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Bentley Mulsanne 2010 Review

The Mulsanne is much more ambitious than an updating of the Arnage.

A HUGE new Bentley has just gone on sale with an enormous engine, splendid luxury appointments and a stratospheric price. Unfortunately, the world is in the throes of an economic crisis that means the market for elite motor cars has gone into a tailspin. Bentley goes bust.

That was 80 years ago and the car was known simply as the 8 Litre. Only 100 were made before the financial meltdown brought the receivers in.

Walter Owen Bentley's private example, lovingly restored, has been brought along for the launch of the Mulsanne, a huge new Bentley with an enormous engine, splendid luxury appointments and, of course, a stratospheric price. The two are linked by their distinctive approach to luxury motoring and a certain symmetry in global events.

More than that, the Mulsanne represents the first time since the 8 Litre that Bentley has designed and built a flagship for itself. All the other big Bentleys for eight decades were Rolls-Royces first, Bentleys second. Sometimes Rolls, which acquired its rival in 1931 after the company failed, didn't even change all the labels.

The timing parallels may be ominous, but Bentley has approached the Mulsanne with no fear of the latest global financial crisis. ``We do believe there will always be exclusive people looking for exclusive products,'' Bentley chairman Franz-Josef Paefgen says. ``That is the way human beings are.''

Always now, not then, presumably. What's clear is that with such a unique opportunity to reassert its identity at the super-luxury end of the market, it has not held back.

The Mulsanne replaces the Arnage, which began life 12 years ago as twin to the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph, when the companies were still together. The Seraph was pensioned off and BMW, which owns Rolls, replaced it with a new car. Bentley, owned by Volkswagen, kept the Arnage going until last year and, thanks to the changes made along the way, it earned a place in the hearts of its customers. A relic of another era, it felt special despite its flaws.

The Mulsanne is much more ambitious than an updating of the Arnage, though.”We hope this car brings back the values of the old vintage times when Bentleys were not only big cars -- because W.O. Bentley was a railway engineer by education -- but also very exclusive, very comfortable and unique,'' Paefgen says.

The result owes very little in terms of parts to the Arnage. It's longer, at nearly 5.6m, and built on new underpinnings to be as solid as they come. Mostly steel, it tips the scales at 2.6 tonnes and feels indestructible. Bentleys are not meant to be light; part of the appeal is their heft.

Even better are its long, flowing lines with an absence of seams and a double headlight face inspired by the Bentley S-Type from the 1950s. It's built, largely by hand, where Bentley has made its home since World War II, at Crewe in northeast England.

A mixture of old and new runs right through this car, from its body construction and its engine design to its lavish interior. It has up-to-the-minute electronics but uses an engine that dates back a half century. It has insisted on traditional tanning techniques, but the 17 hides needed for each car are cut by computer. It has hand-finished steel body panels but uses aluminium superforming, an aerospace technique, to produce the complex front wings.

A visit to the factory reveals how it comes together. In the body shop, the main steel panels are joined in the same way as any car, but to achieve the floating rear window effect, in which the pane is surrounded by seamless metal, takes hours of hand finishing.

Work on the interior is especially labour intensive. The Mulsanne takes the woodwork on cars to a new level even for Bentley, which is no slouch when it comes to cabinet making. The veneered solid timber waist-rails could have come from a dinner table. Stainless steel, knurled for grip on the controls, is used for details from the coat hooks to the sill covers.

One surprise was the absence of the Breitling clock that's fitted to the Continental GT, the other model developed since Volkswagen took over. A Winged B-badged timepiece matches the other black dials, though.

There's an almost complete absence of plastic and the buttons look like glass. A measure of Bentley's priorities came with the knowledge that it increased the carpet quality in the cabin, adding 5kg in the process.

The iPod age has not been neglected, with a special drawer for a player while Bentley overcame problems such as introducing keyless entry on solid metal door handles, a combination that doesn't usually work.

That turns out to be a neat reflective trick. However, Bentley disdains some of the latest technology, such as lane departure warning systems, because Paefgen thinks they are not yet good enough. Adaptive cruise control makes the cut, but fully automatic driving is the next worthwhile step.

One key decision concerned the engine: retain a turbocharged V8, in the sentimental capacity of 6.75-litres, or move to a V12, which is generally regarded as the ultimate? Bentley did more than commit to a V8. It has returned to the 50-year-old architecture of the previous unit, with its single camshaft and pushrod-activated two valves a cylinder.

Sound like a dinosaur? It doesn't from behind the wheel. Bentley upgraded and replaced almost every item. The result is an ancient template with some hi-tech features added, including cylinder deactivation, which switches to run on four cylinders when cruising, a first at this level.

The company claims much improved smoothness at idle compared with the Arnage, better refinement and more torque at a lower threshold. “If you're looking for a low-revving, high-torque engine there's no reason you should not take a pushrod engine; you don't need four valves or overhead camshafts or all that,'' Paefgen says.

He compares the engine character to the old-fashioned Detroit iron of American muscle cars. It's a reserved British concept of muscle that disdains showing off. I could have done with a bit more V8 vocalness when demands are made.

There's no complaint about the effortless performance, though. The torque this engine develops, a steam-train-sized 1020Nm, arrives at 1750rpm, then the Bentley gathers pace as if it's going downhill. It can reach 100km/h in 5.3 seconds and red-lines at 4500rpm, which you won't see often unless you're planning on reaching its maximum speed of 296km/h.

The cylinder deactivation is virtually impossible to pick and there's an eight-speed automatic with shift paddles behind the wheel, which are pointless but a delight to touch.

It took a while before I could take my eyes off the burr-oak interior in the test car, but it was worth it to gaze over acres of Windsor Blue bonnet, elegantly spined and topped with a flying B mascot. This is not a car you hustle. The effortlessness of the engine is a good match for the handling, which is best enjoyed by going with the flow.

It carries terrific backroad pace through the Scottish border country chosen for the event with little input from the driver. Despite its size and light steering, it's not difficult to place on the road. This is luxury driving with chairman-of-the-board style involvment.

The test car was fitted with 21-inch wheels and they may have been responsible for a bit more tyre noise than I expected, with some road imperfections finding their way through the steering wheel as well. Even Bentley thinks its Rolls rival has the edge in low-speed refinement, although it says the differences diminish as speed rises.

Bentley has hit the target with this car, which feels every bit as thorough a reinvention of its flagship as its rival, Rolls-Royce, achieved with the Phantom. If you can afford one, you almost certainly own more than one car. Buy the Phantom to glide you to Glyndebourne, perhaps, but the Mulsanne for the tour to Monaco. Assuming, of course, you can afford to ignore the trifling matter of a troubled world economy.

BENTLEY MULSANNE - $695,000 on the road

Vehicle: Large luxury sedan
Engine: 6.8-litre turbocharged V8
Outputs: 377kW at 4200rpm and 1020Nm at 1750rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Pricing Guides

$322,135
Based on third party pricing data
Lowest Price
$299,750
Highest Price
$344,520

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
(base) 6.8L, PULP, 8 SP AUTO $299,750 – 344,520 2010 Bentley Mulsanne 2010 (base) Pricing and Specs