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Once in a Lifetime: The 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan and a Wandering Path

A drive in any Rolls-Royce is still a drive to remember.

SEATTLE—If you care about cars at all, and maybe even if you don't, you'll probably never forget your first time spent in a Rolls-Royce. Just saying the name puts you in a certain mindset, even if you're not particularly a fan of the types of cars Rolls-Royce builds. After all, there's really no automotive brand in the world, besides perhaps Ferrari, that is so universally respected not just as a builder of high-quality luxury cars, but as a builder of dreams and aspirations. For the 99 percent of us who weren't born with a platinum spoon in our mouth, any time spent inside one is a brief, temporary glimpse into another world. Or maybe even an alternate pathway on life's road of events, a chance to ponder how things could have worked out had you chosen a different road. But ... we can at least test the 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan without having to afford the MSRP.

Indeed, to paraphrase Talking Heads singer David Byrne, the 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan parked outside is certainly not my beautiful car. Well, how did it get here?

2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Test: The Easy(ier) Way

I certainly remember my first drive in a Rolls-Royce. Two decades ago I was 20 years old and was halfway through a two-year education hiatus after my first year away at college. I'd chosen to study business administration, and while I had some interest and aptitude for the coursework, it just didn't feel right. It took some soul searching to realize I didn't really want to plug away in some corporate tower behind a desk for years and years, as it was just a means to an end: making enough money to not have to spend a lifetime behind the wheel of boring cars. I was, of course, obsessed with automobiles from an early age.

Still trying to figure out an uncertain future, I popped in to see a salesman I was friendly with at a specialty car dealership in Monterey, California, near where I'd gone to school. I wasn't in the market for anything, having at best a couple grand to my name and a decrepit, faded brown 1976 Fiat X1/9. The sales guy, a kind, middle-aged, mustached man named Patrick, would let me wander the lot, sit in cars, dream about the future. And like any good salesman, he treated me like a valued customer even if he absolutely knew my time hadn't yet come.

It turned out that Patrick had retired after years of shifting G-series 911s, mid-engine "starter" Ferraris, E-Types, Mercedes SLs, and all other manner of bread-and-butter, then semi-affordable interesting used cars. Given that I'd recently quit my restaurant job, I asked if the dealer was hiring. A week later, I began selling used luxury and exotic cars. There was no hourly wage, the job paid on commission only.

A month into the job, I was learning the ins and outs of selling cars professionally, but as the "FNG," part of my time was spent running shop errands. Most of these errands weren't too exciting: running to fetch lunch orders, the owner's dry cleaning, or various service parts for our inventory. But usually, they'd come with access to an interesting car to run the errand in. So, occasionally I'd schlep pizza in an Alfa Romeo 164, pick up a nearly-new Honda S2000 we were selling on consignment, and so on. One morning, the dealership owner stopped at my desk on his way out the door and asked me to follow his Ferrari 512BBi down to the body shop in a red 1956 Porsche 356 A coupe we had in inventory. The 356 had been damaged a day or two before by another salesman, who backed it into a pole and dented a rear fender. After dropping off the Porsche for repair, I was to return in a two-tone tan and brown 1977 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II that had just had some paint chips touched-up.

2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Test: Be Patient, We're Getting There

At the time, both the Porsche and Rolls were about $20,000 cars (Porsches had still yet to hit their stride in the collector-car market). And even though I've always been more of a sports-car guy who loved 356s, the Rolls made far more of a serious impression on me. It was an honest-to-goodness Roller, with the Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament atop the squared-off front grille, the rich smell of Connolly Leather soaked deep into the cabin, and plenty of expensive-looking wood on the dashboard. Climbing aboard, my feet sank a couple of inches into the plush wool carpet, and I felt like I was in the drawing room of a stately, old-money estate. This was more than just a car.

The classic 6.75-liter V-8 fired up instantly, and it settled quickly into a whisper-quiet and almost eerily gentle idle. The thin, almost delicate shift lever was column-mounted, and I slipped the three-speed GM-sourced automatic into Drive. I was off, at 20 years old, down the road in a Rolls-Royce. Everything about it was different to me. The bus-sized yet almost pencil-thin steering wheel was so light, I could turn it with my little finger. The car moved so regally down the road, quiet and plush and heavy feeling. There was no tachometer, because what was the point? The whole trip back to the dealership was a revelation, and while this wasn't my type of car, I felt like I'd just had a new and meaningful life experience. I knew what it was like to drive a Rolls-Royce.

2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Test: Here and Now

The job didn't last long. I sold maybe three cars in as many months, and after I felt I was short-changed on a Ferrari 308 commission, I split one day. I left for lunch and just never came back. I was young, short-sighted, and even more broke than when I'd started the job. Six months later I enrolled in school again, with a new goal to drive some of the best cars in the world and write about them. Nearly 20 years later, there's a brand-new 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan parked in the driveway of my house and waiting for me to take her for a test drive. Somehow, someway, the plan worked.

By now, after nearly 15 years of writing about cars, I'd venture to guess this is the fourth or fifth Rolls-Royce key fob I've had in my hands. One thing I've learned is that my time with a Rolls is almost always fleeting. From my first 10-minute drive all those years ago to the 48 hours and 200-mile max I have with the Cullinan, these things just don't have a habit of staying in my orbit long.

Anyway, what to say about a near-$400,000, leather, wood, and metal Barcalounger on wheels that hasn't been said before? How to express why anyone should care about an SUV that only the few titans who hold a lion's share of the world's wealth are able to afford? Especially in times of record unemployment and global turmoil?

When my wife arrived home from work in late afternoon, we ate a quick, early dinner, got in the Cullinan, hit the starter button, and watched the Spirit of Ecstasy rise from its protective vault to the top of the grille. This was her first Rolls-Royce experience, so we wafted down miles and miles of country roads, ensconced in the rich smell of carefully, tediously manicured leather and letting the Cullinan's air suspension steamroll over the bumps and dips I knew were there, but couldn't really feel. The 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan is a far, far larger vehicle than that old Silver Shadow II, but the way it goes down a road with such ease, the way it drives smaller than it is, is one of the great wonders of the automotive world.

Occasionally, I'd put my throttle-foot down, letting the Cullinan's 571-horsepower, twin-turbo, 6.75-liter V-12 rocket us in silky smoothness down the lane. There's still that column-mounted shifter, still no tachometer (a power-reserve meter in its place), still that special feeling as my wife sunk her toes into a puddle of inches-deep wool carpet. And Rolls-Royce still knows the meaning of building truly aspirational automobiles that have a hard time fading from memory. This may not be my beautiful car, but I'll never forget a test drive in a Rolls-Royce with my beautiful wife. Once in a lifetime, indeed.

2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $335,350/$394,275 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 6.75L twin-turbo DOHC 48-valve V-12/571 hp @ 5,000 rpm, 627 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 12/20 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 210.0 x 79.0 x 72.0 in
WHEELBASE 130.0 in
WEIGHT 6,069 lb
0-60 MPH 5.0 sec
TOP SPEED 155 mph