20th Jul 2010 7:00 am
The stately new Mulsanne with its remarkable level of all-round excellence and opulence is possibly the best from Bentley yet.
Airport transfers don’t get any better than this. Straight off the Dubai to Glasgow Emirates Red-eye, I am escorted to a fleet of chauffeured Mulsannes waiting for us journos. My first acquaintance with Bentley’s all-new flagship in decades is from the back seat. It’s quite fitting especially since that’s the place where Indian owners will spend most of their time. Sinking into the large, sumptuous leather seats, I pull the large door expecting a satisfying thud but it doesn’t quite shut. But before I instinctively reach for the chunky chrome lever to open and shut the door again, an array of electric motors gently close the door nice and tight. Behind double-glazed windows and some heavy duty sound- proofing, I am hermetically sealed from the outside world. The Scottish roads complement the cabin’s calm ambience but so good is the insulation that I could have been in rush-hour Chandni Chowk and not noticed. Adding to the sense of isolation are the rather small windows (the result of a high beltline), which Bentley engineers claim suit most owners who like their privacy. To completely keep out unwanted stares, the rear screen and windows have individual electrically powered blinds. And in India’s urban chaos, why would you want to look outside when every inch of the cabin is a treat?
The painstakingly hand-crafted Mulsanne’s cabin is a work of art, wrapped in meticulously stitched leather and mirror-matched wood veneer with splashes of stainless steel. There’s no sign of industrial plastic (except for very few buttons) typical of a mass production car. In fact, there’s more wood than ever before. The new Mulsanne is characterised by a solid band of wood that encases the cabin to give it a rich and classy feel. The interiors are further enhanced by that delightful smell of leather. Customers can choose from a huge range of veneers and leather hide with 24 ‘standard’ colours.
The effects of jet lag are weighing heavily on my eyelids so I recline the back seat via dedicated controls in the centre console, kick off my shoes and sink my feet into the deep-pile carpet (which also comes in a wide range of colours to complement the leather) and nod off. The sereneness of the cabin is broken by the stately sound of the 265/45 ZR20 tyres crunching on the gravel drive of the fabulous Archerfield House, south of Edinburgh. We have arrived at our destination. Removing my bags from the boot, I am struck by how small it is. For such a massive car, 443 litres of luggage space seems too little (the Indigo Manza has a bigger boot) but again, Bentley research says that owners usually travel light. More than likely, a Q7 with all the luggage follows!
It’s only after I step out from the sublime cabin that I get my first proper look at the Mulsanne. It’s massive in every dimension and dwarfs every saloon this side of a Phantom. But despite its gargantuan size and imposing presence, there’s a certain grace to the sharply sculpted lines. The grille and frontal styling cues are clearly taken from the Continental range and the heavily creased aluminium front wings were shaped using ‘superforming’ technology – the shape was too complex to achieve with normal pressing techniques, according to Bentley. The Mulsanne is unmistakably a Bentley with its muscular haunches, long bonnet, matrix grille and round headlamps. And though it’s a pretty formal shape, it has an underlying sporty character that is synonymous with the brand.
If the rear seat impressed me with all its space and comfort, the front seats are equally luxurious. There’s a big sense of occasion when you slip into the driver’s seat. You are greeted by a vast array of dials and switches and everything you touch just reeks of quality. A fantastic bit of attention to detail is the ‘knurled’ finish on the rotary dials and the paddle gear-shifters. The knurling or crisscross texture offers possibly the nicest tactile feel of any surface and throughout my drive I couldn’t help but constantly caress the paddles behind the wheel. The elegant gear lever with the ‘B’ in the centre doesn’t have a knurled surround (like in the Continentals) but that’s coming later. The driver has a lot to play with and can keep himself pretty occupied. There’s an eight-inch multi-media screen which packs in the usual bouquet of sat-nav (not for India), audio/ video and Bluetooth connectivity. A new Dynamic Drive Control system allows the driver to choose from one of four settings which alter suspension rates and steering feel. However, the piece of kit that owners will enjoy most is the state-of-the-art Naim audio system which boasts of a 2200 watt amplifier (the most powerful in a production car) and 20 custom-made speakers.
Press the starter button (the Mulsanne is keyless) and the V8 comes alive with a faint murmur. Select D and the 2.6-tonne Bentley eases forward. The eight-speed gearbox immediately impresses, slurring between gears in a seamless and super-smooth fashion. Pull the lever back to S or ‘Sport’ mode and the auto ’box hangs onto each gear longer. For full control, you can operate the gears via the exquisitely finished paddles behind the wheel. The utterly effortless and stress-free grunt of the 6.75-litre V8 is immediately apparent. Despite its weight, the Mulsanne isn’t slow and will hit 100kph in under six seconds before going onto a top speed which is a shade under 300kph. But it’s the unfussed manner in which the Bentley gets there that makes it special. This high-torque (104kgm at 1750rpm) and slow-revving (redline at 4500rpm) V8 engine is an integral part of the Mulsanne’s character and the reason why Bentley has stuck to the push-rod architecture that goes back 50 years. Of course, the engine has been updated with tech like cam phasing, variable displacement and cylinder deactivation to improve performance and efficiency. With a mountain of torque and eight gears to make full use of, power delivery is delightfully linear. Squeeze the throttle and the huge limo lunges forward, rapidly gaining pace but in a measured way. The Mulsanne’s ability to mask speed is simply astonishing, aided in no small measure by the hushed interiors and phenomenal ride.
The Mulsanne’s suspension is the car’s masterstroke. Its wide breadth of capabilities can be configured to suit your driving style or road conditions. In ‘Comfort’ mode, you feel like you are riding on a pillow of air and this will be the default setting for Indian customers to smother potholes with aplomb. Switching to ‘Sport’ mode, the steering weights up and the dampers tighten and this setting was ideal for the narrow, undulating Scottish roads where the Mulsanne just didn’t feel its size. Leaving it in the so-called ‘Bentley’ mode, as the name suggests, suits the car’s character and gives its dynamics a combination of comfort and sportiness. And it is in this mode that the Mulsanne genuinely felt best in.
It’s hard to judge the Mulsanne from an Indian perspective but what’s clear is that its blend of refinement, luxury, comfort and sportiness won’t, unlike a Rolls, make it a car that’s only enjoyed from the back seat. This is a car that’s equally good for relaxed driving on open roads and the ideal way to unwind after a quiet dinner. The good news is the falling British pound has made the Mulsanne ‘good value’ if it can be called that. The standard car with the basic options will cost ‘just’ Rs 2.9 crore. The bad news is that it’s sold out till 2011. Indian customers always know a good deal when they see one.