Let’s face it, if you had to build a list of the most blinged-out rides on Earth, chances are that two of our English friends from across the pond would make your list. No disrespect to American builders though. It’s just that Bentley and that other British company that owned them for 70 years paid their dues over the decades.
When VW bought Bentley in 1998, we were all excited to see how the new ownership would change the quality of the cars, and the Continental GT series did not disappoint, quickly becoming a fave of rappers and pro athletes everywhere. For the most part, though, the flagship Arnages and Azures—though much more expensive—remained the realm of stuffy old men who define paper as where they read the news. That may be soon to change with the Mulsanne, the forthcoming top-of-the-line sedan that deftly restyles Bentley design themes and reinvigorates the brand’s commitment to performance.
First off, let’s clarify that this is not your father’s Bentley. This is the first flagship wearing the distinctive “Flying B” to be designed and manufactured from the ground up exclusively at Bentley’s headquarters since the company’s heyday in the 1920s, when they won the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times. (Mulsanne is actually named for a straightaway section of the famed French race course.)
Though the Mulsanne retains signature Bentley luxury-ride quality and passenger comforts, the dormant sporty strand of the brand’s DNA has firmly climbed up a few notches. Most of that punch comes from the car’s motor, an all-new, completely redesigned 6.75-liter V8, good for 505 horsepower and a staggering 752 lb.-ft. of torque. If that last number didn’t grab you then consider this: peak torque is available at 1,750 rpm. Unlike your average supercar engine, which usually takes a few thousand rpm just to begin reaching its potential; this bad boy belts out its most powerful performance mere seconds into the show. Though such a low revving engine is generally opposite of our modern conception of a powerful car, the Mulsanne philosophy does make perfect sense upon further reflection.
Bentley is increasingly looking to improve its environmental standards, and a car that does not rev as high would ostensibly save more gasoline in the process. The Mulsanne is also programmed with an entirely unnoticeable (and that’s a good thing) cylinder deactivation management, which closes the valves of four of the eight cylinders at cruising speeds.
As impressive as the torque numbers are, they don’t entirely translate to the driving experience. Bentley quotes performance figures as “5.1 seconds to 60 mph with a top speed of 184 mph.” So how does a torque figure nearly twice that of the Ferrari 458 Italia fail to launch the car in the 4-second range? At 5,700 pounds (or one NFL lineman away from three tons) this big boy is nearly twice as heavy as the aforementioned Ferrari.
Considering such girth, the Mulsanne acquits itself rather well, offering a number of interface features that support its position as more of a driver’s car than recent Bentley flagships. This is the first top-tier Bentley to feature paddle shifting, which, in this case, operates an automatic 8-speed ZF gearbox. While the transmission itself won’t have anyone forgetting the dual-clutch set-ups that are increasingly vogue on today’s exotic sports cars, Bentley has taken care to integrate the paddle shifters themselves in a particularly appropriate manner. Made of the same polished stainless steel that trims the rest of the cabin dials, they’re an integral aesthetic detail rather than a mere add-on. The underside of the paddles—the surface that actually touches your fingers—is designed in the traditional Bentley manner, matching that of the car’s undersides of the exterior door handles.
Further sporting touches can be found in the new Drive Dynamics Control selector, a center console-mounted dial that can be turned to choose various settings of suspension and steering control, including Sport, Comfort, and Bentley modes. A fourth Custom mode allows the driver to program in a preferred combination of these attributes for a personalized suspension setting. Of course, as pillowy-soft as the Mulsanne’s air suspension system is, it’s a little difficult to clearly ascertain the exact differences in these settings. But you can definitely say that Sport mode tightens things up a little from Comfort.
Given extensive time in the Mulsanne, driving in the rugged hills of California’s coastal Carmel Valley, we found a surprisingly limited amount of body roll as the car ably charged up curving hills and wound through slaloming dips. Part of this can surely be attributed to the wide 265/45R20 tires that are standard. Buyers looking to go all-out can opt for 21-inch two-piece 5-spoke wheels, which cost a mere $6,300.
On straightaways, we found the prodigious V8 more than capable of showing off its strong suit. Though we would never condone such behavior, in our capable hands the Mulsanne was easily coaxed beyond 100 mph and then some. Obviously no one would expect any less, but where the car as a whole really shined was in some multi-car pass moves we attempted on a less-traveled side road. Cruising at 70, a quick paddle controlled double-downshift had us pushing 100 in no time, ably passing four to five cars before dipping back into traffic. During these moves, the Mulsanne’s Sport mode lessened steering and suspension to complement the frantic adjustments we made to avoid oncoming traffic. The experience was soft and completely linear; no sudden snaps, jerks, or oversteer corrections required, which at 65 would be understandable, but at 100? We’re not saying we’re the best drivers out there…but Bentley engineering would have us believing otherwise.
On the comfort side, the Mulsanne is sumptuous and lush, just as a Bentley should be. The combination of options of leather, wood veneer and carpets is dizzying. Interior appointments and upholstery trim are outstanding, with a lovely burled wood ring waistrail wrapping around the sills of the entire cabin. The standard sound system is equipped with a 6-CD changer and 14 speakers, while a 20-speaker 8-channel Bentley-badged Naim premium system (a $7,400 option) boasts the world’s most powerful in-car production amp, good for 2,200-Watts. Clearly marking its intent for the younger millionaire, the burled dash features a new pop-open panel designed to store and play digital media devices, with input connections for iPod, USB, Mini USB and 3.5 mm auxiliary.
A cut-out section of the console automatically retracts to reveal an 8-inch infotainment screen that is slightly more user-friendly than in prior Bentleys. A back-up camera display is a stroke of genius, depicting imaginary green lines that anticipate the car’s projected path based on the steering wheel angle. The lines actually change as you turn the wheel, kind of like an automotive equivalent of that yellow first-down line on a football telecast. Bentley points out that the car’s infotainment systems are powered by a 60 GB computer—with 20 gigs available for personal storage space.
Ride quality and seating are excellent. The seats offer a menagerie of adjustments, including a button that initiates a back massage. Other bells and whistles include electronically controlled shade screens on the rear glass and rear windows, as well as an adaptive cruise control system that automatically slows the car within a programmable distance of the car ahead. The Mulsanne seems to be courting a new generation of wealth for Bentley’s customer files, and though most of us can only dream, the platinum set of the DUB crowd has a reason to be excited.
Photos: Mike Daly