Rolls-Royce Cullinan: we put the Dh1.9 million luxury SUV through its paces in the Dubai desert

Damien Reid never expected to see an Arabian sunset - and the occasional Oryx - over golden sand dunes through the windscreen of such a luxurious vehicle

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Every sense in my body was telling me not to do it. From behind the wheel of the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, I stared down its long bonnet to the mascot of the Spirit of Ecstasy on top of the marque's famous grille and decided to do something I hoped I wouldn't later regret. Stopping by the side of a desolate road, I saw a sandy track that disappeared over sand dunes and beside me, on the centre console, a button that read "Off Road".

I put my faith in the Dh1.9 million limousine that housed crystal engraved decanters, tumblers and flutes in the back next to a compact drinks fridge nestled between two hand-stitched leather seats and walnut picnic tables and I drove through the desert. In all the years I've been testing Rolls-Royces, the view through the windscreen has been of sweeping country roads, city highways or valet parking attendants at five-star hotels. Never did I expect to see an Arabian sunset and the occasional oryx on golden sand dunes.

The Cullinan is Rolls-Royce's first SUV and while it opens up the possibilities of where you can go, it is not a challenger to off-roading kings such as the Nissan Patrol or Toyota Land Cruiser. But the Cullinan will carry you to your favourite secluded beach or desert camping spot beyond the realm of regular luxury vehicles. 

Our writer drove the Rolls-Royce Cullinan in the Dubai desert. Courtesy Damien Reid
Our writer drove the Rolls-Royce Cullinan in the Dubai desert. Courtesy Damien Reid

It has all the hallmarks of a dependable, all-terrain vehicle, having been over-­engineered in almost every area. There is a modified aluminium spaceframe platform taken from the Rolls-Royce Phantom that features added castings in each corner and extrusions in between so the Cullinan sits higher at 1.8 metres, but is also shorter (if you can call 5.3 metres short). The carmaker says it is 30 per cent stiffer than the Phantom, despite being 2.1 metres wide, and there is also less overhang.

It is also powered by the Phantom's 6.75-litre, twin-turbocharged V12 engine producing 585bhp and 850Nm of torque and running through an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission. The Cullinan certainly is not short of grunt and after a few hours of gentle sand driving, not only did it roll effortlessly along the tracks but I also found it has a better dust sealing than any car I've driven.

In typical Rolls-Royce fashion, there is little inside to hint at its off-roading credentials, save for that button. But press it and the modified xDrive architecture, borrowed from parent company BMW and tailored for the Cullinan, 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 its "hill descent control", which takes care of the throttle on steep declines.

With a standard tow hitch hidden behind the rear bumper that pops up electrically to carry 2.7 metric tonnes, it also makes for an impressive tow vehicle.

Cullinan's raised height also gives it an impressive 540-millimetre wading depth, which Rolls-Royce says 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.

Whether you're a back-seat passenger or driver, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan is a pleasure to ride in. Courtesy Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd.
Whether you're a back-seat passenger or driver, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan is a pleasure to ride in. Courtesy Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd.

The Cullinan is arguably the first Rolls-Royce to be made with the driver and passengers ­equally in mind. While the Phantom is firmly geared towards the owner being the one riding in the back in supreme comfort, it is not as rewarding to drive as the Ghost or Wraith. But those models don't offer the same amount of space in the rear. The Cullinan, however, offers the best of both worlds, with Phantom-like opulence for the two rear passengers, as well as being an enjoyable car to drive long distances.

It also 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 and expands it from 600 litres to 1,930 litres when the seats are folded flat.

Thanks to its four-wheel steering, parking is also easier than in 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.

There is no other Rolls-Royce that fits the bill so comprehensively.

The Cullinan tips the scales at 2,660 kilograms, 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 Cullinan has a hidden gem. The tailgate is split ­horizontally, offering space to sit with the rear window opening up for shelter and, 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 armrest/drinks tray.

While I'm still not sold on the looks, Rolls-Royce has a long tradition of evolution over revolution that stands the test of time and a decade from now, when its contemporary SUVs look obsolete after trying to fit in with current trends, the Cullinan will have aged gracefully.

There is no other Rolls-Royce that fits the bill so comprehensively. It is as enjoyable to drive as it is to ride in and when you think about the brand we're talking about, that is a fairly impressive statement.