Back 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. “People could still buy a car even if there was a downturn,” Bentley’s chairman Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen told me back then, in response my question about the dangers 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 output – the vital American market remains flat.
“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,” Paefgen said in 2006 of the replacement he was planning for the range-topping Arnage limo. “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. So what hope does he have of selling a car like that now? But as Paefgen says, even luxury brands like Bentley making only aspirational, near-unaffordable cars need a hero at the very top of the range.
That’s exactly what the new Bentley Mulsanne is intended to be, and its new steel platform and effectively new 6.75-litre twin-turbo V8 will also underpin and power replacements for the equally astronomically-priced Azure convertible and Brooklands coupe. It 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 2585kgs it’s around the same weight as the aluminium Phantom and 150kgs heavier than the steel Ghost.
Those 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 coupe. 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 hand-tooled magnificence that follows behind deserves to be announced with more pomp and pride.
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. The lesser Bentley four-door offers comparable lounging room, but it just feels like a car, albeit a very luxurious one. The Mulsanne feels like a country-house library on wheels, 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 the 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.
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 512 horsepower coming at 4200rpm. This new engine shares all its fundamental dimensions with Bentley’s ancient ‘six and three-quarter’; they wanted the same overwhelming torque that configuration has provided for 50 years, but adding 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 8-speed automatic gearbox.
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; a car this big will never feel agile, but the Mulsanne always feels composed, and occasionally even fun. 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 they set off a gentle, uncontained wobble in the body.
The Mulsanne is 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 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.
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