First Drive: 2011 Bentley Mulsanne

2011 Bentley Mulsanne

2011 Bentley Mulsanne

Get going quickly, and you're never unaware that this car is carrying a lot of momentum, but it is not a nodding, heaving luxo-barge. Along the English-Scottish border, where the roads are in much better repair than ours at home, there seemed to be little difference between the suspension settings, with the Mulsanne displaying excellent body control at a cost of some impact harshness.

Calling up sport mode gives you steering that is ideally weighted and just about perfect for this car. In the other two settings, it's overly light with no real build-up of effort. The firmer steering combined with the softer damping might make the ideal combination in most areas of the United States.

But as impressive as the Mulsanne's performance is, even Bentley executives admit that for the less than one percent of its intended audience of "high net worth" individuals (those with investable assets of $25 million or more) choosing to buy a car like this, performance is not what's going to win the day. At this lofty elevation, brand image, appearance, and the feeling a car imparts are paramount.

Bentley goes to great lengths to impart a special feeling with the Mulsanne, and nowhere is that more evident than in the interior. In most cars, we note the quality of the plastics; in the Mulsanne we couldn't find any plastic. Instead, 390 pieces of leather, from fifteen hides, cover every surface in sight. Wood veneers are laid over solid wood substrates. Metal-finished bits are real metal. The idea is to convey authenticity. The feel, and even the smell, exude luxury.

Unlike in the Arnage, there are no compromises in how things function. The multimedia interface is logical, and there are just enough dedicated buttons to keep you from hunting for things. The infotainment system is completely of-the-moment, with a 60 gigabyte hard drive, Bluetooth, and a new optional high-end audio system, by Naim, that offers 2200 watts of power (which Bentley claims is the most in any factory system). There are connections for all manner of personal audio devices, and a veneered wood drawer to put them in.

The driver sits behind a thick-rimmed steering wheel of surprisingly small-diameter. Through it one sees the speedometer and tachometer, whose needles sweep downward from the 2 o'clock position, in the manner of classic Bentleys. An electronic display in between can be configured to display nav system directions, a digital speed readout, or a variety of trip computer info. The view out is pretty good and can be supplemented by a phalanx of cameras. The rear chairs sit taller than those in front so rear-seat riders enjoy a good view forward, not to mention a plethora of electronic controls, including power seat adjustment. Legroom is plentiful, and headroom adequate (although the C-pillars encroach a bit), but there's little foot room under the front seats.

For all the talk of the practical aspects of this car, there's plenty that's irrational about it, starting with the fact that it even got built. "The current market is not supporting this kind of a car," says a candid Franz-Josef Paefgen, Bentley chairman, "so there was much discussion about whether we were going to build it." But as another Bentley board member put it, "The one truth about [the] Volkswagen [Group] is that it's run by people who really love cars." And so Bentley won approval to design a dedicated new platform for a car that will be built-slowly, and mostly by hand-in volumes of only 800 per year. True, there will be additional variants, a sport model is mentioned and a coupe and convertible (to replace the Brooklands and the Azure) are sure to follow. But this is still a car whose image looms much larger than its sales numbers. "Its biggest job of all is to tell the world what a Bentley is," says McCullough. We think it does that exceptionally well.

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