I took a Rolls-Royce Cullinan to an off-road rally -- and won
The fanciest of fancy SUVs drove home with a first-class finish in the tougher-than-dirt Rebelle Rally.
Emme HallFormer editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
I've always believed that stock vehicles are much more capable than people think. To prove it, for the past three years, I've taken showroom-condition trucks and SUVs out for the test of a lifetime in a grueling seven-day off-road challenge: the Rebelle Rally.
Enter the Cullinan, Rolls-Royce's first foray into the SUV market. After adding skid plates and a custom spare-tire rack, Donaghe and I pushed the Cullinan (which we christened Eleanor) further than 99.9% of its owners ever will. Our Eleanor performed with the sort of grace and dignity commensurate with her heritage, but also with a steely grunt you might not expect from Rolls-Royce.
The Rebelle Rally starts in Lake Tahoe, California, and ends in the dunes of Glamis, near the Mexican border. Everything is measured in kilometers and the course is different every year; this year's route took us through places like Death Valley, Trona, Barstow, Johnson Valley and Joshua Tree, just to name a few. Points are awarded for navigational accuracy, not speed. Competitors cannot use phones, GPS data or any electronic wizardry. If your vehicle has a navigation system, it is disabled or closed off.
After crawling out of tents each morning at 5 a.m., competitors are given a roadbook for the day with latitude and longitude points to be plotted on the map. Green checkpoints are marked with a big green flag and are relatively easy to find. They are designed to move competitors along the course. Blue checkpoints are marked with a smaller blue flag or a three-foot tall piece of blue rebar. These are medium difficulty. Black checkpoints are not marked at all. Competitors drive to where they think the black checkpoint is and use triangulation to determine their exact position. A handheld tracker sends the location back to Rebelle Rally HQ, where the points are computed.
In addition to maps and compasses, the Rebelle Rally also features endurance stages. Similar to time/speed/distance challenges, competitors must follow tulip notes at a designated speed and follow the directions, arriving "on time" at various timing controls. Full points at a timing control are awarded only if the team is within as few as three seconds of their on-time designation.
Oh, and by the way, the Rebelle Rally is only for women. Founder Emily Miller wanted a forum for women to have a legitimate challenge that plays to their strengths while giving them valuable seat time in off-road vehicles. Were it open to all, Miller feels the rally would quickly fill up with men, with only a few female competitors on the roster, much like you see in off-road events like the Baja 1,000. Miller is not against developing a similar rally open to both men and women, but it would not carry the Rebelle Rally moniker.
As optioned, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan I used in the 2019 Rebelle Rally costs nearly $400,000. It's the most expensive competitor in the rally by a country mile.
I can't say enough about the Cullinan's powertrain. The 6.75-liter, twin-turbo V12 puts out 563 horsepower and 672 pound-feet of torque, mated to a smoother-than-silk eight-speed automatic transmission. More than once the quick acceleration helped us reach a checkpoint in the nick of time, one time at the very second it closed. We sped along graded dirt roads at the Rebelle Rally speed limit of 80 kilometers per hour (just under 50 mph) and swooshed up soft washes at 60 kph. The gobs of torque meant I could creep up steep and rocky hills, not relying on tire-popping momentum to carry me to the top. The transmission was always in the right place, reading my mind as I had to brake hard for unexpected rocks or whoops in the road, and then quickly get back on the gas.
While other competitors were bouncing along washboard roads, stopping completely so the navigator could measure a distance on the map, Donaghe and I benefited from the comfort of the Cullinan's excellent air suspension. It was mostly smooth going for us, and though I brought extra struts in case of suspension failure, they weren't needed. Sure, the long wheelbase meant I had to take large whoops slowly and at an angle or risk the front end bouncing around like a stapler, but by and large our ride was supremely smooth throughout the whole week of competition.
The Cullinan's air suspension allows for 9 inches of ground clearance, which we underestimated every day. Donaghe would often get out to spot me, and while she sometimes moved a bigger rock or two out of the way, most often we realized she didn't have to get out of the car at all. We once got onto a road that we called Eleanor's own personal King of the Hammers, but even then, by proceeding slowly, using that torque and picking careful lines, she came out with nary a scratch on her skid plate.
Overall, the Cullinan was just so darn comfortable. Some mornings, temperatures were below freezing and man, was it nice to have heated seats and steering wheel as well as a killer climate control system. Later, on the southern part of the course, we were able to use the air conditioning in the dunes to ward off the 90-degree temps of Glamis. I even used the built-in umbrella to shade Donaghe as she triangulated in the sun. Long transit stages were made more comfortable with the massaging seats (my personal favorite setting is full-body activation), and rarely did we close our own doors, letting the electronics do the work for us.
2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan in its Rebelle Rally win
None of this means the Cullinan is immediately ready to tackle the rocks of Moab, however. In order to compete, I had to run the Cullinan on its winter tire package: 21-inch wheels wrapped in Continental snow tires. The soft sidewalls are decidedly not ideal, but there are fitment issues that made it impossible to use any kind of an all-terrain tire. We carried two spares in our awesome bespoke spare tire rack, and suffered a repairable puncture on the second day. Then we got two flats at the same time on Day 5, neither of which were able to be patched or plugged, despite two hours of MacGyvering that night. That put us in the rockiest section of the course, Barstow and Johnson Valley, with no spares.
In order to save the tires, we parked the Cullinan a few times and hiked the 100 meters or so up to the checkpoint. Not ideal, but still within the rules, and it's nice to get some exercise after being in the car for 11 hours each day. Rolls-Royce should work with a tire manufacturer to produce an optional all-terrain wheel and tire package for those who really want to adventure.
Changing the tires proved difficult as well, especially with the small bottle jack that we had. The jacking point is on the frame of the car, so the more you raise the jack, the more the suspension droops. A jack point on the axle would have helped tremendously. As it was, we had to dig under the hub to get the new tire on. Further, the Rolls doesn't have wheel studs that you can push the tire onto and then secure with lug nuts. Instead, we had to line up the bolt holes in the wheel and hub. Easy enough to do in a clean shop, but much harder to do in the dirt.
Some of the Cullinan's electronics also proved to be a problem. The parking sensors can't be turned off, so we were constantly battling the beeps and boops of what we called Simon, Eleanor's overprotective boyfriend who didn't want her going out and having any fun. Further, the car goes into limp mode when a door is slightly ajar. We got stuck in some soft sand in Big Dune, Nevada, and my rear door didn't close fully after I grabbed my shovel to dig out. Eleanor popped out of the sand easily, but then kept getting stuck because she wouldn't go faster than 7 kph. The ensuing panic meant we both thought we had missed the closing time of a green checkpoint, ending our chase for points that day. That led me to throw my helmet down and cry the hot tears of frustration until I realized the checkpoint didn't close for a few more hours and we were still in the hunt. Well, as long as I closed my door completely.
Cullinan for the win
The Cullinan absolutely exceeded my expectations. Before getting it on the dirt, I assumed it would sink in the dunes under its own weight and that the air shocks would fail -- something I've seen happen on other manufacturers' rigs.
Instead, Donaghe and I found ourselves on the winner's podium for the second year in a row, this time taking the trophy in the Crossover class, not the 4x4. We won by a huge margin, with a Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross and Honda Passport taking the second- and third-place spots.
Most Cullinan owners won't be taking their $325,000 SUVs out in the dirt, but they definitely could. With careful line choices to save the tires, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan can get just about anywhere. Ask me how I know.