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How Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini are setting a new high bar for ultra-luxury SUVs

Confession: I dislike SUVs. I’ve always preferred the low-to-the-ground stance and performance of sports cars, souped-up sedans and even certain wagons versus the raised “command-seating” position that sport-utes offer.

But in the interest of tracking the automotive world’s latest trends, I recently tested two relative latecomers to the crowded ultra-luxury SUV scene: the 2020 Lamborghini Urus and the 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge. Spoiler alert: Meet two Olympians.

By bringing high-end SUVs to the market, Rolls and Lambo are reaching for the brass ring of profit and sales, like many before them. Go all the way back to 2003, when Porsche boldly broke the ice by launching the Cayenne. Purists derided the company for straying so far afield from its storied sports cars. Consumers, however, voted with their wallets, wanting haute German engineering in a family-friendly package. Fast-forward to today, when Porsche enjoys glowing sales and market share thanks to the Cayenne and its follow-on baby brother, the Macan crossover.

Other companies keep trying to replicate Porsche‘s success. Bentley launched the Bentayga in 2016. Mercedes continues to up-level versions of its G-Class, among other variants. Aston Martin is about to launch its first crossover, the DBX, and Ferrari’s first family-mover, while confirmed, is still years out. And so on, and so on.

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But it’s tough to balance utility, luxury and performance. The results can often be overengineered and underwhelming.

A neon-blue Lamborghini Urus with a man in sunglasses behind the wheel.
The Lamborghini Urus, as tested in “blu Eleos,” uses air suspension to refine its ride.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

With that bias in mind, I jumped into the neon-blue Lamborghini Urus in my driveway. First impressions matter, and mine was: stunning, from the intricate stitching to the fighter jet-inspired start button. I dared fate and pushed; the resulting snarl was as loud and aurally proud as any hyper car I’ve had the pleasure of engaging.

As I whirled through my neighborhood, the cocktail of epic sounds, precise handling and dance-on-a-dime turns made me shake my head. Was I really in an SUV?

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The cockpit of the Lamborguini Urus.
The Urus’s cockpit is awash in fighter-jet-inspired details, carbon fiber and the brand’s signature hexagons.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Urus also offers multiple drive modes, including Strada (street), Corsa (track) and Neve (snow). Sure, parent company Volkswagen Group ups Lambo’s game with a great parts bin, including Audi engineering and reliability, but not one iota of essential Italian DNA is lost. (Let’s just say it’s been a long time since I scared myself in a delightful way in SUV-tire-smoking terms.)

Speaking of DNA, back in 1986, Lamborghini introduced the LM002, a Hummer-sized bleeding-edge “truck” with an audacious V12 under the massive hood. Money-maker? Not so much, but the LM002 showed the world Lamborghini’s ambition to venture beyond sports cars. The company was simply too early.

Today, Lambo’s timing is just right. I rallied some of my most fierce car-fanatic friends. All surprised themselves by screaming with glee as they put the Italian through its paces. Few of them own SUVs, but now they want a Urus.

Easy for people to say who have the kind of money to spend hundreds of thousands on exotic off-roaders (both the Lambo and the Rolls apparently handle sand and ice without breaking a sweat). Compared with spending the same on a two-seater without room for kids, dogs or gear, though, dropping that kind of dough on a Urus may seem downright sensible for the super-rich.

The Lamborghini Urus has a flat-bottomed suede and leather steering wheel.
Sports car touches such as sculptured paddle shifters and a flat-bottomed suede and leather steering wheel accent the Urus’ interior.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

On the other end of the narrow ultra-SUV spectrum, there’s the formidable Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge. If the Urus is a deceptively usable weapon of speed, the Black Badge — the most exclusive version of the Cullinan — is the ultimate Malibu beach house on wheels, and then some.

I opened the Cullinan’s driver door and grinned. A black and “forge yellow” (think mango orange) experience beckoned, the 3-D pattern in the carbon fiber trim as delectable a detail as fresh pepper on a white truffle pasta. I glanced up — to the signature Rolls starlight headliner. (In the U.K. factory, humans painstakingly hand-prick the fabric and position each LED light, and customers may preorder their preferred constellations.) A random shooting star flickered above me (yes, I made a wish). When I opened the towering rear hatch, I pushed a button and watched in delight as two forge yellow tailgating seats slid forward and spun into position, like professional ballroom dancers.

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I suppose when you are spending half a million dollars on your vehicle, absolutely nothing should be out of range, including the optional “Dancing with the Stars” picnicking kit. Rolls has only ever made exceptional, exceptionally large and exceptionally expensive vehicles, so why would an SUV from them be shocking? Like Lambo, Rolls came to the party with cred you can’t buy and the benefits of a parent company’s R&D. The Lambo shares the same platform as the Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7 and Bentley Bentayga. BMW, however, which owns Rolls, invested in architecture the Cullinan shares only with the Phantom flagship.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan
The Rolls-Royce Cullinan’s doors and hatch bring new meaning to “winged victory”—and off-roading in haute style.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

All that engineering prowess has endowed the Cullinan with massive capabilities. A vehicle with this much heft and physical stature shouldn’t handle so well and effortlessly — but the Cullinan does, to the point of laugh-out-loud moments on the 405. I accelerated around a stopped lane of traffic — so fleet and nimble that I nearly felt wind in my hair as its V12 effortlessly blew past every vehicle in its path.

If the Urus is the sports car of SUVs without compromise, the Cullinan is an entirely different yet equally game-changing ultra-utility vehicle that redefines “pinnacle.” These are not competitors; they are state-of-the-art stablemates. Hats off to two unlikely luxury marques that have succeeded in building commendable behemoths in an absurdly competitive space.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan
From plush “forge yellow” wool carpets and two-tone seats to jewelry-like brightwork, every Cullinan is made to its owner’s custom specs.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Lamborghini Urus

Engine: 4.0-liter V8 (twin turbo)

Power: 650 hp, 627 lb.-ft. of torque

Drive system: Four-wheel

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Base price: $207,326

Price as tested: $270,034

Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge

Engine: 6.75-liter V12 (twin turbo)

Power: 600 hp, 664 lb.-ft. of torque

Drive system: All-wheel

Base price: $382,000

Price as tested: $503,225


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