All I was missing were the flowing robes. As the big beast effortlessly launched from one sand dune to the next, it was easy to imagine what it might have felt like for Col. T.E. Lawrence, racing across the Arabian Peninsula behind the wheel of his Rolls-Royce, the Blue Mist.
The “Roller” I drove along the California coast — and onto sandy Pismo Beach — was the Cullinan, the first true utility vehicle the venerable British brand built in its 113-year history. Along with being the first-ever Rolls to offer all-wheel drive, it has plenty of other features Lawrence of Arabia only could have dreamed of.
I’ve now had some additional opportunities to put the Rolls-Royce Cullinan through its paces, most recently near my home in the Detroit suburbs, as well as along my favorite test route through Hell, Michigan, an hour to the west.
One thing is certain, the Cullinan certainly turns heads wherever it goes.
The look is familiar, and no surprise, as the Cullinan is based off the same “Architecture of Luxury” as the current, eighth-generation Rolls-Royce Phantom. And it maintains the same “magic carpet’ ride that makes you feel as if you were hovering slightly above the road, even on the worst of pavement.
Like the Phantom, the Cullinan draws power from a silky smooth 6.75-liter V-12 that effortlessly delivers all the power you might want. It needs that muscle considering that the base version of the SUV weighs in at nearly three tons. But one of the biggest surprises is just how quick Cullinan is off the line. Better yet, its all-wheel-drive system effortlessly takes on pretty much anything you can throw at it, from sand to snow to mud and ruts. It’s just a question of how risky you want to be with a luxury SUV that starts at $330,000.
For the money you get what is the most lavishly appointed vehicle on the road, with a cabin elegantly finished, as one would expect, in the finest leathers, wood trim and lambs-wool carpeting, with aluminum accents giving the Cullinan a bit more modern feel. As is the norm for Rolls-Royce, nine out of 10 initial buyers are customizing the SUV and there are plenty of options available, including a pull-out platform behind the split tailgate that can be outfitted with a picnic table or a pair of cozy seats for tailgating. And Rolls will entertain pretty much any other idea you might come up with.
Big, bold — or, to some eyes, ostentatious — Cullinan picks up on classic Rolls-Royce cues, borrowing many from the latest-generation Phantom sedan. And, in distinctive fashion, that includes rear-opening “suicide doors” for back-seat passengers.
Nose-on, there is the familiar Parthenon grille, here even taller and wider, and, of course, topped by the requisite Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament. Cullinan measures nearly 209 inches in length, slightly shorter than the Phantom, but sits taller. The added ground clearance — and seven inches of additional height — give the SUV an even more imposing presence, though it will kneel two inches when parked to make ingress and egress easier for passengers.
The Cullinan rides on the British’s marque’s Architecture of Luxury, and features a modular aluminum spaceframe blending a mix of castings and extrusions. Even so, it tips the scales at a not-so-svelte 5,864 pounds.
Lay out a list of what you’d expect of the ultimate SUV’s cabin and you’ll likely find it all inside the Cullinan. There’s lambs-wool carpeting, box-grain leather and acres of wood, with machined metal surfaces adding a nice contrast.
The standard layout offers five seats, though most buyers appear to be opting for the more plush, twin-bucket rear that allows passenger to stretch out like they would on a business class jet. The front seats are well padded and exquisitely upholstered, adding numerous massage modes and, of course, heating and cooling. The driver sets high above the road, appropriately allowing one to look down on the rest of the world. The rear seats actually sit even higher.
The cargo compartment is cavernous and can be configured in various ways behind the split tailgate. That includes an optional, pull-out picnic set-up, if you wish. Or, if you prefer, a lounge layout with fold out chairs for your caviar-and-champagne tailgate party. Of course, a refrigerator to keep the bubbly cold is among the options.
Rolls’ has never been shy of delivering power, and Cullinan is no exception, relying on a 6.75-liter twin-turbo V-12 that musters 563 horsepower and 627 pound-feet of torque. The official answer to the obvious question is 5 seconds, but my own experience found Cullinan launching from 0-60 more in the range of 4.5 to 4.8 seconds. Top speed is an electronically limited 155 mph.
Power is channeled through an 8-speed ZF automatic transmission and then delivered to all four wheels, though the drivetrain initially preferences the rear axle until one of the tires starts to lose grip.
Safety and Technology
There was a time when Rolls seemed almost technophobic, the automaker appearing to view digital systems as somehow too plebian. No longer. There are plenty of screens, including the digital instrument cluster and a large infotainment touchscreen. One also can order a twin-screen rear entertainment system.
The reliance on semiconductor technology extends to the four-corner air suspension system which helps keep Cullinan stable, no matter what you’re riding on, sand, mud, rocks or rutted Michigan roadways. It really does maintain the magic carpet ride the brand is known for, but takes that to new extreme. The suspension also can add height for off-roading, or kneel down to assist passengers getting in or out.
As with more and more modern SUVs, a Cullinan driver doesn’t have to worry about how to set up the transmission, suspension and all-wheel-drive system for specific road conditions. There are an assortment of mode settings that will line everything up automatically. To further assist, Cullinan makes use of four cameras embedded around its body. They provide a number of different views, including a birds-eye angle that makes it much easier than you’d otherwise expect to park the big beast.
Spending time in the Cullinan multiple times and in multiple locations offered the opportunity to really get to experience what it can do. In day-to-day driving, it fully lives up to what you’d expect of a Rolls-Royce. It’s tombstone quiet inside, elegant to look at and plushly comfortable to ride in. All but the worst bumps and dips seem to vanish.
Out on the highway, Cullinan is quick, with all the power you want to make high-speed passes with ease. At a light, only the most powerful sports or muscle cars will beat it off the line, if you’re so inclined. And despite its height and mass, I was able to flog it through the tight corners through Hell, Michigan with aplomb. I simply didn’t expect to see this beast handle so nimbly.
But what continues to amaze is how well the Culinan handles in places you’d previously never have expected to take a Rolls-Royce.
During my first experience with the big SUV I had the chance to spend more than an hour flogging the Cullinan along Pismo Beach, the only section of California shoreline where the public can drive out onto the sand. The SUV proved as confident there as it did on solid pavement, effortlessly tracking where I told it to go. And, with the ability to ford more than 21 inches of water, Cullinan is virtually unstoppable.
Few vehicles are more polarizing than the Rolls-Royce Cullinan. To some, it represents the pinnacle of motoring elegance and capability. To others, I found, it is painfully ostentatious and the ultimate symbol of fuel-guzzling excess. The latter point is hard to refute, the SUV’s big V-12 rated by the EPA at a mere 12 mpg city and 20 on the highway.
Did I also mention price? At a starting point of $330,000, Cullinan is clearly within the budget of only a fraction of 1-percenters. But, for those who can afford it and want a combination of grand luxury, power and capabilities, the Cullinan is the pinnacle of the SUV market.