Since acquiring Bentley in 1998, the VW Group has done a masterful job of sharpening its brand character to reflect the marque’s luxury-performance image. Prior to the acquisition, Bentley and Rolls-Royce had become the same big sedans with different grilles and badging. The new Bentley has embraced its racing heritage by winning Le Mans and producing the very sporting Continental GT coupe and convertible along with the new Flying Spur sedan.
The strategy has paid off for Bentley, allowing the company to introduce new models that were priced just above more mainstream luxury offerings from Mercedes-Benz. But to retain its lofty stature as an ultra-luxury brand, equivalent to arch rival Rolls-Royce, Bentley had to also produce a few seriously upscale cars.
The first important offering was the Brooklands, a big, hand-built coupé that was limited to a worldwide production of 100 units. An updated Azure drophead (convertible) was also available, offering open-air transport to the country club in style.
Coupes and convertibles are good image builders, but big saloons are where the ultra-luxury buyers are found in volumes greater than a cocktail gathering. And in this important category, Bentley’s venerable Arnage was getting a bit long in tooth.
Although Arnage has been an established nameplate in the ultra-luxury landscape, Bentley wanted to be sure prospective buyers knew the replacement was thoroughly reborn. Mulsanne is not only a dignified sounding model name, it connects with the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, suggesting a car with great speed and performance potential. It’s a model name first introduced in 1980 to replace a simple designation of “T-Type” that labeled previous sedans.
To redesign a car so deeply seeped in tradition presents a real challenge. The new model should be instantly recognizable as a Bentley, be thoroughly modern without losing traditional attributes, and exhibit style that must last for decades.
The Mulsanne appears to satisfy all these requirements. The exterior style immediately conveys a sophisticated elegance that suggests fast, comfortable transportation. The large, round headlight openings acknowledge a traditional shape, yet carry modern projector headlights encircled with LEDs. The long hood and snug interior appearance with a short boot deliver a profile that connects with the classic eight-liter Bentleys of the early 1930s.
Inside, the International Association of Plastic Parts Producers must be deeply disappointed. If there’s much of this manmade material present, it’s not obvious. Instead, occupants are welcomed with rich leather, machined metal, and premium wood veneer, carefully assembled by craftsmen who seem to love their work.
Although the choice of materials bows to tradition, every function is up to date with all the satellite navigation and sound, connectivity and comfort features present and accounted for. And the technology is completely modern without overwhelming the driver with an interface that needs schooling to master.
Under the big bonnet, the harmony of tradition and technology continue with a smooth, powerful twin-turbocharged V8 that produces 505 horsepower and enough torque to make large trucks green with envy. The engine architecture harkens back to the early 1960s and does not possess the number of camshafts and valves some pundits feel are required to be fully modern. But no other power plant, regardless of component complexity, or even cylinder count, does a better job of moving nearly three tons of luxury with dispatch.
The Mulsanne’s suspension has been totally reworked to provide assurance at breathtaking speed without sacrificing comfort. It’s tighter and more controlled than the previous Arnage and is easily customized to accommodate the road or the driver’s mood. A rotary switch next to the gearshift lever can choose Bentley, Sport or Comfort. If none of those seem just right, a fourth selection, Custom, allows the driver to bespoke his or her settings.
Castles And Countryside
Bentley decided to make the new Mulsanne available to a handful of journalists in Scotland at a Castle alongside Loch Ness. That was perfectly fine with me, since the Highlands are the Douglas Clan homeland and the roads in Northern Scotland are free from urban traffic.
The home base was Aldourie, a lovely estate near Inverness and a picture-perfect setting for Bentley’s magnificent machines. I’ve spent some time in old stone estate homes and too often the only place for warmth is near one of the many fireplaces. Such was not the case at Aldourie. The entire castle was warm enough that I left my bedroom window open, even though the summer temperatures rivaled San Francisco’s foggy breeze.
The first home on the Aldourie estate was built in 1626 by Donald Macintosh of Kyllachie who prospered in commercial salmon fishing in the Loch’s abundant waters. Today three cottages on the lovely property adjoin the castle. All have been lovingly restored and the current owners make the castle available for private groups, complete with a chef and attentive staff. The cottages are available by the week or partial week if available and perfectly suitable for two to three couples.
We spent a full day driving on a variety of roads and the Mulsanne made the miles fly by. When passing is required, this big sedan will sprint into triple digit speeds without effort and the control is superb. It’s also quiet enough that speed can easily creep up on the unaware driver.
The Bentley team arranged a lovely coffee/tea stop at a welcoming private estate where the hostess provided fresh baked cakes and a tour of museum-quality original art. After the break, we headed to the Pool House, a historic small hotel in Poolewe on the West Coast for lunch. The property is located on Loch Ewe’s inland shore, well protected from ocean waters. Among the excellent accommodations at the Pool House is a suite that honors the Titanic, complete with artifacts.
Back at Lock Ness, we boated out to the ruins of Urquhart Castle, a Medieval fortress that was an impressive stronghold between the 13th and 14th centuries. The Loch Ness water around this rocky promontory is over 800-feet deep with currents that can create rolling waves that look a lot like a very large creature. But Nessie was not around during my journey. I happily settled for fresh salmon. BRIAN DOUGLAS
The Fine Print
2011 Bentley Mulsanne
TYPE: Front engine, rear-wheel drive
ENGINE: 6.7-liter twin turbocharged V8
HORSEPOWER: 505 @ 4,200
TORQUE: 752 @ 1,750
BASE PRICE: $300,000 (est.)
FUEL CONSUMPTION: 16.7 mpg combined (Euro)