First Drive: 2011 Bentley Mulsanne

2011 Bentley Mulsanne

2011 Bentley Mulsanne

Having made its entrance in the rarified environs of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and its worldwide public debut at last fall's Frankfurt auto show, the Bentley Mulsanne is now ready to hit the streets. We've had a chance to do just that, but in this case the streets were the narrow village lanes, undulating country byways, and wide-open dual carriageways (divided highways) of Bentley's home turf, in the U.K. The car won't be rolling onto U.S. roads until sometime this fall.

In the Bentley lineup, the Mulsanne slips into the top spot recently vacated by the Arnage sedan, that aged doyenne of the luxury-car class. Well, perhaps not exactly the same spot. The Mulsanne is better than fifty grand more expensive, at $287,600 plus a still to be determined gas-guzzler tax. It's also a tick less than 7 inches longer while tipping the scales at the same Rubenesque 5700 pounds. The regal coachwork, much of it hand-finished, is draped over a six-inch-longer wheelbase. In price, size, and bearing, the Mulsanne moves closer to Rolls-Royce. Actually, by most measures, it nestles in between the Rolls Phantom and the new Rolls-Royce Ghost.

Bentley claims that the Mulsanne is the company's first from-scratch vehicle in eighty years (!), meaning that it's the first Bentley not adapted from another car. (The Continentals, for instance, are built off the platform of the Volkswagen Phaeton, and previous big Bentleys were adapted Rolls-Royce designs.) Even so, there are some items shared with the Audi A8, such as the Mulsanne's new, eight-speed automatic transmission (by ZF) and the car's infotainment system, which is based on Audi's Multi-Media Interface.

Although the Mulsanne is a new car, its mechanical layout is decidedly traditional, much more so than that of the Continentals. Whereas they have a W-shaped twelve-cylinder engine driving all four wheels, the Mulsanne again uses the massive V-8 and rear-wheel-drive configuration of its predecessor. The pushrod V-8 retains the same displacement, 6.75 liters, and its two turbochargers as well. Says Brian Gush, head of powertrain and chassis, "[The previous engine] was a good starting point; then we changed what we needed to change, which ended up being quite a lot." The two headline changes are the addition of variable displacement (allowing the engine to cruise on four cylinders under light load) and variable cam phasing, which lowers the peak torque rpm.

With 752 pound-feet available at a just-off-idle 1750 rpm (versus 738 lb-ft at 3200 rpm previously), the V-8 is now even more a low-revving torque monster. The peak power output of 505 hp occurs at 4200 rpm, just shy of the diesel-like, 4500-rpm redline, but that hardly matters. With so much thrust available at such low engine speeds and the V-8 betraying only a distant rumble when pressed, there's little reason to the explore the upper reaches of the tachometer.

The low-effort thrust is a key part of this car's character. "If we had gone with one of the [Volkswagen] group's V-8s," notes Stuart McCullough, Bentley board member for sales and marketing, "we would have had a much more urgent, high-revving engine."

If the big Bentley's speed (186 mph) and quickness (0 to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, according to the factory) belie its tremendous size and weight, so too does its poise. The chassis features air springs, whose firmness can be programmed by the driver, as can the steering effort. A simple rotary knob on the console switches among the three pre-programmed modes (Sport, Comfort, and "Bentley," the standard setting) plus a mix-and-match custom mode. The custom mode lets a driver call up his own mix of steering effort and suspension firmness.

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