WRITER: Nicolas Shammas
Building the world’s most luxuriant saloon is a challenge Bentley is no longer shying away from. Having proven its credentials among owner-drivers in the top tier, the automaker’s new flagship Mulsanne is also appealing to those who prefer to be driven.
After seven decades merrily making pretty similar products, Rolls-Royce and Bentley were separated in 2003 by their new parents – BMW and Volkswagen respectively. Yet even since then, they’ve kept things civil. With what seems like a tacit agreement not to step on each other’s toes, Rolls-Royce moved to a new purpose-built factory on Lord March’s Goodwood estate to begin making bigger, more expensive and more imposing limousines for those who prefer to be driven. Bentley on the other hand, stayed put in in Crewe, ceding the upper hand on the limousine segment (by continuing with its aging Arnage flagship model until 2010) to instead focus on more performance-oriented cars that customers could drive on a daily basis.
Now more than a decade later, it looks as though the gloves are finally coming off. Rolls-Royce has become more accessible with a second model-line (the Ghost), which includes a sporty coupé (the Wraith). And Bentley, fresh from having sold more than 10,000 cars last year to emerge as the top manufacturer in the auto market’s luxury sector, is clearly gunning for a piece of Rolls’ pie with a refresh of its now six-year-old flagship limo, the Mulsanne.
Bigger, brasher and more luxurious than the previous iteration ever was, the new Mulsanne unabashedly harnesses everything the English marque knows about building the world’s most powerful and luxurious cars. But, in order to appeal to the widest audience possible, it has distilled this essence into three distinct flavours. There’s the universally appealing regular version, a faster ‘Speed’ model (particularly suited to the more driver-oriented US market) and the ‘Extended Wheelbase’ (which should prove to be a very big seller in Asia and the Middle East).
Fold-out tables, picnic tables, pop-out tablets and reclining individual rear seats make the EWB version of the Mulsanne the one to have.
How do they fare and does Rolls-Royce have something to worry about from its old stable mate? Our chance to find out came during an exclusive media launch held in southern Germany. I can tell you that I found the Mulsanne to be fantastic except that, as a long time fan of the brand, I always loved its less affected approach to design and sadly that’s no longer the case. Something has gone amiss lately, because after the odd looking Bentayga, they’ve now tinkered with the characterfully handsome face of the Mulsanne, leaving it looking like an automotive version of Renée Zellweger – both make you wonder why they couldn’t have been more comfortable in their own skin. For me, a Bentley should exude classy confidence and not be so assertive that it needs a huge and imposing grill comprising vertical vanes as well as a metal matrix. They’ve literally thrown the kitchen sink at this one.
That having been said, other parts of the car have been improved. Let’s take the rear for example. I always had an issue with the Mulsanne’s derrière because it seemed too high off the ground and that allowed you to see underneath its rear skirting. That has thankfully been fixed with a wider and lower rear end, which hopefully now keeps the Mulsanne’s dignity intact.
My favourite aspect of Bentley’s flagship model is far and away its engine and luckily this has been left alone. That’s just as well, as they only just introduced the latest modifications to the 6.75-litre V8 unit a year or so ago. This legendary six-and-three-quarter motor may be able to trace its roots back to 1959 but sadly, the end may be in sight. According to inside sources, Bentley has been told to scrap it on the next version of the Mulsanne as part of group-wide cost-cutting imposed by the VW board. That leads us to assume that the next generation of Mulsanne will make do with a tweaked version of the Continental’s W12 and V8, which would be a very sad development indeed. The Mulsanne’s engine is a masterpiece, whether cruising in town, gunning it down the unrestricted autobahn or blazing past slow moving caravans in effortless overtaking manoeuvres that require just the slightest of flexes from your right foot, this smooth, quiet and effortless engine can do it all and then some.
So what’s new about the latest Mulsanne then, apart from a botched facelift? There’s been a lot of tinkering about all over the place and the general aim has been to elevate refinement. The interior has been updated superbly in a balance of modernity and tradition, with all the latest modcons being thrown in, like 4G LTE Wi-Fi hot spot, and a proper 8-inch touchscreen user interface with 60-GB hard drive that supports Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink. There’s also a new adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning and the greatest car audio system I have ever heard – the 2,200-watt, 18-speaker Naim, which is simply a must-have option. The experience from inside the cabin has been hugely improved thanks to the ingenuity of Bentley engineers who have added hydraulic bushings to the rear sub-frame, active mounts to the engine and even co-developed with Dunlop a roar-stifling layer of foam within the tyre construction.
Even though the top-of-the-range EWB can out-muscle a Phantom in terms of performance, it still comes out cheaper than the Rolls-Royce.
But the biggest news at the launch of this Mulsanne was the Extended Wheelbase version, and that’s the one I would go for. With the extra 250mm in length, you get space for special rear seats that have been modelled after those found in the first-class section of passenger aeroplanes. They extend and pivot, so you can sit in any position you can think of and still be comfortable. And, just like the rest of the cabin, they’re covered in the very finest leather, which once belonged to bulls who lived such a privileged life they weren’t even ever exposed to barbed wire fencing, as that might have blemished their skin. The EWB offers a rear sunroof and folding tables as options, and the centre console has things like USB ports, cup holders, and pen holders that make the back of this Bentley your private, rolling office. Another well-considered feature available across the Mulsanne range are the concealed Android tablets in the seat backs that pop out when you need them and stay hidden when you don’t.
Just as with suits, you could buy an off-the-rack high street branded number that might do the job just fine. But if you can afford the best, you’d go to Savile Row and have a bespoke one cut just for you. Well, a Mulsanne takes 400 hours to build, which is about 200 times more than a standard saloon and it can be tailored to your exact tastes. A daily commute in one, whether behind the wheel or in the backseat, would unquestionably be a heavenly thing, so I would of course love to own one. But personally, I’d still be unhappy with its face.
Should Rolls-Royce be worried? With the Phantom’s production due to end soon, and a replacement not due till 2018, the Mulsanne might not have won by knockout but I think it’s the undisputed champion of luxury saloons.
Model Bentley Mulsanne EWB
Engine 6.75-litre twin-turbo V8
Power 505 bhp
Torque 1,020 Nm
Weight 2,730 kg
Gearbox 8-speed automatic
Top Speed 296 km/h
0-100 km/h 5.5 seconds
Price 370,000 USD