The new Bentley Mulsanne will cost from £220,000 in the UK, much closer to a Rolls-Royce Ghost than the Phantom. At 5.5m, it’s also closer in size to the 5.4m Ghost than the 5.8m Phantom, but at 2585kg around the same weight as the aluminium Phantom and 150kg heavier than the steel Ghost.
Bentley Mulsanne: the numbers game
Such numbers are useful because it’s difficult to gauge the Mulsanne’s scale from photographs. Plainly, it’s a colossal car. But its styling doesn’t give it the presence of either Rolls-Royce; its proportions are more conventional and it lacks their modernity, originality and mild shock on first acquaintance.
The Mulsanne is best from the rear three-quarters, where it echoes the full, confident, blocky yet elegant lines first seen on the Brooklands. But the front end, with its low-set lamps, looks slightly doleful and apologetic; even in these straightened times, the two and a half tonnes of Crewe magnificence that follows behind deserves to be announced with more pomp and pride.
And inside the 2010 Bentley Mulsanne?
Straight into the rear seats; the Mulsanne is a car to be driven in as much as to drive. Immediately you see the reason to choose one over a Flying Spur. Although the lesser Bentley four-door offers a comparable and impressive amount of lounging room, and you can’t get your feet very far under the Mulsanne’s front seats, the Flying Spur just feels like a car, albeit a very luxurious one. The Mulsanne feels like a country-house library or the chamber of the House of Commons, with inlaid wood and overstuffed upholstery of a heft and quality that seems mildly out of place but very welcome in an object designed to move.
The front cabin is less successful. It has same great expanses of veneer and leather, great seat comfort and a sensational view down the long central crease of the bonnet to the winged B. But the layout looks a little staid after the Ghost’s, there’s a messy profusion of black plastic switchgear in the central console and the instrument binnacle is busy and tightly packed.
How does the Mulsanne drive?
None of this bothers you much when you first get the keys, of course; you’re more interested in finding out what one of the few cars with a four-figure output feels like to drive. In this case it’s torque: 1020Nm, or 725lb ft, delivered at just 1750rpm, with the peak 505bhp coming at 4200rpm, just 300 short of the change-up point.
This new 6.75-litre, twin-turbo V8 shares all its fundamental dimensions – capacity, bore centres – with Bentley’s ancient ‘six and three-quarter’; they wanted the same overwhelming torque that configuration has provided for 50 years, but incorporating new, lighter internals, variable cam-phasing and cylinder deactivation for better economy and emissions meant redesigning the block. So the numbers are the same but the engine is new, and it drives the rear wheels through an equally modern ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox.
Bet the new Bentley limo is refined though?
On start-up and trickling around town the Mulsanne’s drivetrain doesn’t quite match the Ghost’s peerless refinement, but it’s a Bentley, so a little more connection with the mechanicals is appropriate to the marque. On small throttle openings all that torque is easy to manage and the ‘box slips seamlessly between ratios. When – if – you find the space to hold it all the way in, the Mulsanne takes off like a 747; a rousing but distant noise, the sensation of immense power overcoming colossal weight, and acceleration which always achieves its purpose but never really thrills you.
Driven quickly, as it seldom will be, the Mulsanne handles amazingly well for a car of such girth. The gearbox helps; it changes with unbelievable speed and smoothness at the redline despite the forces at work, and the choice of ‘sport’ mapping or full manual control via paddles behind the wheel means you can always summon the right amount of torque to keep the car balanced in corners, though learning that a third-gear corner now requires fourth or fifth in an eight-speed ‘box might take a while.
And through the corners?
The steering remains fully hydraulic; the few grams of CO2 that can be saved by switching to an electric system aren’t of much significance here. The response, weighting and gearing are all excellent; if you can push a two and a half tonne car hard down a twisty road without getting frustrated with the helm someone’s done their job well, though the target market might prefer less effort at low speed.
Roll, heave and pitch are all remarkably well managed by the adaptive air springs; a car this big will never feel agile, but the Mulsanne always feels composed, and occasionally even fun. You can choose between Comfort, Sport and an intermediate ‘Bentley’ setting, or define and store your own. In extreme circumstances – the hardest cornering, or the smoothest, straightest road – the car will behave almost the same regardless of setting, but in Sport you can feel the steering weight up and the roll being checked sooner.
Is it a fiddle-fest of settings and variable this and that?
Importantly, you don’t need to fiddle constantly with these settings to produce tight handling or a decent ride; it’s a matter of preference, not necessity. But at the end of the dynamic spectrum most important to buyers – low speed ride and refinement – the Mulsanne can’t quite match the peerless, silken Ghost. It rides very softly, but you feel and hear too much of pot holes and cat’s eyes, and they set off a gentle, uncontained wobble in the body.
What about the Bentley 6.75 V8?
Bentley’s engineers say they examined all the other options before coming back to the same configuration that flaghip Bentleys have used for the past 50 years: a 6.75-litre V8. There are marketing risks and rewards here. The continuity is nice, but be reassured that your 2010 Mulsanne doesn’t come with a 1959 engine; the numbers are the same but the engine is entirely new.
The most significant advance is probably Cam Phasing – essentially variable valve timing – which has almost halved the revs at which that monstrous peak torque figure is churned out. Variable Displacement is the other big leap, allowing the engine to shut down four cylinders on light throttle openings, but – critically – reactivate them instantly and imperceptibly on demand. It works; you won’t know it, but you’ll be drifting around town in the world’s only 3375cc four-cylinder car.
Bentley Mulsanne: the economic backdrop
‘The money is there, and people could still buy a car even if there was a downturn,’ Bentley’s chairman Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen told CAR in 2006. Bentley’s sales were about to break five figures for the first time, having exploded more than tenfold since the Continental GT was launched in 2003, and he was answering our question about the danger of growing so fast. ‘The only problem would be something like another 9/11, where the overall atmosphere is just not right to spend so much money on a car.’
Economically, that’s exactly what he got. Since the banking crisis struck, Bentley’s sales have more than halved. While there are signs of growth in some markets – China now accounts for a fifth of Bentley’s volumes, and it has opened dealerships in places like Baku and Almaty, previously off the luxury-car radar – the vital American market remains flat.
Perhaps more worryingly, Bentley’s own figures show that while few customers are being forced to sell their cars, they are choosing to drive them less. ‘There is a very limited number of people with more or less unlimited wealth who are crazy enough to buy one of these very luxurious cars,’ said Paefgen of the replacement he planned for the Arnage. ‘You need a strong personality to turn up at a restaurant in one. It’s a statement, and there aren’t so many people who want to show up in this big a statement.’
That was in 2006, remember. What hope does he have of selling a car like that now? But even in the worst market for luxury cars in living memory you can’t just give up and go home. If you stop the new-product pipeline you really will die, and as Paefgen says, even luxury brands like Bentley making only aspirational, near-unaffordable cars need a hero at the top of the range. That’s exactly what the new Mulsanne is intended to be, and its new steel platform and effectively new six-and-three-quarter litre V8 will also underpin and power replacements for the Azure convertible and Brooklands coupe.
Crewe quietly makes the point that this is the first entirely bespoke Bentley in 80 years, owing nothing to a Rolls-Royce sibling or a VW Group engine. It’s a bold, admirable and necessary statement of intent in difficult times.
It didn’t charm us the way the flawed but charismatic old Arnage could. Nor, objectively, is it as impressive a car as the new Rolls-Royce Ghost. But it’s sufficiently different in concept and execution – and sufficiently true to Bentley’s core values – to give you reason to choose it. Or to buy one of each, if there’s anyone left who can still afford to.