Bentley Mulsanne Review

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Bentley Mulsanne. Fancy a long drive through Scotland?

Bentley Mulsanne Review
Bentley Mulsanne

 

Bentley Mulsanne

There is something just a little unusual - a touch of irony perhaps - about Bentley electing to showcase its new flagship Mulsanne limousine (a mere $700,000 a pop) in Scotland, a part of the United Kingdom inhabited by hardy souls, the majority of whom are not a million miles from terminal thriftiness and an innate austerity.

But wait, Bentley has cherry-picked carefully and installed us at Aldourie Castle - a stately pile on the shore of the fabled Loch Ness, near Inverness, dating back to the early 17th century. Austerity and Aldourie should not be used in the same story let alone the same paragraph.

Sitting on the crunchy gravel forecourt at Aldourie, the indelicate Mulsanne (first shown at Pebble Beach last year but not on sale in Oz until early 2011) doesn't hide its size or majesty.  The styling embraces some heritage cues but doesn't dwell on the past - reflecting an easy modernism in its lines. The muscled body, bold nose and sporty mesh-like grille give the Mulsanne a powerful visual presence and an unmistakable menace that almost commands a salute, or perhaps even a military-style presentation of arms.

It's hard not to love the sheer cheek of Bentley to ignore pesky dips in the global economy and assume there will always be indulgent bastards stoicly impervious to fluctuations in their fortunes.

Bentleys (and Rolls-Royces and Maybachs) are not aimed at plebs like me who worry about the rising price of café lattes and are scared speechless by the cost of a tank of PULP.

These elegant carriages are for the filthy rich who don't sweat at the prospect of spending nearly three-quarters of a million on personal transport, then manfully ignore the inevitable serious slide in resale value as they head out of the showroom.

Bentley owners like to distance themselves from that other clan - Rolls-Royce people - and not just because that odious oxygen bandit Kyle Sandilands drives a Phantom.

One of many distinctions between the two former sibling brands is that Rolls-Royce owners like to be driven, while Bentley owners like to drive.

Bentley is the sportier marque with a reputation carved between the wars at Le Mans. Historians point out that Bentley extends further back, to World War I - it is fact that Germany's Red Baron was shot down by a Brit in a Bentley-engined Sopwith Camel.

While more egalitarian, perhaps, than a Rolls, the Mulsanne is top of the Bentley totem. Some owners will get their chauffeur to whiz them off to the opera, but then may take the wheel for the drive to the country estate. Accordingly, the Mulsanne has been created carefully to adjust to all occasions.

In the commodious rear-compartment, there is a remote to control the front seats.  The seats recline of course. And there are picnic tables. Behind the wheel, the driver is conscious of the 'ring of wood' - the band of polished veneer that loops around the cabin in an unbroken line, offering up hints of a gentleman's drawing room. And the beautifully designed and crafted key ring and soft-touch door closing are the beginnings of a pampering experience. 

The cabin is impeccably crafted polished veneer (choice of nine), soft hide and chrome features. The vents and organ stops are reminiscent of Bentleys of yore, though there's no mistaking the careful marriage of new with old. There is also an elegance and honesty about the materials.  If it looks like timber, it is timber. The chrome is metal, not a plastic lookalike.  There are some glass-bevelled dash knobs. 

We're told that 17 cattle, raised in barbed-wire-free paddocks, have sacrificed their hides to provide the sumptuous hand-selected and stitched leather interior for every Mulsanne. It's close to sacrilege to slide my $100 Levis over seating created by so much love and commitment - especially from the bulls. Even the roof lining is hide.

The gauges are classical in design, white on black with tacho and speedometer each starting from zero located uniquely at one o'clock. And when the timber or leather ends, there is plush hand-crafted carpeting extending from the cabin into the boot.

Some traditions must never change. Engine capacity - 6.75 litres of V8 - is immediately familiar and dates back decades. But the only carry-over items to the New Age Mulsanne are that exact 6750cc capacity and 90-degree V configuration. The Bentley 'six and three-quarters' was once described by an imaginative British journo as a "spot of evolutionary regressive engineering". 

While the V8 is still OHV, changes include lightweight pistons and a hollow camshaft for a total engine weight loss of 23 kilos. The lower reciprocating mass helps efficiency and performance. The heavily revised twin-turbo V8 conjures up 377kW (505hp) and a stupendous 1020Nm of torque at 1750rpm, both slightly up on the outgoing Arnage T. 

Other key advances are two new control systems: camshaft phasing and variable displacement.  The engine management system adjusts breathing for slicker idle quality and torque release, and when cruising, closes the valves of four of the cylinders to conserve fuel.  

Compared to the superseded Arnage, consumption is down 25 percent and all the Bentley range is now flex-fuel ready.

It is an effortless powerhouse of a low-revving engine, which appeases
traditionalists while delivering the evocative exhaust sounds they demand to hear as a soundtrack. 

A tickle on the throttle springboards into an instant acceleration accompanied by a distant burble from the tail pipes (muted by double glazing and careful attention to cabin sound proofing).

Transmission is an eight-speed automatic from ZF (the Arnage had six), which is so unobtrusive as to be almost overlooked. Selection is either the conventional way, or by steering wheel paddles. And in manual mode the transmission won't default to auto, allowing the engine to rev to the redline.

Quoted acceleration times, issued with a level of British modesty interacting with German pride, hint at exceedingly swift, if regal, progress. The time of 5.3sec for the zero-100km/h blast is impressive considering the first challenge is to get 2585 kilos of Mulsanne off the mark, but its top speed is 296km/h.

If not for the aluminium bonnet - an extraordinary expanse of metal - and door skins, very expensive carbonfibre spare wheel well, and composite boot lid, it would have been heavier still.

Cruising in the remote north, the Mulsanne is a relaxed carriage, despite the need for due care and diligence on narrow roads. It is, after all, 5575mm long and 1926mm wide.

The suspension does a marvellous job of controlling all the forces in play, with no sense of sharpness on bump or rebound. Body roll, even under hard braking or when pushed aggressively into low-speed corners, is barely evident.

Depending on the driver's whims, the air suspension dampers and steering weighting can be set at either Comfort, Sport, Bentley configuration, or customised to a driver's preferences.  Comfort isn't so soft to be lazy and in Sport, the steering offers good feel, the slightest movements on the tiller bringing immediate response from the front wheels.

Pushing north, the craggy-stark highland scenery demands we adjust our pace to take it all in. No wonder the Queen retreats to Scotland to escape the London bustle (and her relatives).To Poolewe on Loch Ewe for lunch and past the old naval base where the Allies regrouped in WWII. This is tough country for robust folk.

I note a certain self satisfaction as the Mulsanne glides gracefully through Scottish villages, about as subtle as a Sydney Harbour New Year's Eve fireworks. 

I resist the temptation to lower the windows so that the locals might hear the full effect of Mick and the Stones pounding out of the 20-speaker Naim audio, bolstered by the world's most powerful production-car amplifier (2200W).

The occasional surliness of the highlands weather contrasts starkly with the cocooned serenity of the Mulsanne interior. One can barely hear the wipers as they thrash wildly to sweep away the rain squalls. 

The initial feel and response from the brakes - 400mm diameter front rotors, 370mm rear - is gentle, but when you bury the boot on the stoppers, they man up reassuringly. But for owners who take the sporty positioning and Le Mans-flavoured Mulsanne badge quite literally, there is a ceramic brake option package available for around the cost of a Toyota Camry.

Since coming under VW Group ownership, Bentley has certainly lost some of the stifling conservatism of the past and the introduction of the rakish Continental GT coupe has drawn younger, more adventurous owners. And these New Money-types are now influencing the palette and features of the four-door Flying Spur and Mulsanne.

Body and trim combinations are endless, with 118 different paint colours (plus duo-tone options) and nine in the range of timber veneers. And then there's the leather and piping choices.

It has been a grand tour. On murky Loch Ness the previous evening, a local enthralled us with tales of the monster's sporadic appearances. 

Suddenly, 100 metres off our bow, a long black fin surfaces, moving slowly right to left. Bingo! Our guide suggests that perhaps it was two bow waves creating the impression of a monster…

Back at the splendour of Aldourie, the Bentley looks right at home parked near the front door. The scene looks even more appropriate when I remove my pathetic peasant frame and skinny wallet from the picture and elegance is restored.

 

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