Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Label — how to tell the precise moment someone’s wealth exceeded their sense

Massive Rolls has power and refinement, but lacks class

Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Label

Toyota surprised us all at the recent Japan Mobility Show (old lags such as I still call it the Tokyo motor show…) by revealing an SUV version of its Century saloon. The Toyota Century is a car utterly revered by car enthusiasts. It’s the car you buy when you’re a wealthy Japanese businessman who craves the ultimate in comfort, refinement, and quality but you don’t want to shout about your wealth. Or, more accurately, you do but you want to do it in a stage whisper.

So, the Century is finished inside with a degree of opulence and discretion that makes a Saville Row tailor throw down their scissors in disgrace, yet on the outside it looks like someone took the roof sign off a Tokyo taxi. Only the cognoscenti know what it is, and that’s the point.

A point utterly missed by the SUV version, which takes the glorious bits of the Century — the quality, the comfort, the refinement, the smooth hybrid engine (alas, the old V12 has long since been retired) — and plonks them in a body shape that looks like any other generically massive 4x4. It takes the extraordinary and renders it utterly ordinary. Look, Toyota, someone who can afford a Century can also afford a Land Cruiser to go with it — they don’t need two cars combined into one.

Which brings us, rather neatly, to the Rolls-Royce Culinan. The advent of this car was pretty much inevitable once Bentley proved that there was super-luxury money to be mined amid the hills of the SUV market. Not that Rolls-Royce slavishly copies what its former stablemate does or anything, but the Dollar, Euro, and Yuan signs in Bentley’s tills were impossible to ignore.


To name its first-ever SUV (although you could argue that the original Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was akin to an SUV, given its rough-ground crossing abilities) Rolls dubbed it the Cullinan. As a statement of intent, that’s a pretty unambiguous one — the Cullinan was the largest gem-quality diamond ever unearthed, and the stones chipped from its 3,100-carat whole have gone on to form the centre pieces of literal royal fantasies, being as they’re currently mounted in the Imperial State Crown and the Sovereign’s Sceptre, part of the British crown jewels. You know, the ones Chucky III used at his recent big party.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Label

Giving a car such a grand name is to gently finger the ring-pull of the hand grenade of hubris, and the Cullinan (the car, not the whacking great rock) possibly doesn’t do itself any favours with its styling. Yes, the traditional Rolls-Royce grille (modelled on the Parthenon, above Athens) and silver lady (modelled on actress and model Eleanor Velasco Thornton, a woman of humble background, but who was the mistress of early Rolls-Royce customer the second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu) are present and correct, but it’s possible that Rolls’ preference for understatement in design has caught it out here — the Bentley Bentayga, although rather more over-styled, seems somehow more enticing than the Cullinan’s boxy frame, which has been perhaps unfairly compared to the ‘Metrocab’ London Taxi of the 1980s.

Inside, of course, there’s absolutely no similarity. The Cullinan uses essentially the same cabin as the big Phantom saloon (the two cars, along with the smaller Ghost four door use the same ‘Architecture of Luxury’ aluminium platform) so you get a cabin that goes big on wood, leather, chrome, hefty bakelite-style plastics, and with minimises the digital intrusion that has infested so many other cars. Yes, there’s a big infotainment screen in the centre; a large digital driver’s instrument panel in front of you; and all the connectivity and online services you could want, but they can be safely ignored while you get on with the job of conducting this behemoth along the narrow roads that run northwards along the Ards Peninsula, just past Belfast.

The Cullinan is massive, of that we can be certain. It weighs 2,799kg at the kerb and at 5.3-metres long, it’ll overhang most standard parking spaces. When we speak about SUVs becoming overweight compared to most other cars, the Cullinan takes that weight gain to positively sumo-like proportions.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Label

To haul all that heft around, you’ll need a decent engine and that, we can unequivocally say, the Cullinan has. The 6.75-litre (six-and-three-quarter, in Rolls parlance) turbocharged V12 engine is the same as used by the Phantom and the Ghost, and yes it really is as quiet as a lover’s whisper at tickover. We’d possibly spew some rubbish about the ticking of the clock being the loudest thing in the cabin, but the clock is electrically controlled, so that’s wrong. Equally, the V12, although wonderfully smooth — like silk being drenched with clarified butter — is not entirely silent. Prod the big throttle pedal, and even this massive Cullinan surges forward with a noise that sounds less like distant thunder, and more like a massed male voice choir all saying ‘hush’ at once.

This particular six-and-three-quarter engine is also more powerful than standard. This Cullinan is, you see, a Black Label. Now, traditionally Rolls-Royce has tended to ignore the blandishments of sporty driving.

Aside from a brief, fruitless, experiment with sportier cars in the 1920s, it has left the whole notion of that sort of mucking about to its brethren at Bentley. In the modern era, though, buyers can always be convinced to part with more cash for a little… more. So this Black Label V12 is packing 600hp, compared to the standard 571hp, and a faintly ridiculous 900Nm of torque. So this massive, huge, enormous car can sprint to 100km/h in just 5.2secs. Which is just daft.

No, really, really daft. Big performance from big cars is something that car makers have been at for donkey’s years, but ask yourself this — do you really need to? Is the person on the adjacent yacht really going to be all that impressed by the fact that you can do 100km/h a fraction of a second faster than before? Well, yes they might be, but the rest of the known universe will be united in indifference.

The problem here is that to make this Cullinan a Black Label, Rolls-Royce has also made the suspension stiffer. Not massively — it’s not been lowered onto racing Bilsteins or anything — but it is a little more tuned and tweaked, in a laughable attempt to make a four-wheeled aircraft carrier sporty to drive. Which it doesn’t, but what it does is make it ride not exactly badly, but noticeably less smoothly than standard. Which is stupid, because smooth is the whole point.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Label

There’s another, more ephemeral problem. It just doesn’t feel special. Weird, right? A car this expensive, this opulent, this dramatic, should be really, truly special, shouldn’t it? But here, the Cullinan stumbles, and that’s because it’s an SUV. SUVs have become so utterly ubiquitous that the Cullinan feels, in many ways, like driving an over-specified Qashqai. It’s an entirely intangible thing, but swapping on the same day into a Ghost — same basic mechanical package — reveals that the lower-slung car feels like far more of an occasion, not to mention being more engaging to drive and riding, even in Black Label form, with more decorum than the Cullinan.

Here’s the thing — this car is totally unnecessary. Sure, Rolls-Royce makes a hefty profit from each one sold and that gets fed back into making the cars that make some kind of sense, such as the Ghost and the electric Spectre coupe, but the Cullinan just feels like a waste. Anyone buying a Rolls-Royce can easily afford to buy a highly-specified Range Rover to go with it, and many do. Sure, a Range Rover is positively plebian compared to a Cullinan, but it’s also smoother to drive, nicer to look at, and far more fit for purpose. Just as the with the Toyota Century SUV, the Cullinan marks the point at which a super-wealthy car buyer has more money than sense, and is determined to prove it.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Label

The lowdown: Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Label

Power: 6.75-litre V12 petrol turbo matched to 8-speed auto transmission putting out 600hp and 900Nm of torque through all four wheels.

0-100km/h: 5.2 seconds.

Fuel consumption (WLTP): 16.3l/100km.

CO2 emissions (motor tax): 370g/km (€2,350)

Price: POA as tested (Cullinan starts at circa €550,000 imported).

Our rating: 2/5.

Our verdict: Spectacular in many ways, but never feels special enough to justify its price nor its badge.

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring