Perched at the top of the hill, the spray off the ocean is creating a fine mist on the windshield. The low-lying clouds have made visibility a little hazy, and the surrounding countryside is obscured by rain. Time to wait and let things clear for a bit. To be honest, I’m happy to wait as long as necessary when the surroundings are as beautiful as this.
No, I’m not talking about the location – we’re in New Zealand for the Asia-Pacific driving debut of the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, the superluxury company’s first SUV – rather, I’m talking about this interior.
The soft hide and perfect padding of the seats mean you can while away the hours without needing to shift around or get yourself comfortable again. You simply set your driving position and you’re ready to spend as much time behind the wheel as you feel. In our case, it was a morning of being cosseted by the world’s most expensive production SUV.
Rolls-Royce calls it a high-bodied vehicle, and the Cullinan is definitely that, but because of its tall-boy outline, it’s also the company’s most practical vehicle as well. Witness the split-fold rear seat (electrically operated of course) so you can put your skis inside, or even that large painting you wanted to transport.
The floor of the luggage compartment also has an adjustable “ramp” which can be set flat to maximize cargo area or raised up to meet with the base of the rear seats, supporting any objects which need to be loaded through. And yes, you operate the ramp electrically, too.
There are 600 liters of space available in the trunk, and when the back seats are folded down, that grows to a healthy 1930 liters.
Our test vehicle for this driving program is the five-seat “lounge” spec, coated in Gun Metal metallic paint. This, according to Rolls-Royce, will be the most popular of the two options; you may remember we had a close look at the four-seat Individual specification earlier this year.
Despite the slightly quieter interior in the four-seat version, the difference between the two when on the road is minimal.
Press the start button and the twin-turbocharged 6.75-liter V12 spins up in typical Rolls-Royce fashion: a faint whirr and then a silent idle. Of course, the hush in the cabin hides the engine’s potency.
Producing 563 bhp and a whopping 850 Nm (627 lb-ft), it’s the same ultra-refined engine as found in the Phantom, just backed off a little in tune so as not to tread on its big brother’s toes. Regardless, there’s no doubting its efficacy.
Pull the column-mounted gear selector down to Drive and plant your right foot and the Cullinan lurches back onto its haunches and then accelerates in a crescendo in the same manner as an A380 approaching V1.
Keep your foot buried into the deep pile lambswool and it will hit 62 mph (100 kmh) in just 5.2 seconds – not bad for an SUV weighing 2660kg – and will then thunder on until it hits its limited top speed of 155 mph (250 kmh).
But the Cullinan isn’t about specs and datasheets. It’s about traveling in pure luxury to your destination no matter where that is. And ours was the beautiful surroundings of Muriwai Beach. To get there, we had to traverse a lot of gravel roads as well as some twisting backroads that sliced through the hillsides. A perfect test, then.
Pulling away from Parihoa Farm, the Cullinan feels just like every other Rolls-Royce. The touchpoints are all very familiar, the instrumentation is the same and the seats give you the same sense of lounge-like comfort. Refreshing to see, too, are actual physical controls for things like the infotainment volume and the climate control, which you can simply reach out and adjust without taking your eyes off the road.
The large 22-inch wheels are transmitting a gravel crackle underneath, but in a very muted fashion, and the steering wheel – although a fraction too large – gives you good feedback as you tip the Cullinan into corners. As the road straightens out, we can use that immense wave of torque to up the pace a little, and then the gravel disappears completely. Now it’s time to see whether this 5864 lb monster (2660kg) can handle the pace of country road driving.
The first corner comes and the Cullinan shrugs it off. Turn in a bit harder and the anti-roll bars work their magic. A few twists and dips into the journey and you’re quite aware that the Cullinan is a lot more agile than it has any right to be.
Rolls-Royce has done some magical work with suspension before, but this is their crowning glory. Combining the trademark ride comfort with cornering ability in a super-luxury SUV? Now that is something to be proud of.
It will lope along, cosseting its occupants, but it’s never scared of a bend or two. Clearly, there are limits, but they’re a lot higher than most people would explore. And if you do come in a little too hot, the stability control quietly but quickly mops up any spills. Dynamically, the Cullinan is very accomplished.
Thanks to that colossal power and adept suspension, it gives you the confidence to perform quick overtaking manoeuvres, but you’d think that when piloting around the city it may get a little cumbersome. Think again.
When parking, the Rolls-Royce SUV has a little trick up its sleeve – rear-wheel steering. This acts to shorten the wheelbase, making the turning circle smaller, and with cameras everywhere it’s easy to slot into a parking bay.
So, it drives well on the road, has an interior built to perfection and has a heap of space inside for passengers. Ticking all the boxes, then, right? Well, there’s one more hurdle it has to overcome.
It’s an SUV, and Rolls-Royce has fitted it with height-adjustable suspension and all-wheel-drive. That means it’s an off-roader, right? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out.
Rolls-Royce had opted for a bit of light-duty work on a small track that leads through the farm. Effectively, it was a track that just about any SUV could handle. So up we went, no issues, but then, no slip, either. More interesting was on the way down.
Press the hill descent button and a little green speed indicator comes up on the dash, alerting you to how fast the HDC will allow you to crawl downt the hill. You can adjust it using the cruise control buttons on the steering wheel from around 3kmh through to 11kmh.
This hill descent is without a doubt, the quietest setup of any SUV we’ve ever tried. While most vehicles have a loud tick-tick-tick sound when the brakes are being activated (or even a bang-bang-bang sound in some cases), the Cullinan’s brakes work in the background, never alerting you to what they’re doing. You simply set the speed, steer and relax.
But we wanted to challenge the car. So, halfway down, we turned around and picked a different path. Mike Eady, the Rolls-Royce driving instructor, was clearly a bit nervous as this wasn’t on the driving program.
The grass surrounding the track was very wet thanks to light showers that soaked the ground throughout the early morning. And as anyone who understands wet grass understands, it’s a rather slippery surface. Sometimes, you can’t even walk on it without ending up on your backside. A good challenge, then.
There was a steeper section that veered away slightly and then led back to the path. Sure, it was a little close to a fence, but you don’t get many chances to try these things, as there aren’t a lot of press vehicles around at the moment. So, let’s give this a shot.
We climbed up slowly, a couple of inches at a time, not with a lot of speed so that we don’t bounce off the undulations – after all, you’re talking about an air-sprung vehicle that weighs nearly 2.7-tonnes. The first slip was caught by the traction control, as was the second slip. Without touching the brake (it’s doing that for us), we press on. The photographer was loving it, but the instructor was doing mental maths, adding up the cost of any panel damage as we get closer to the fence on our left.
Suddenly, the whole car loses grip and slides to the left, giving us less than a foot of clearance before we hit barbed wire. Sinking into the dip, the engine is working fine but the tyres and stability control aren’t happy and it continues to spin and brake, but slides even further. Gravity is the enemy when the car is this big, so momentum is going to take over and things could get messy.
That’s it – no more. Time to back out.
And that’s as far as we got with anything approaching some genuine off-roading. To be fair, it was running on road pressures, road tyres and 22-inch rims – the worst combination you could get for wet grass.
There’s no doubt that with less pressure in the tyres, with 21-inch wheels and with a bit more momentum, it would have been possible. Time was against us, however, which means we’ll have to take another opportunity to test how well the Cullinan does off road.
And if spending more time in a Cullinan is what it takes to satisfy our readers, who are we to argue?
It’s clear the Cullinan is a special machine on the road (and on gravel, too) but even if used just for transporting people or goods, then it’s job done.
This is the everyday Rolls-Royce, and in everyday situations it’s an SUV that is extremely competent. As it should be – it is a Rolls-Royce after all.