Rolls-Royce has a strong history in the Middle East, one that runs deeper than the bespoke creations we see parked in forecourts of five-star hotels, back to the earliest days when its reputation for creating the world’s best car was forged from an ability to build unbreakable vehicles.
In that sense, despite being regarded as a brave departure for the company at its 2018 launch, its first SUV, the Cullinan probably has the strongest link to Rolls-Royce’s founding years than any of its contemporary siblings.
From behind the lofty driving position of the 2021 Cullinan, I couldn’t help but visualise TE Lawrence of Arabia. I imagined how, in 1918, he used his fleet of nine armoured Rolls-Royces, which he famously described as “more valuable than rubies”, to drive across the wild sand dunes and desolate wadis of Jordan (what is now Saudi Arabia).
The cornerstone to his plot to overturn the Ottoman Empire, as he stormed Aqaba on the banks of the Red Sea with his band of Arabian rebels on horseback, was his fleet of Rolls-Royces he tendered from the company in 1916.
The Cullinan has a depth of history to lean on, but it’s the first SUV of the modern BMW-owned Rolls-Royce era, and aside from its outward off-road-capable appearance, inside there’s little fanfare to show off its all-terrain credentials save for a single button in the centre console marked “Off Road”.
Press it and the modified xDrive architecture borrowed from parent company BMW, 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 height for every road condition. The only other indicator that hints to its off-roading prowess is Hill Descent Control, which takes care of the throttle on steep descents.
The Cullinan’s raised height gives it an impressive 540 millimetres of wading depth, which the company claims is the highest of any super-luxury SUV and is 40mm higher than the Bentley Bentayga. Likewise, the air suspension also lowers when parked, to offer saloon-like convenience for stepping in and out. A series of stereo cameras, meanwhile, look ahead to read the road conditions and adjust the suspension in milliseconds to flatten out bumps or dips before they arrive.
Driver's delight, passenger's comfort
It would be fair to say the Cullinan is the all-rounder of the Rolls-Royce family, offering Phantom-like, five-star luxury for the two rear occupants who can be isolated from the outside world by a glass partition for when the rear tailgate is opened. Yet it is more of a driver’s car than the chauffeur-orientated flagship saloon and closer to the Wraith in how it feels from behind the wheel.
While the occupant priorities of the Phantom and, to an extent, the Ghost are more passenger-centric, and the Wraith and Dawn are the opposite, with the car built more around the driver, the Cullinan is the best mix of all, making it my preferred model in the range.
Powered by the venerable 6.75-litre V12 engine from the Phantom, which develops 585bhp and 850Nm of torque running through an eight-speed automatic transmission, the 2,660-kilogram Cullinan is no slouch, getting to 100 kilometres per hour in 5.2 seconds and on to a top speed of 250kph.
Around town it’s virtually silent and is one car that would be perfectly suited to running as a fully electric vehicle, as the company’s engineers have worked tirelessly to make the big V12 behave exactly like an electric motor. It offers copious torque, is so silent that even when standing outside, I had to press the throttle and watch the gauges to see if the motor was running and ticks all the boxes for being ideal for electrification. There has been talk, but no commitment so far, but it would have to be on the agenda at Rolls-Royce HQ.
As expected, the interior options are virtually unlimited with the rear offering a 60:40 split-fold three-seat bench that offers up to 1,930 litres of cargo space. For ultimate luxury, however, there is a more traditional four-seat layout that includes individual motorised rear seats, a fixed centre console through the middle and a rear bulkhead partition to block out sand and heat when the tailgate is open.
For options, owners can request chilled drinks cabinets with crystal glassware, picnic hampers or, in the case of The National’s review car, electrically operated, leather chairs that swivel out from the rear floor over the tailgate for days at the polo. There’s even a photography and drone kit that can be installed complete with computer and iPad that stows away in the air-conditioned box below the cargo floor at the touch of a button.
As is the Rolls-Royce way, if you can dream of something completely different, such as modifications for falconry, hunting or fly-fishing, it will be accommodated.
Cullinan’s closest competitor is the Bentley Bentayga, though Mercedes is about to chip in with its Maybach-badged GLS SUV, and from a performance perspective you can add the Lamborghini Urus and Aston Martin DBX at a stretch to the equation as well.
However, after spending a few days living with the Cullinan, it could also be a competitor to other Rolls-Royce models as it covers all bases from Goodwood in one elegant, luxurious and beautifully powerful package.
Engine: 6.75-litre V12
Transmission: 8-speed auto
Price: Dh1.9 million