05 December 2019
Every sense in my body was telling me not to do it. From behind the wheel of the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, I was staring across its long bonnet to the mascot of the Spirit of Ecstasy atop the famous grille when I did something that I hoped I wouldn’t later regret.
Stopping on the side of a desolate road, there was a softly rutted track that disappeared into the beyond and beside me on the centre console was a button that read “Off Road.”
I convinced myself to have faith in the $685,000 limousine – in spite of its crystal engraved decanters, tumblers and flutes in the back next to a compact drinks fridge between the two hand-stitched leather seats and walnut picnic tables – and I drove off road through the wilderness.
In all the years I’ve been testing Rolls-Royces, the view out the front has been of sweeping country roads, city highways and valet parking attendants welcoming me at five-star hotels. Never did I expect to see an Arabian sunset over golden dunes greeting me through the windscreen of such luxurious transport.
Images of T.E. Lawrence of Arabia jumped into my head as I imagined how, in 1918, he used his fleet of nine armoured Rolls-Royces – which he described as ‘more valuable than rubies’ – to drive across the wild sand dunes and desolate wadis of Jordan, plotting his raid on the Ottoman Empire as he stormed Aqaba on the banks of the Red Sea with his band of Arabian rebels on horseback.
The Cullinan has a depth of history to lean on but it is the first SUV of the modern Rolls-Royce era, and while it opens up the possibilities of where you can go, it’s not a challenger to the heavy duty off-roading kings like the Nissan Patrol or Toyota LandCruiser. It will, however, get you to your favourite secluded beach or camping spot beyond the realm of regular luxury vehicles.
If it wasn’t for the thought of scratching its extremely expensive paint – with hand-painted pin striping – from the passing branches, or damaging its enormous 22-inch alloy wheels by a hidden rock, there was no reason the Cullinan could not venture further off-road than my limited excursion.
It has the all the hallmarks of a dependable, all-terrain vehicle, being over-engineered in almost every area with a modified aluminium spaceframe platform taken from the Phantom that features added castings in each corner and extrusions in between so it sits higher at 1.8 metres while also being shorter (if you can call 5.3 metres short). The company claims it’s 30 percent stiffer than the Phantom despite being 2.1 metres wide and there’s also less overhang.
Powered by the Phantom’s 6.75-litre, twin-turbocharged V12 engine producing 420kW and 850Nm of torque and running through an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, the Cullinan isn’t short of grunt and after a few hours of gentle off-road driving, not only did it roll effortlessly along the tracks but I found it had the best dust sealing I’ve experienced in any car yet.
In typical R-R fashion, there’s little fanfare inside to show off its off-roading credentials save for that single button.
Press it and the modified xDrive architecture, borrowed from parent company BMW and which has been tailored for the Cullinan, automatically adapts to one of five drive modes comprising snow, mud, sand, gravel and rutted track. It sets the traction and air-suspension ride-height for every road condition. The only other indicator that hints at its off-roading prowess is Hill Descent Control, which takes care of the throttle on steep descents.
The fact is, few will venture off-road but with a standard tow hitch that’s hidden behind the rear bumper and pops up electrically to carry 2.7 metric tonnes, it makes for a very impressive tow vehicle for horses, a car or speedboat.
The Cullinan’s raised height gives it an impressive 540mm wading depth, which they say is the highest of any super-luxury SUV and 40mm higher than the Bentley Bentayga. Likewise, the air suspension also lowers when parked to offer saloon-like convenience for stepping in and out, while a series of stereo cameras look ahead to read the road conditions and adjust the suspension in milliseconds to flatten out bumps or dips before they arrive.
The Cullinan is arguably the first Rolls-Royce that has been made with both the driver and passengers equally in mind and is the best ‘all-rounder’ of the family.
While the Phantom is firmly geared towards the owner being the one riding in the back, it’s not as rewarding to drive as the Ghost and Wraith, which are tailored towards the driver by being more rewarding to punt around but which don’t offer the same levels of space in the rear.
The Cullinan, however, sits in the sweet spot offering the best of both worlds with Phantom-like opulence for the two rear passengers – which in the case of our test car featured privacy glass behind the rear seats so the cabin remained isolated when the tailgate was open and therefore cool and dust-free – while being an enjoyable car to drive long distances.
It comes with an optional bench seat for three passengers if you want more practicality as it splits 60:40 to give internal access to the luggage area while expanding it from 600 litres to 1,930 litres when the seats are folded flat.
Thanks to its four-wheel steering, parking is easier than some of its shorter rivals and it has no fewer than three powered anti-roll bars, two at the front and one at the rear, to ensure it hugs the road nicely on drives.
The Cullinan tips the scales at 2,660kg, similar to the Phantom ,and carries no less than 100kg of sound-deadening material and 6mm thick double glazed glass to keep the heat and noise out.
As always, Rolls-Royce likes to take luxury to another level with a simple innovation and the Cullinan, with a hidden gem, doesn’t disappoint. Like Range Rover, the tailgate is split horizontally offering space to sit with the rear window opening up for shelter, but the engineers took it a step further.
By pressing a button on the floor, a powered tray slides out to reveal two leather chairs that pop up into place with a centre arm-rest/drinks tray so you can watch the polo from the trunk in Rolls-Royce leather-cosseted luxury.
Rolls-Royce has a long tradition of evolution over revolution which stands the test of time and in a decade from now, when other current SUVs will be looking obsolete after trying to fit in with current trends, the Cullinan will only improve.
From behind the wheel and especially from riding in the back, there is no other Rolls-Royce that fits the bill so comprehensively, ticking so many boxes while being as enjoyable to drive as it is to ride in. Which, when you think about the brand we’re talking about, is a fairly impressive statement.