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Tuesday 4th May 2010


DRIVEN: BENTLEY MULSANNE

The new £220k Bentley splits the Rolls-Royce range, so does it divide and rule?



Parked up while the photographer does his stuff, I'm approached by a fella wanting to discuss cars. It's the usual petrolhead camaraderie, but I'm immediately struck that I'm not going to be able to answer that all important question. You know, the one about what's under the bonnet.


I've been very lazy, I've not yet read the press kit, and while I know (assume) there's a 6.75-litre twin-turbocharged V8 under the massive hand-finished bonnet, I can't really say with absolute certainty. How much power it's got? Err, I'm guessing when I say 500bhp, which proves later to be near as damn it right - the figure is 505bhp.

Plenty, but then 505bhp isn't really that much these days is it? That said, the 752lb ft of torque most certainly is, and it's that twisting force that defines the Bentley Mulsanne. It's enough to allow the big saloon to reach 62mph in 5.3secs (60mph in 5.1), and hammer through to a 184mph top speed. Not once on the drive to the car park have I been left wanting for more.


But then you'd expect that from Bentley's flagship machine. Absolute ease of use, ample power and the sort of fit and finish buyers in this market demand. Discreet, but classy looks, too. (I'll let you decide on that one but add the proviso you really need to see it in the metal to really appreciate it. I like it.)

I get in the Mulsanne in Edinburgh, start the engine and point it towards the Borders roads. It takes seconds to get comfortable, the massive leather seats easily adjusted to fit and providing ample support.


Then there's the ritual of spending a little bit too long sorting out the ventilation. Not because its operation is counter-intuitive, but simply because the tactile quality of the chromed vents and the beautifully weighted push-pull toggles is addictive. They work like some sort of automotive pacifier, their action so soothing you find yourself instinctively reaching for them when the world around you goes mad; I swear the roads would be safer if every car had Bentley's calming ventilation toggles.

Of course the super-thick pile of the carpets, softness of the leather and the gloss of the wood veneers helps, as does the relative silence of the interior. You're cocooned, the Mulsanne's beautifully hand-finished interior delivering as inviting and relaxing an environment as you could wish for.


There's modernity in there mixing with tradition. Satnav nestles behind a veneered panel which glides silently out of the way. Press the section in the centre console between the three circular supplementary dials and ventilation switches, and out pops a tray for popping your iPod into. Further down the console between the seats is a rotary dial for adjusting the steering and suspension settings, the choice ranging from Comfort though to Custom, with a 'B' for Bentley optimum set-up suggested, too.

It's clear that Comfort is tuned exactly for that, as escaping the A1 to explore the more interesting roads in the borders immediately reveals the softness of the setting. There's fairly pronounced body roll, while the nose nods under braking and rises under acceleration. A quick switch to Sport sorts this out, without robbing the Mulsanne of its smothering ride quality.


The compromise is a weightier steering wheel, the additional heft at the rim okay when you're flowing through fast sweepers, but requiring some serious effort when you're faced with tighter, slower bends. Best then to spend a bit of time in the custom set up, opting for the lighter Comfort steering combined with the firmer damping control of Sport. Do so and the Mulsanne belies its size, cornering with surprising ability given its 2,585kg bulk. It feels subtly different to its Arnage predecessor, certainly wider and perhaps just a bit more muted in its responses to driver input in comparison, but then the Arnage didn't feel quite so rounded.


With the Custom setting selected the next choice is whether to shift the eight-speed ZF gearbox yourself or leave it to its own devices. Opt for Sport and it shifts quicker, each ratio change barely perceptible regardless of which setting it's on. There's the option to shift the cogs via small steering wheel-mounted paddles, but with eight to choose from you'll find your fingers unnecessarily busy even at a relatively sedate pace, and it's easy to lose count and forget which one you're in - requiring a quick glance at the bottom of the digital display to check.

No, the gearbox is best left to make its own decisions, usually picking the right gear for the circumstances. And then the Mulsanne seems to find its natural gait, which is a touch north of what's legal. Not massively so, but enough that you're probably better keeping an eye ahead on the road for cameras and cops than checking which gear you're in.


The engine never feels lacking, indeed, such is the spread end effortlessness of its power delivery it's a mystery why Bentley fitted it to an eight-speed transmission. You could get away with a pair of gears. Really. It's cultured in its operation, with a barely perceptible engine note when you're cruising and only the subtlest hint of aggression if you're reaching for its 4,500rpm redline. It'll cruise all day long at barely tickover, while cylinder deactivation attempts to keep its drinking habit sociably acceptable. Officially, Bentley claims 16.7mpg, but good luck with that, the tank nearly empty after 220 miles of - admittedly rapid - driving across some of the fine driving roads around the Scottish and English border. For the record it produces 393g/km of CO2.


That Bentley has created the Mulsanne in just three years is very impressive, and that it's so competent and so true to the firm's values even more so. At £220,000 it's not cheap, until you consider that the Mulsanne slots directly between the two offerings from Rolls-Royce. Bentley's Chairman and Chief Executive, Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen, when asked about the Ghost cheekily said: "This is not a Ghost, it's the real thing." He might just have a point.



 

Author: Kyle Fortune