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First Drive: 2011 Bentley Mulsanne

Joe Loriowriter

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.

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.

On sale: Fall 2010
Base price (with destination): $287,600 (plus gas guzzler tax)

Engine: OHV twin-turbocharged V-8
Displacement: 6.8 liters
Horsepower: 505 hp @ 4200 rpm
Torque: 752 lb-ft @1750 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic with shift paddles
Drive: Rear-wheel

Steering: Power rack-and-pinion
Suspension, front: Control arms, air springs, adaptive damping
Suspension, rear: Control arms, air springs, adaptive damping
Brakes: Vented discs, ABS
Tires: 265/45ZR20 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT

L x W x H: 219.5 x 75.8 x 59.9 in
Wheelbase: 128.6 in
Track F/R: 63.6/65.0 in
Weight: 5700 lbs
Fuel mileage: N/A