Say the words Rolls-Royce and many folks might imagine behemoth saloons whisking well-heeled Brits across merry England (via chauffeur of course) on their way to country estates or perhaps a night at the London Symphony. This fitting (if a bit stereotypical) imagery speaks to the grandeur, tradition and luxury of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, but it is woefully outdated. For those lucky enough to own the latest Rolls-Royce offerings such as the Ghost or Cullinan, there’s no reason to limit memorable moments to fair weather or special occasions. To demonstrate how today’s Rolls-Royces are adept at everyday use year ‘round, the famed British marque invited us to Sun Valley, Idaho, to experience Rolls-Royce life when winter conditions persist.
Rolls-Royces had always been rear-wheel drive until the introduction of the Cullinan for the 2019 model year. The marque’s first SUV is also the first production Rolls to have all-wheel drive. Last year the next-generation Rolls-Royce Ghost premiered and it now features all-wheel drive as well. Therefore when the roads get snowy or slick, there’s no reason for owners to leave the Rolls-Royce at home.
Admittedly, we’ve been lucky enough to experience Rolls-Royce drives a number of times, and they are always an occasion. The attention to detail and premium materials throughout any Rolls-Royce cabin exude luxury. Every Rolls-Royce can be created according to an owner’s specific requests, so any leather and wood is of the utmost quality. Classic push/pull knobs open and close vents, and all controls have an elegant, purposeful feeling. Integrated display screens add a luxurious layer of high tech, as does a digital instrument cluster. And the marque’s bespoke analog clock also fits well with a clean dashboard design.
In Sun Valley we were pleased to discover a Rolls-Royce Ghost and driver awaiting our arrival at the airport. Bucking frosty winds and freezing temps, we gleefully slid inside and sank into soft leather seats. A push of a button on the C-pillar automatically closed the door and we were immediately immersed in cocoonlike luxury. The Ghost’s head restraints are like pillows, and accessing seat controls via a display screen on the front seatback immediately transforms seats into heated, massaging memory makers. Passengers may also recline and focus on the Ghost’s bespoke Starlight Headliner, which mimics a night sky.
As with other 4-door Rolls-Royces, the rear doors of the Ghost and Cullinan are rear hinged to create an expansive opening for ingress and egress. All doors can be closed automatically with the push of a button. Designers extended the doors so they wrap around the sills; even if the daily drive has been spent splashing through snow and slush, a Rolls-Royce occupant’s legs will not brush up against a wet surface when exiting the vehicle.
More than simply lavish interior treatment, Rolls-Royce vehicles are well known for their incredibly smooth ride, referred to as a “Magic Carpet Ride.” The suspension of both the Ghost and Cullinan SUV — called the Planar Suspension System — features a world-first upper wishbone damper unit for the front suspension, developed to further improve the continuously variable, electronically controlled shock absorbers. The self-leveling, high-volume air strut assemblies combine with what Rolls calls the Flagbearer system, which use cameras to read the road ahead. At the rear, a five-link axle benefits from the same self-leveling, high-volume air suspension technology, as well as rear-wheel steering. Granted the systems are quite complex, but the result is a ride that’s best described as sublime, even when travelling over snow-covered dirt roads.
With standard all-wheel drive, both Ghost and Cullinan can handle snow and ice without a problem, but the Cullinan has extra capability to handle even more. “Our customers expect to go everywhere in luxury, effortlessly and without compromise, conquering the most challenging terrain to enjoy life’s most enriching experiences, wherever they may be,” said Torsten Muller-Otvos, chief executive officer of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. “For this reason, they have asked us to create a Rolls-Royce that offers uncompromised luxury wherever they dare to venture. Cullinan is that car. It is Effortless, Everywhere,” Muller-Otvos noted.
And even though it offers sumptuous luxury, the Cullinan is also a proper SUV. Pressing the off-road button on the center console makes instantaneous adjustments to prepare Cullinan for off-pavement adventure. The air suspension raises ground clearance by about 1.6 inches, while power gets directed to all four wheels at all times. In addition, the electronically controlled shock absorber system uses air compression to actively press down any wheel it detects losing traction, ensuring all wheels remain in constant contact with the ground to deliver maximum torque. Designed to handle a variety of on- and off-road conditions, the Cullinan can travel through standing water to a depth of 21 inches.
During our time with Rolls-Royce in Sun Valley, we had ample opportunity to drive both the Cullinan and Ghost well off the beaten path on snow-packed dirt roads in the beautiful Idaho countryside. Fitted with proper winter tires, the vehicles offered plenty of grip to provide a confident ride, even when cruising on extremely slippery surfaces. Although we would expect such behavior from the ruggedly luxurious Cullinan SUV, even the Ghost sedan performed admirably off pavement while maintaining its signature Magic Carpet Ride. We were quite please to discover that either vehicle is perfectly capable of transporting occupants in ultimate comfort to destinations that don’t require paved, impeccable road surfaces.
And even though these modern-day Rolls-Royces are perfectly capable on snow and dirt, they really shine while being driven with brio up winding mountain roads. The Ghost and Cullinan always have plenty of power on tap, delivered seamlessly while the suspension does an admirable job of keeping the big vehicles flat through corners. The steering setup for both vehicles is light yet provides favorable feedback, making the Rolls an enjoyable car (or SUV) to drive.
In the late 1960s, Rolls-Royce introduced a 6.75-liter V8 engine, often referred to as the Six and Three-Quarter — this engine was in production longer than practically any other engine, and it has been used in a range of Rolls-Royce and Bentley models. Throughout the engine’s illustrious career, power has always been described as “adequate.” In keeping with tradition, Rolls-Royce once again employs a 6.75-liter engine for the new Ghost and Cullinan; however, the V8 has been replaced with a twin-turbo V12 producing 563 horsepower and 627 lb-ft of torque — considerably more oomph than adequate.
The big Rolls-Royce V12 delivers power to all four wheels through a satellite-aided transmission that uses real-time data to shift to the correct gear for upcoming corners or terrain. The result is a smooth-shifting gearbox that works seamlessly with an incredibly quiet engine. The Planar software controls the all-wheel drive, the all-wheel steering, the stability control and a self-drying brake system to ensure these high-tech Rolls-Royces are adapting to all changes in surface and grip level.
During our time in these incredible vehicles, Rolls-Royce reps demonstrated how well the stability control works with the all-wheel-drive system to keep the big vehicle on track, even at high speeds on snow. Even though the vehicles are controllable with the stability control systems off, with the systems activated it is almost impossible to put the Rolls sideways, even when cornering on snow. All further evidence that there’s no reason to keep a Rolls-Royce Ghost or Cullinan garaged during winter months.
Rolls-Royce also provided us with the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the Black Badge series, which gives a dark edge to vehicle design as well as provides a bump in performance. Currently the Cullinan and Ghost are available in Black Badge guise, standing out with dark chrome replacing the standard chrome, including the grille and Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament. Black Badge vehicles also have a performance upgrade — the V12 output rises to 591 horsepower and 664 lb-ft of torque. Transmission, suspension and driving dynamics are all enhanced for a more engaging experience; all-wheel drive remains standard.
Rolls-Royce vehicles typically do not have a Sport mode; however, a button on the gear selector of the Black Badge Ghost and Cullinan labeled Low fits the bill. Selecting Low mode opens baffles in the new exhaust system, providing a throaty rumble from the powerful V12 engine that normally remains completely quiet. The transmission’s shift speeds get increased 50 percent when the throttle is above 90 percent, drawing on abundant levels of available torque.
We took the Cullinan Black Badge north into the Idaho mountains, where the additional power and quicker response made for a thrilling winter drive. At a photo stop, the dark-trimmed Cullinan looked outstanding with the Idaho mountains as a backdrop as snow began to fall as if on cue. Even the Black Badge Cullinan with its slightly louder exhaust flies along so quietly and smoothly it eclipses 80 mph without any indication regarding the high rate of speed.
The demographic for Rolls-Royce owners has changed with the introduction of the Cullinan and Ghost — owners of these luxury automobiles are younger than they’ve ever been. The new Cullinan and Ghost have reset the average age of a Rolls owner to 43 years (younger than any other brand in the BMW Group — the parent company of Rolls-Royce). We suspect these younger owners will likely experience their Roll-Royces more often than previous generations, and recent exploits prove that inclement weather shouldn’t put a damper on any driving plans. Granted, a Rolls-Royce may not be considered the ultimate winter driving machine, but it delivers the expected superior experience no matter what road conditions winter whips up.