The 2017 Bentley Mulsanne First Drive
In a world where speed is cheap and easy, the Mulsanne experience is one of the last true unicorns.
Green velvet mountains roll across the horizon, tight swaths of spruce trees streaking them with a dark crystalline fur. Above them loom the gray, jagged rock-candy peaks of the Bavarian Alps, veined white with snow, and I am steaming straight for them in a hushed, gleaming, 7,000-pound drawing room that costs more than my first house, wondering why there's no adaptive cruise control. Some acclimation to the clear, heady air of ultra-luxury is necessary, it seems, inside the 2017 Bentley Mulsanne.
This is a refresh of Bentley's flagship saloon that originally launched in 2010. There's also an update to the faster, more powerful Mulsanne Speed from 2015, and an all-new Extended Wheelbase limousine model, which adds 9.8 inches to the wheelbase along with lily-gilding amenities like power-operated blackout curtains and robust, over-engineered wood-and-chrome tray tables that unfold, airline-style, from a rear center console that can also house an optional refrigerator and crystal Champagne glassware. (That extras list casts a powerful spell, able to transform even the least expensive Mulsanne, known internally as the "Consummate" model and priced around $310,400, into a $400,000 car with little more than a flutter.) All get a slightly wider and more imposing grille with vertical bars—a visual reference to the brand's heritage sedans—laid over the older iteration's mesh latticework, new LED headlamps, and unsubtle B-graphic taillights. And all are powered by the same 6.8-liter, twin-turbocharged V8 that's been been kicking around for nearly three decades—here, the mill offers 505 hp (Consummate) or 530 hp (Speed)—and just as mentally ill rich people are labeled "eccentric," I've decided to refer to this powerplant as "distinguished" rather than "old."
That's not a backhanded compliment, either; distinguished is the right term. It sounds like this will be the final go-round for the venerable V8: the next Mulsanne, or its replacement, will have a 12-cylinder engine, which seems a more fitting choice. But it will lose an aluminum juggernaut of stoic effort and quiet composure. And torque! So much torque—752 lb-ft in the "base" Mulsanne and 811 lb-ft in the Speed. Put your foot down anywhere, at any point, in any of the automatic ZF's eight gears, and you find big, heaping gobs of thrust, to the point where you worry that the passing countryside will somehow get snagged and churned up by the endless twist.
The Mulsanne never feels like anything but the big, wide, imperious car that it is, but that doesn't mean it's not fun behind the wheel. It's smooth and potent, and thanks to its lovely, hydraulically-assisted power steering, it's easy to point the great B-adorned prow precisely as you effortlessly crest the rolling asphalt waves. On an unrestricted stretch of autobahn, the car proved itself as relaxed and content at 140 mph as at 75 mph—from the passenger seat, you might as well be sitting in an upscale library with shockingly luxuriant carpets. Thanks to new absorption foam in the tires, there's very little drumming from the rubber, too, though if you plan on regularly cruising above 120 mph, wind noise might be an issue. The engine, when it makes itself known, is a pleasing low growl.
Bentley will tell you that, in the ultra-luxury saloon class, this is the true driver's car. In a sense, this is undeniable: there is a conspicuous lack of driver's aids. Forget any form of autonomous capability—not feasible with the hydraulically-assisted steering, anyway—the Mulsanne also forgoes now-common features like lane-departure warning, a 360-degreee camera, and emergency braking. (A blind-spot warning system is new, but even carryover technology can be wonky: responding to a spray of kicked-up dirt, the auto-sensing wipers sprang gamely into action, but 20 minutes later, amid a steady tattooing of actual rain...nothing.) Mostly, the technology is the portable, personal kind in the form of detachable, 10.2-inch Android tablets that silently rise from the rear seats with the push of a button. The lack of electronic lifeguards makes for a pure motoring experience, to be sure, but it's interesting to consider whether the modern ultra-luxury customer will continue to see it that way.
I find the no-tech-frills (while otherwise steeped in every other kind of frill) approach not only refreshing, but also true to the idea of "luxury," which is almost always deliberately anachronistic. But I'm not an ultra-luxury customer, modern or otherwise, and I wonder how much that segment has changed, or is changing. A Bentley has always been a collection of anecdotes to impress one's friends: 400 build-hours; hand-stitched leather; seamless superformed body panels; eight layers of book-matched wood veneers; a custom paint scheme that perfectly matches your Irish Wolfhound's eyes; et cetera. Even five years ago, having the latest in-car tech advancement, like emergency braking or lane-keep assist, would be considered a value proposition for the likes of Kia and Chrysler, not a luxury one; now, with the way Tesla has changed the conversation, I'm not so sure. Technology itself has become a luxury signifier.
Of course, the stereotypical Silicon Valley customer is not the end-all-be-all (despite what he wants you to think), and I trust there are still people out there that can appreciate this type of craftsmanship and artistry for its own merits, even if it doesn't come with Snapchat. Even if the Mulsanne is low-tech not by choice but due to resources issues (which is quite possible), the end result should be celebrated: in a world where maniac speed has become easy and cheap and a $22,000 compact hatchback offers world-beating driving dynamics, an experience like this has become one of the last true unicorns. Nothing dings at you. Nothing beeps, nothing flashes. You are free to notice a collection of details, like contemplating a piece of art: the way the chrome reflects back to you the textured underside of the door handles; the elegant, frameless glass rearview mirror; the polished drilled-alloy pedals; the gorgeous analog gauges for fuel and oil and speed and RPMs; the verticality of the center console, as sheer and imposing as the Alps, a rock face covered with hides and wood and gleaming organ-pulls as handholds.
The pace, the feel of the car, and of you in it. The joy of driving, and the luxury to simply appreciate it.