The Mulsanne is the best super luxury saloon Bentley knows how to build. Jonathan Crouch wonders if this improved version might be the best of them all
Bentley's flagship, the Mulsanne, is a car in which old-style opulence meets the modern world in a design which at last prioritises the driver involvement that the brand's pre-war models were once famed for. More dynamic than a Rolls Royce, more luxurious than a Mercedes Maybach, this revised model claims to be the definitive super luxury saloon.
The Mulsanne model we first saw in 2010 was an important car for Bentley, the first of the brand's modern-era cars that owed nothing to a Rolls Royce sibling or a Volkswagen Group engine. The Volkswagen Group-owned company resisted serious pressure to water this car's design down with the platform of an Audi A8, determined that, like the Bentley 8-litre of 1930, the last 'proper' fully Crewe-conceived representative of the marque, this Mulsanne's design should owe nothing to any lesser car. They'd watched Maybach try - and fail - to take on the Rolls Royce Phantom with a glorified Mercedes S-Class. And rivals Rolls Royce enjoy only limited success with a Ghost model based on a BMW 7 Series. With this Mulsanne, this British brand wasn't about to make the same mistake. So everything about this car is bespoke, unique and very, very special. All of that remains with this revised, re-styled model. Which is as it should be in a vehicle that may very well be the finest motorcar that money can buy.
The first signs are good, that characteristic deep muffled V8 burble very different from the W12 unit that lesser Bentleys borrow from the old Volkswagen Phaeton. The standard and Extended Wheelbase models offer 512PS, while the Speed version boosts that to 537PS. Either way, a car of this kind is defined not by its output but by the pulling power it can offer - as you realise very soon after you bury your brogues into the deep pile carpet and watch the horizon hurl itself towards you. Quite simply, this Mulsanne has an astonishing amount of it, one of the very few cars anywhere in the world to offer four figures of torque, 1020Nm to be precise, even in the standard version. That's 50% more than any other Bentley - or for that matter any other Rolls Royce - can manage. Power is sent to the rear wheels through an 8-speed ZF automatic gearbox that comes complete with wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Be quick with them and you'll flash by the sixty mph mark in just 5.4s, at which point thanks to clever Cam Phasing, your engine will be doing little more than just turning over, revving at less than 1,500rpm. Prod the throttle down just a little bit further and it's like being in a 747 on take-off as you whistle through the 100mph barrier just six seconds later on the way to a maximum that those owners with private airfields and test tracks will realise at 184mph before they have to frantically exercise the enormous twin-booster braking system. At first, you're rather hesitant to use all of this performance, but such fears are groundless. This is, after all, a brand that has rediscovered a motorsport heritage that runs to no fewer than six Le Mans victories. It's even named after the most famous corner at the classic French track. It ought to be able to handle the twisty stuff in a way that would embarrass a stately Rolls Royce. And it can. Nothing of this colossal weight that's over 18-foot long is ever going to be truly agile of course, but the accurate, responsive way you can thread this car through the bends of your favourite B road is truly awe-inspiring. It must be a frightening thing to watch. Credit for this is down partly to the super-stiff bodyshell, but is mainly due to the Mulsanne's electronically-controlled air-suspension set-up which, thanks to Continuous Damping Control, can reduce the car's ride height at higher speeds to reduce lift and improve aerodynamic stability. The system constantly monitors and adjusts damping levels within parameters set by the Drive Dynamics Control. Through DDC, owners can select Sport or Comfort modes to tailor the suspension and steering set-up to their requirements. A third 'Bentley' mode is a pretty effective compromise between the two, but if you don't agree, then a final 'Custom' setting allows you to set the parameters for yourself.
If you're going to spend the best part of a quarter of a million pounds on a luxury saloon, then you probably don't want to blend into the background. Buying something bland like a Mercedes Maybach seems a bit pointless when you could achieve much the same effect for a quarter of the cost in a 7 Series, an S-Class or an Audi A8. In the pictures, the Mulsanne's look still takes a bit of getting used to but in the metal, the Raul Pires-designed coachwork all begins to make more sense, derived as it is in style from the last 'all-Bentley' Bentley, the awesome 8.0-litre model of 1930, as well as from the S-Type Bentley of the 1950s. A suite of elegantly executed styling revisions mark this revised Mulsanne out from its predecessor. The entire front-end style of the car (forward of the A pillar) has been completely redesigned. The fenders, bonnet, radiator shell, grilles, lights - and bumpers fore and aft - have all been updated, giving the car a more modern and integrated appearance. But it's the inside that owners will remember. Can it really be so much more luxurious than that on offer from the sumptuous Bentley Flying Spur model that will cost you £90,000 less? Well - how can I explain this? A Flying Spur, like any top Mercedes, BMW or Audi, merely affords the feeling of travel in a very luxurious car. Entering this, in contrast, is an occasion. In contrast to Rolls Royces, which tend to offer a rear seat area only really comfortable for two adults, there's plenty of space here for three properly-sized grown-ups - as you'd have a right to expect from a car over five and a half metres long and nearly two metres wide. Changes to this improved model include redesigned seats, even smarter door trims and armrests, unique glass switchgear and a much more effective touchscreen infotainment system. As before, you're surrounded by wood so brightly polished it almost looks endlessly 3D, matched against gleaming glass switches and glittering chromium plate, all enough to make the 'soft-touch' plastics of lesser luxury saloons seem distinctly middle class. It takes 12 weeks and 480 man hours to build a Mulsanne, with over 170 of those hours devoted to hand crafting this incredible cabin.
There a choice of three distinct Mulsanne models - the standard version, the longer 'Extended Wheelbase' model and the sporting 'Speed' version. List pricing is a little irrelevant as virtually all cars are made bespoke to their owners' wishes but as a guide, most Mulsannes are sold in the £230,000 to £250,000 bracket. The technological specification of this car is as lavish as the materials used. Buyers can choose between a vast array of leather and wood trimming options, all of which can be enhanced with custom stitching, inlays and marquetry. An improved 60 gigabyte multimedia system is fitted as standard to control the satellite navigation, the telephone and the 14-speaker stereo, the information displayed on an 8-inch colour screen that emerges from behind a veneered door in the dash. But most owners will want to specify the fabulous 20-speaker 2,200 watt premium Naim audio system, the most powerful setup ever fitted to a production model. Nor is this the most remarkable item on the options list. There's a TV tuner and of course, the option of a DVD player with screens for rear seat occupants. Then there's a vast range of wood veneers, a virtually unlimited selection of leather hides and over 100 available paint finishes for the exterior. Beyond that, Bentley has personalisation options which allow for embroidery of the headrests. You can even specify plaques to be added on the treadplates which identify you as the owner.
To be frank, Bentley hasn't tried quite as hard as it could have done here. There isn't even the kind of engine start/stop system you'd get on a cheap little supermini to cut the engine at the lights or in urban traffic when you don't need it. The engineers have introduced Variable Displacement, which allows the engine to seamlessly shut down to just four cylinders on light throttle openings, and as a result, talk of a 15 per cent improvement over the old Arnage. But that's a rather feeble gain over a design that dates back to the early Nineties. The 342g/km of CO2 and 19.3mpg combined cycle showing of this V8 is pretty much the same as you'll get from a more powerful twelve cylinder Bentley Flying Spur. And it lags way behind the Rolls Royce Ghost as well as being inferior to the return you'll get from a Rolls Royce Phantom, a design dating back to 2003. It's all down to weight. At 2.6 tonnes, this Mulsanne is one of the very heaviest cars you can buy, an entirely intentional statistic, the weightiness contributing, say the Crewe design team, to this car's deep seated quality feel. If there's an upside to all this, it's that this car's solid build will see it lasting several lifetimes. To prove the fact, Bentley built around 100 Mulsanne prototypes during development which were systematically run over immense mileages in the full range of climatic conditions and tested to destruction. Insurance of course is a top of the shop group 50 on the 1-50 groupings scale.
If this famous British brand is to survive, to be credible, then it must make models of this kind. The Mulsanne is a car with a sense of occasion, a beautiful thing to ride in that's even better to drive. Rolls Royce needs both its Phantom and its Ghost to accomplish what Bentley does here with one simple breathtaking piece of engineering. It's a statement of course - and one you'll need to feel comfortable with in these difficult times. But in making it, you'll encourage others to aspire to the kind of excellence that this car represents. At the wheel of one of these, they won't be disappointed.
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