The first Rolls-Royce SUV has tricks that might actually justify its price tag

The Cullinan can cost $426,700, but wait until you see the tailgating seats.

The 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan. Magic-hour lighting comes separately.
Dan Carney

Posh folks who drive a Rolls-Royce have always boasted about what the company describes as a “magic carpet ride.” But with the 2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan—the traditional luxury icon’s first foray into the SUV segment—translating customer expectations of that smooth ride into what is ostensibly an off-road bruiser would seem to be a challenge.

But happily for those fancy Rollers, Rolls-Royce’s engineers have been able to deliver on the magical status quo, perhaps with some secret assistance in the bowels of their Goodwood, England headquarters from unseen wizards.

After all, the famous Rolls-Royce World War II fighter plane engine, employed in the Supermarine Spitfire and the North American P-51 Mustang, was called “Merlin.” Coincidence? You decide.

Our opulent test car’s “Twilight Purple” finish is a reasonable approximation of the royal color. The name “Cullinan” refers to the largest diamond ever found; it was cut into the British Crown Jewels.

The off-road part of SUVs like the Cullinan is mostly illusionary. Drivers like to think they might go off-roading sometime, when what they really want is all-weather on-road security and the ability to occasionally navigate a rutted driveway to a cabin in the woods without tearing the muffler off their car.

The mantra guiding Rolls-Royce in the development of the Cullinan and its adaptable air suspension system is “Effortless Everywhere.” On startup, the Cullinan automatic lifts an inch and a half, providing a touch more ground clearance, permitting it to ford streams as deep as 21 inches without risk of the engine inhaling water.

As the first Rolls-Royce with all-wheel drive, the Cullinan represents an impressive first effort. The Off-Road button on the console activates the air-spring suspension and the computer-controlled all-wheel drive system to maximize traction. That includes actually extending the suspension when the computer thinks a wheel might be in danger of losing contact with the ground.

In an earlier test, we had the chance to hurl a Cullinan along a snow-frosted, high-altitude gravel fire road. Driving on the Cullinan’s specially designed 22-inch tires, which are optimized for a quiet ride, the vehicle performed amazingly. Even with its near-6,000 lb. mass and surely handicapped by less-than-ideal rubber for the situation, the Cullinan flew like a rally car in that test. It was like witchcraft.

Speaking of the tires, the Cullinan’s “RR” wheel centers are separate from the wheels themselves, so they don’t spin. Instead, the “RR” emblems remain perpetually upright and composed, as one would expect from a Rolls-Royce.

Pop the bonnet and it is easy to see why the Cullinan is so quick; here’s the abode of the 571-horsepower, 627 lb.-ft. (that’s a lot!) 6.75-liter twin-turbocharged V12 power plant. It may not be a Spitfire’s Merlin V12, but its design definitely descends from the know-how that built Merlins in wartime.

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