real world; the shiny metal trim picks up fingerprints like a pair of eyeglasses, and the deep crevasses of the seats make crumb extraction a serious job for a Dyson. But hey, those are small sacrifices to make for such a pleasant experience...and besides, if you own a Rolls, you probably have somebody to detail your cars, anyway.
Admittedly, that's kind of an academic question. The folks who buy Rolls-Royces not only have the money, they're the sorts of folks who don't question spending it on the finer things of life. Nobody's pinching pennies to stretch their budget to a Cullinan; if anything, the $456,425 price of my test car would be more likely to be a rounding error in their monthly household budget....even if it's as much as many of us spend on a house.
Still, as someone who spends their days testing myriad cars from all sorts of brands, it's hard not to weigh the Cullinan against other vehicles — especially since it's possible to get so much for so much less. The Bentley Bentayga EWB, which offers a similar British pedigree and luxurious accommodations, starts at $226,900; the Mercedes-Maybach GLS 600, which offers an even more remarkable rear-seat experience and the theatrical silliness of a bunny-hopping suspension, is even more affordable...subjective a term as that may be for a car with a $165,100 base price. And commanding as a Cullinan may be, an Escalade or Navigator offer even more imposing size and looks for far less.
But prestige and reputation matter — and perhaps no car company has those in such quantities as Rolls-Royce. I gave my mother a ride in the Cullinan, as I have with plenty of fancy cars over the years I've been doing this — but I've never heard her scream with such glee as the moment she saw the Spirit of Ecstasy on the hood and realized what kind of car she was in. This is a woman who's a die-hard Bernie supporter, unpretentious almost to a fault...and she still was agog over the power of a Rolls.
At the end of the day, you buy a Rolls-Royce not because you need a car, or even want to be seen...but because you want a Rolls-Royce.
Base Price / Price as Tested: $399,850 / $456,425
Powertrain: 6.8-liter turbocharged V12; eight-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
Torque: 664 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: You don't care, you own ExxonMobil
If you need to cover a few thousand miles regardless of weather, it's hard to beat Maybach's SUV.