[dropcap size=small]W[/dropcap]hat is the relevance of this million-dollar car to those who cannot afford, or cannot justify, its stratospheric cost? Because, admittedly, if you do the maths, this is a purchase for the top 1 per cent of the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent. That is no hyperbole: Bentley sells about 1,000 Mulsannes a year to a global market of seven billion people.
But, if you have even a modicum of interest in automobiles, you should be thankful that the Mulsanne still exists. For it is handcrafted in very nearly the same coachbuilding ways of yore, in a contemporary carmaking realm where typical cost efficiencies dictate that, say, a door handle be cast by the million from plastic squished into a mould by a robot.
It is the definition of old-school, created using manual labour, on a dedicated production line to keep out the prying abacus of the accountant, who would surely baulk at the 400 hours artisans spend on double-stitching unblemished cowhides, mirror-matching precious veneers and hand-brazing adjoining body panels.
ENGINE: 6.75-litre, 8-cylinder twin-turbo
POWER: 505/530* bhp at 4,200rpm
TORQUE: 1,020/1,100 Nm at 1,750rpm
0-100KMH: 5.3/4.9 seconds
Top Speed: 296/305 kmh
(* Second figure for Speed model)
From the round chromed air vents to the delightfully sculpted organ stops that control the volume of air dispelled, anything that looks like metal is metal. It is something Bentley executives call “material integrity” – a concept unheard of in the world of good-enough faux mediums. So, accustomed to this, I am ashamed to admit that I had foolishly assumed the switchgear to be clear plastic, only to later discover that it was, in fact, glass.
Marques that produce cars this way are critically endangered. The other one of note is Rolls-Royce, but its Phantom flagship is on a hiatus when production ends this year, its replacement arriving no earlier than 2018. Daimler’s offering, the Mercedes-Maybach, is exquisite and technologically superior; however, based on the mass-produced S-class platform, it is to the purist not quite qualified for comparison.
In A League of Its Own
So, for a brief period, the Mulsanne would be peerless – which makes the timing of its 2017 refresh particularly advantageous. It ushers in a nip and tuck – including realigned headlights, vertical vanes for the grille, a smattering of “B” motifs for tail lights and side wing vents, and new bumpers – for the two existing models. These are the “standard”, for the lack of a better term, introduced in 2010 and the go-faster Speed, in 2014.
But what is most newsworthy is the debut of a completely new variant, the chauffeur-destined Extended Wheelbase (EWB). This version stretches the stock wheelbase by a generous 25cm, dedicated in its entirety to the rear cabin. There is an absurd amount of space for the two opulent armchairs to recline in the same manner as seats in a private jet, complete with leg rests that cosset your calves.
Over-engineered tray tables that fold out from the console, which divides the cabin lengthwise, continue this concept. Made out of 671 parts, they are weighted and sprung in a specific way to ensure the stainless steel and solid wood amenities can be operated with minimal mechanical effort.
Elsewhere, electrically controlled blackout curtains banish the sight of the great unwashed. The task of mitigating the darkness of the cabin then falls on the shoulders of the large glass sunroof positioned over the rear-seat passengers. As if the EWB’s focus on them is not obvious enough, a pair of LED spotlights in the head-lining can be turned on to literally cast a shine on the precious occupants – enough to make this undeserved journalist riding in the second row feel super special.
Tradition meets technology
Across the range, technology is brought up to date with a new solid-state disk-based infotainment system controlled by a touchscreen, hooked up to your personal orchestra via the 2,000 watt, 20-speaker Naim sound system, the most powerful one could order from any factory.
A pair of Android tablets is integrated into the rear cabin. The way Bentley implemented this is exceptionally neat. Instead of having the gadgets permanently attached to the back of the headrests, as lesser marques do, the folks at Crewe carved out an aperture in the back of each front seat, so that they slide up at the touch of a button.
The 2017 models finally introduce blind-spot detection, advanced cruise control and adaptive headlights. But conveniences like parking assist and lane-departure warnings are conspicuously absent, presumably to preserve the olde worlde charm. After all, I suppose in the world of Bentley, owners would have either the chauffeur or the valet park their cars for them. Speaking of tradition, locomotion in the Mulsanne remains the responsibility of the venerable Six-and-Three-Quarter, named after its cubic capacity.
Last revised in 2014 with the introduction of the Speed, the V8 was first pressed into service in the Continental S2 as a 6.2-litre in 1959 and constantly tinkered on by engineers ever since. Apart from growing in size, it gained one, then two turbochargers, variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation.
There was, at no point, a clean-slate redesign of the engine, yet it meets all current and future announced emissions regulations. Its longevity is beaten only by Chevy’s small-block V8; together, they are the only car engines in production that still uses pushrods. It is a beast of an engine, with massive torque (1,020Nm in the standard; 1,100Nm in the Speed) from 1,750 revs, and – sorry for the cliche – pulls effortlessly all the way to its diesel-like 4,500rpm red line. It provides a marvellous sound – and it is all that you’d hear, thanks to special foam-filled Dunlops that silence tyre roar – quietly purring in a bass note in the background that at no point exceeds baritone, even with the accelerator floored. On a psychological level, the sound imparts aural reassurance that the engine will summon up whatever you need, without ever getting flustered.
On the derestricted autobahn, encouraged by my hosts, I brought the car up to a rock-steady 270kmh. At this speed, the only thing left to be desired is the amount of clear road, not the amount of steam remaining in the Mulsanne. Terminal velocity claimed is over 300 for the Mulsanne Speed I am piloting, a number I have no reason to doubt. If I were forced to declare only one defining characteristic of the car, it would not be the leather or the wood; it would be the sheer strength and serenity of this spectacular motor.
Sadly, this could be last orders for the 6¾, for reports say that Bentley’s CEO has slated it for retirement. But we shall see. The previous attempt to bury this mighty engine resulted in customer revolt and saw to its reinstatement. Tradition, I suppose, can cut both ways.