The Bentley Mulsanne is one of the costliest Bentleys you can buy, a fast, refined car offering heritage and breeding in spades. Ordinary people are not supposed to be able to relate. We are ordinary. Is this worth $285,000?
Full Disclosure: Bentley flew us to Scotland and put us up in a castle — yes, a castle — so that we could bring you this review. While there, we learned that parts of Scotland look a lot like Northern California, that sheep are friendly animals, and that it is impossible to spend too much time contemplating a bottle of scotch.
Scotland is a funny place. Not strange funny or creepy funny, but ha-ha funny. This is odd, because I've spent a great deal of my life listening to Americans do bad imitations of Scottish accents, and most of those people were not funny. I have seen funny Scottish comedians, and Ewan McGregor made some good quips in Long Way Round, but by and large, I did not expect a land with so much gray weather to be a jolly place.
Silly me. The Scots are a jovial bunch, the bartenders joke often, and even the guy selling sodas in the airport wants to make you laugh. ("You're from San Francisco? They filmed Mrs. Doubtfire there! She was a looker! Ho ho!")
To veer off on a barely related tangent (Hey! It's blogging! You can get away with it!), there is a funny — funny strange, not ha-ha — thing about Bentleys: Much like a Lotus or a Porsche, the cars from Crewe almost always live up to their stereotype. They are big and heavy, they are hand-crafted, and they always make people think up lame jokes about running over peasants. You listen to these jokes and you wonder why people don't get more creative. Then you climb behind the wheel and develop a sudden need to wear hunting clothes everywhere and buy a shotgun, or perhaps to dress like Diddy and toot around Monaco while a dandy fop holds your umbrella. You feel somewhat lame for buying into the image, but you don't care, because you are driving a rocket-propelled version of the Queen of England's living room, just with more class.
"The only thing you can consistently say about them is that they're rich." —Stuart McCullough, Bentley board member, when asked about the company's customer demographic
This is the 2012 Bentley Mulsanne. It is the king beast of current Bentley sedans, a $285,000, 5700-pound, 505 hp, 752 lb-ft (at 1750 rpm!) behemoth, and it is, for lack of a better word, the Bentleyest Bentley that Bentley offers.
The previous range-topping Bentley, the Arnage, was introduced in 1998 and discontinued in 2009. The Arnage fulfilled the traditional "big Bentley" role — it was massive, fast, more than a little nautical to drive, and built to a standard that essentially threw all regard for cost into a giant, leather-lined dumpster. Unlike the current Continental range, it shared little with any Volkswagen Group product. When it came time to develop the Arnage's replacement, VW reportedly wanted Bentley to develop a car based on a Volkswagen platform. Crewe apparently said no, and the Mulsanne was born.
The engine under the Mulsanne's wide hood is a 6.8-liter, twin-turbocharged, sixteen-valve pushrod V-8. It is paired to an eight-speed ZF automatic, and while it is essentially new, it shares basic dimensions and cylinder measurements with the pushrod eight that Crewe introduced in 1959. Variable cam phasing and cylinder deactivation are part of the package, and fuel economy is up a claimed 15 percent (17 mpg combined in Europe!) over the Arnage. Electronically adjustable air suspension and power steering are standard; as are twenty-inch wheels; paddle shifters; a 14-speaker, 2200-watt Naim stereo; heated and cooled reclining rear seats; and leather-trimmed cupholders. If you are the rare Bentley customer who happens to have a lot of money, you can custom-trim — leather color, wood, purple neon strobe lighting, whatever — just about anything in the cabin.
I will tell you about how the Mulsanne drives in a moment. First, you have to hear about the lunch stop. The lunch stop on the drive was the current private castle home of the Duke and Lady Roxburghe. It was massive and rectangular, like something you might build out of Legos if you were five years old and had every block in the country at your disposal. Once we arrived, I went on an epic search for the bathroom, following paper signs with the word "Loo" on them that had been taped to the wall. I got lost both going there and on the way back, twice ending up in a room holding at least 50 stuffed ducks. Paintings of old British folk lined the walls, and there was a snooker room with ten-foot-tall paintings of fuzzy hunting dogs. We ate in the Duke's private dining room, and later, I accidentally wandered into a room with a 56-pound salmon mounted on the wall.
Random fact: The average Bentley customer owns seven cars.
Random fact: Bentley's current factory is capable of building no more than 800 cars per year.
Random fact: If you are ordering a Bentley and want to customize it, anything — and I mean anything — is possible, but Bentley officials refuse to talk numbers because, they claim, "things are all over the map." When I asked if they could offer examples, they said, "give us a specification and we'll give you a quote."
"The rap-star customer thing? We love it, it's great, but it's also a passing thing." —Anonymous Bentley official
Old people. Old money. Centuries upon centuries upon centuries of old. Obvious statement: These people think about cars, time, and cash differently.
For a $285,000 car, the Mulsanne boasts a somewhat underwhelming interior. This is as it should be. You sit there, surrounded by polished this and leather-lined that, and you are struck by the complete lack of vulgarity. Everything is subdued but substantial — if it looks like metal, it is metal. The trim rings on the instruments are plated brass. The glovebox hinges are heavy chrome bastards you could hang a lifeboat from. Every control has weight, every switch or instrument is heavily damped, and the door handles contain more mass than the entire door in the average Honda. A Mercedes-Benz does not feel like this. Neither does a Bentley Continental. Even most Rolls-Royces fall a bit short.
Still, as former Rolls-Royce CEO Tom Purves once said, Rolls-Royces are for arriving and departing; Bentleys are about the journey. As such, the Mulsanne drives exactly like you expect it to, which is to say, exactly like a 5700-pound British car should. At almost 75 inches wide and 219 inches long, it is large, large enough to make even the widest highway lane feel a bit crowded. The adjustable suspension is firm in the stiff setting, soft in the comfort setting, and attached to a car expensive enough that I didn't even attempt to do anything silly on Scotland's narrow pavement. (OK, maybe I caught rear-wheel air once over a yump. It was like riding a fat elephant off a greased ski jump. I don't have the balls or wallet to want to try it again.)
You sit upright and high, as if riding a horse. The steering is slow and punishes a lack of planning, and the long-travel throttle and brake pedal — each emblazoned with a large, shielded "B" — require deliberate, conscious effort. The Mulsanne is not a car you drive passively; like an aircraft or a motorcycle, it demands that you pay attention.
And oh, that engine. It's a monster. It's a behemoth. It's a smooth, silky, ticking piece of engineering excess, a marvelous chunk of old-school glory that silently wallops its way from A to B in one of two modes: Tickalong Loaf or UNENDING WHOMPUS. Stab the throttle at idle, you move. Stab the throttle at 80 mph, you move. Insult the glory of the British empire and imply that Queen Elizabeth looks frumpy in her house shoes, and you will be launched to Saturn before you can so much as peep an apology. There is minor turbo lag (along with a barely noticeable vibration when four of the V-8's cylinders deactivate at light load), but if you care, you are stupid.
Bentley claims 60 mph arrives in 5.1 seconds, and that top speed is 184 mph. One engineer told us the car tops out closer to 200. It doesn't matter. No matter how the Mulsanne tests out, it's fast enough. When you control the Tickalong/WHOMPUS button, numbers are irrelevant.
And so, like everyone else, we are left with a bunch of cliches: The Mulsanne is a living room. A boat. It's a small aircraft, or maybe a beamy steamship forever condemned to navigate a narrow channel. It's an intangible representation of everything that is good and bad about Great Britain, and if you don't like it, you are either too poor or too ordinary or both. No matter. This is the best four-door that Bentley has to offer, and for the crowd that cares, it is exactly what they need.
"Ultimately, with a car like the Mulsanne, the vehicle determines the price, not the other way around. Price is very elastic at this end of the market. You focus on delivering the right car first and then pricing it." —Stuart McCullough
Yep. Don't want it, can't afford it. But by God, there needs to be such a thing as a big Bentley, and this is exactly what a big Bentley should be. Amen.
Addendum: While in Scotland, we had a chance to ride in a 1930 Bentley 8-Litre sedan purported to have been owned by W.O. Bentley himself. It was charming. You can see it in the galleries above.
Photo Credits: 8-Litre/Mulsanne pairing, studio interior, studio engine: Bentley; all others, Sam Smith/Jalopnik.