There’s a war going on within the confines of the British borders. Not quite a Civil War, but close. It seems that two of Great Britain’s premium luxury car brands, Bentley and Rolls-Royce, are locked in a pitched battle for supremacy. These once cousins are in a feud, and are settling the score by producing some of the world’s finest motorcars. Phantom, Flying Spur, Ghost and Supersports are the names of the field generals. It’s a gentlemanly war though, one with soft leather hides and polished veneers as the “weapons” of choice. And let’s not forget about power. Eight and twelve cylinder motors propel the war machines.
Before our travel to Edinburgh, Scotland, where international media assembled to see the latest weapon of the battle, the 2011 Bentley Mulsanne, we were invited to Euro Motorcars’ Bentley Bethesda showroom in Bethesda, Maryland for a special preview of the Mulsanne. Gil Hofheimer, general manager of Bentley Bethesda, showed us the intricate luxury details of the new flagship. As we dined on freshly steamed mussels, we knew the trip to Scotland would be something very special.
After dodging volcanic ash clouds and traveling across beautiful countryside, we approached historic Archerfield House, which served as our base of operations, where a squadron of beautiful Mulsannes stood at the ready, flanked by the inspiration for the new design, the 1930 8 Litre car, once owned and driven by W.O. Bentley himself.
The mission of the new Mulsanne is to pay homage to past Bentley greats like the 8 Litre, yet create a new standard for the Crewe, England based company. And though the German brand Volkswagen now owns Bentley, the Mulsanne represents a vehicle that was designed and engineered at Crewe from the ground up, reaffirming the marque’s intent with the Mulsanne to create a motorcar with refined performance, unparalleled levels of interior luxury and a continuation of the legendary coach-built craftsmanship that makes Bentleys, Bentleys.
It would be easy to think such a complex automobile was completely assembled by robots on a production line, as the engineering for the new Mulsanne is state of the art and very complex.
We traveled to Crewe to see firsthand how the Mulsanne is built, and came away very impressed. First off, the Mulsanne is a huge car. It is eighteen feet, three inches in length, and seven feet three inches from side mirror to side mirror. The car weighs in at a mind boggling 6,812 pounds, a figure that defies belief when you flex the Mulsanne’s agile chassis on roadways. Seeing the “body in white,” or the bare shell on the assembly floor, a lesson in premium metalworking is the first order of the day. The Mulsanne’s high strength steel and aluminum body/chassis is hand brazed. The front “wings” or fenders are made of aluminum (as are the doors and hood), and are a very complex design, one impossible to achieve with normal metal pressing techniques. Bentley uses “Superforming” technology, which uses high heat (500 degrees Celsius) and high air pressure to custom form the fenders.
Mulsanne design is breathtaking. The front incorporates huge, round LED/HID headlights just like the 8 Litre car, with cool circular LED daytime running lamps on the lower flanks. Move to the front of the hood, and the iconic “Flying B” mascot is available as an option in standing, retractable form. The long hood, short front overhang and long rear overhang convey power, while the wheel haunches and strong character lines define Mulsanne muscularity. Choosing an exterior color for your new Mulsanne can be an exercise in itself, as 144 colors are standard, with Mulliner bespoke customization rendering your optional color choices from mild to wild.
Total production time for Mulsanne is nine weeks from start to finish. We witnessed hundreds of craftsmen and women utilizing many of the same coachbuilding techniques that W.O. implemented in the early days of the company. For example, the wood finishing is an art to behold. The entire cabin is encased in wood, with a solid wood waistrail leading into the Mulsanne wood dash. We saw stacks of oak, cherry and walnut, ready to be formed into the dash, drawer panels, glove box, rear picnic tables, shift lever, steering wheel (optional) and waistrail, and then adorned with the customer’s choice of veneers; including Burr Walnut, Vavona, Sapellli Pomelle, Bird’s Eye Maple, Olive Ash and other exotic choices. And if “ordinary” veneers are not up to your standard, the Mulliner bespoke program allows you to choose custom marquetry to personalize your wood trim. It takes about five weeks of finishing to complete the highly polished lacquered veneers standard in the Mulsanne.
But the custom work doesn’t stop there. Consider the leather steering wheel, which takes 15 hours to hand stitch, or the interior brightwork, which takes ten hours to finish. And the leather components of the interior, which include the seats of course, but also the dash, door panels pillars, sunvisors and headliner, all hand finished in your choice of 24 standard colors or an unlimited palette of custom colors. We saw leathers of every shade, including pink, during our tour. And this is no ordinary leather. Each hide is inspected by hand, and matched with other hides for interior continuity. The leather sections are then laser cut, and stitched by workers before being custom fitted to door panels, seat shells, and other interior pieces.
Your feet touch pure wool carpets, and you can opt for Wilton weave floor mats to add protection and additional luxury.
And we learned something on this factory tour as well. Each “Bull’s Eye” dash vent, “Organ Stop” airflow control, coat hook, and other interior brightware is chrome finished stainless steel, not plastic as I always believed it was. Perish the thought! As you see the assembly process, you understand that only the finest materials are used in Mulsanne assembly, quickly adding to the prodigious 6812 pound weight.
Other interior luxury accoutrements include 60 GB satellite navigation with eight-inch multimedia screen, Bluetooth, six-CD changer, and keyless start and keyless entry, among other features. More on the keyless entry – the system can be programmed to set your preferred seat and steering wheel position, as well as your favorite radio stations, telephone books, seatbelt height, window blind settings, and even seat massage settings.
The Mulsanne’s base audio system features 14 speakers powered by a six channel amplifier with digital signal processing. The base unit also features satellite radio and iPod/MP3 player compatibility. But if you are looking for a system that I think is unmatched in the industry, you must opt for the Naim for Bentley premium system with 20 channels and 2200 watts, 20 custom made speakers, and eight digital signal processing modes. The system is concert hall quality and will totally blow you away with its clarity and deep bass. Whether your musical style favors Mozart or Marley, this is the system you want in the Mulsanne.
Overall, the interior takes about 170 hours to complete on Mulsanne. Every single stitch on the ten test cars we had at our disposal were perfect, and the varied interiors colors and trims all had one common theme — perfection.
After the tour of Crewe, it was time to get on the road. This was my first experience driving on the “wrong” side of the road, as the UK is set up for left hand driving. The Mulsanne, as mentioned, is wide, with over seven feet between mirror tips. This, combined with the UK’s narrow roads, made for a bit of nervousness as I first set out. The “lorries” or large trucks that ply these narrow roads take up every inch on the oncoming lane, and passing on country roadways was an adventure. My test car had the optional “Flying B” standing mascot, which served as a useful visual reminder of where the front hood began in tight quarters. Once I overcame my fear of scraping nearly $300,000 of automobile against one of the beautiful stone walls that grace this part of the world, I was fine, and so was the Mulsanne.
At the heart of the Mulsanne powertrain is venerable layout the 6.75 liter pushrod V8. The engine has been in use by Bentley for decades, but has been totally reengineered for Mulsanne. According to Bentley, three objectives were set for the revised V8: 1) To produce the effortless torque from low revs customers expect from a flagship Bentley; 2) To maintain the highest levels of refinement; and 3) To satisfy environmental standards through improved engine efficiency.
The twin turbocharged Mulsanne V8 features 505 horsepower and a whopping 752 pound-feet of torque. Extensive lightweighting is employed, with special lightweight pistons, connecting rods and crankshaft used. The lightweight camshaft features variable timing to enhance engine breathing and improve efficiency and lower emissions. Variable displacement means the Mulsanne runs on four cylinders when unstressed, and all eight when you need to move out. The system is seamless and I could not detect when the system was in four or eight cylinder mode. Overall, emissions and fuel consumption are reduced by 15 percent over previous 6.75 liter units.
My previous drives of big Bentleys like the Arnage, Azure and Brooklands were described as “locomotive.” These heavy cars felt heavy, and their forceful accelerative abilities felt like you were moving a ton of mass in the process. The Mulsanne is like a heavyweight prize fighter – a hard puncher, with swift, graceful feet. In fact, the Mulsanne feels very much like the much lighter Continental Flying Spur in terms of agility. This car is amazingly quick, with a 0-60 mph time of just 5.1 seconds. Top speed is 184 mph. You can monitor your speed through a speedometer with a needle that operates inversely, just like the unit on the 8 Litre car.
Mulsanne stops are equally impressive, with large, multi-piston calipers slowing the big Mulsanne to a smooth halt. Optional ceramic brakes are a good investment if you enjoy triple digit motoring. As expected, a full complement of safety gear is standard, from multiple airbags, to stability and hill hold control.
Our road course through Scotland, back into England, and into Scotland again featured undulations, coarse road surfaces, and open carriageways. If not for the ubiquitous speed cameras, there would have been ten wide open Mulsannes charging through the lush, green countryside. The Mulsanne flat out flies, with powerful acceleration that belies its mass. Shifting is controlled automatically through the ZF eight speed automatic, and for the first time ever on a big Bentley, you can control those shifts through steering-wheel mounted paddles.
A new Drive Dynamics Control system complements the all-new chassis, unique to the Mulsanne. Through a rotary knob by the gearshift lever, you can choose from three standard modes – Bentley, Sport and Comfort. Sport and Comfort are pretty self explanatory; “Bentley” is a combination of the best of the two, and is the setting Crewe engineers think is best for all-around operation that combines luxury and sporting handling. A fourth mode, “Custom,” allows the driver to select bespoke settings via the multimedia system to “tune” your Mulsanne to your preferred driving style. In total, over 80 electronic control units assist the Mulsanne driving experience.
I drove the Mulsanne with optional 21” sport wheels (20s standard) over a 250 mile course that included stops at the historic Baumburg and Floors Castles. Driving the Mulsanne was a superb treat. Seeing history while doing it made the experience even more special.
About 800 lucky folks worldwide will get to enjoy the Mulsanne, as that is the current capacity Crewe can handle. At $285,000 base, and about $315,000 loaded, the Mulsanne is not within reach of the masses, and that is just fine with the folks at Bentley. When W.O. developed the 8 Litre car, his marketing slogan was “good car, fast car, best in class.” Well W.O., it appears history has repeated itself. The Mulsanne has fired a salvo across the bow of British luxury. We can’t wait to see how the folks at Goodwood respond.