First Drive: 2011 Bentley Mulsanne
It's All-New, But Old-School
The Bentley Mulsanne doesn't look like a retro car, but it is. Unlike, say, the New Mini, the New Beetle, or even the New Mustang, the new Mulsanne is not a skin-deep styling homage to an iconic ancestor. Even though it drips with 21st-century technology - composite body parts, an eight-speed automatic transmission, computer-controlled air suspension, a 60-gig hard drive that drives the sat nav, audio/video, data, telephone and Bluetooth connectivity - the new Mulsanne, which replaces the flagship Arnage sedan, is old-school to its very soul.
It is the Bentley that was never meant to be, done the way Bentleys were always meant to be.
"I have been in this industry for 30 years and I have done a lot of cars," said Bentley Chairman Franz-Josef Paefgen at the global reveal of the Mulsanne at Pebble Beach last August. "And this is all I can do." For Paefgen and his senior management team, including engineering chief Ulrich Eichhorn and designer Dirk van Braeckel, the new Mulsanne represents nothing less than the sum total of their considerable automotive knowledge, experience, and car-guy passion. "This is the first big Bentley since 1930 [before the company was acquired by Rolls-Royce in 1931] designed, engineered, and built as a big Bentley," says Paefgen proudly.
Paefgen admits VW Group originally had no plans to replace the Arnage, which it inherited in its 1998 purchase of the storied British luxury marque from Vickers Group. He fought a rear-guard action to keep the big old-fashioned Bentley flagship sedan alive: As recently as five years ago, the Arnage successor was to be a pumped up Continental Flying Spur, complete with high-tech turbocharged quad-cam W12 engine and all-wheel drive. That idea was quietly shelved when the concept was poorly received in customer clinics, and Paefgen used the failure to sell the VW Group board on a new Bentley flagship, one that retained the unique character of the Arnage its small but loyal customer base so dearly - and clearly - loved.
The first thought was to comprehensively update the Arnage, a car that had already undergone thorough re-engineering on Paefgen's watch. "We listed all the things we wanted to change," he recalls, "and we figured it would be cheaper to do an all-new car." Two things would be key to the project: rear drive, with the front axle centerline pushed as far forward as possible, and a 6.75-liter turbocharged V-8 with pushrods and overhead valves.
OK, the rear drive bit makes sense. After all, one of the weaknesses of the current Bentley Continentals is the truncated dash-to-axle ratio that is a legacy of the VW Group front-drive platform they ride on. But a pushrod V-8? In this day and age? Surely this was taking the Bentley DNA thing to extremes. Not a bit, insists Paefgen. "We thought a pushrod V-8 was the right thing to do, for two reasons. First, we have 50 years of history with this engine, and it was quite liked by our customers. Second, when your goal is low-end torque, a two-valve pushrod engine is certainly not the worst proposal."
And after a stirring drive in the new Mulsanne through the gorgeous rolling countryside on the border of Scotland and England, we'd have to agree. With 505 horsepower at 4200 rpm, and a staggering 725 pound-feet of torque on tap at just 1750 rpm, the all-new, old-school V-8 propels this 5700-lb. Bentley across the landscape with insolent ease. Just caress the gas pedal and the Mulsanne surges from corner to corner, the eight-speed ZF automatic seamlessly shuffling the ratios. Bentley offers full manual control of the transmission, with lovely chromed metal paddle shifters on the steering wheel, but in truth the abundant torque makes it more effort than it's worth. Just sit back and let the engine and tranny do all the work. You won't be any slower.
Bentley claims the Mulsanne will sprint from 0 to 60 mph in an impressive 5.1 sec on its way to a maximum speed of 184 mph. If you can afford the $285,000 base price for a Mulsanne, you're not likely to be worried about gas mileage, but for the record Bentley claims 13.9 mpg for the EU combined cycle, and an overall reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions of about 15 percent compared with the Arnage. We saw an average of 12.9 mpg on the trip computer for our briskly driven 260 miles, so that certainly seems realistic.
To help improve fuel consumption the new V-8 features camshaft phasing (which effectively varies valve timing) and cylinder de-activation. Under light throttle loads fuel is cut to cylinders two, three, five and eight - two cylinders on each bank of the engine. The valves of those cylinders are also deactivated to prevent energy waste from pumping air, and also to protect the catalytic converters from damage. The deactivation system is electronically controlled, with hydraulic and mechanical actuation via four solenoid valves that control the oil flow to the inlet and exhaust tappets at each of the deactivated cylinders. Maintaining two working cylinders on each bank keeps both turbos spinning at the same speed, reducing lag when more throttle is applied. Bentley chassis and powertrain chief Brian Gush says the pushrod valvetrain of the Mulsanne engine actually makes cylinder deactivation easier to accomplish.
The shift between four and eight cylinders is imperceptible from the driver's seat. All you know is there's abundant grunt, whenever you need it. The engine, which takes 30 hours to hand-assemble, is redlined at just 4500 rpm, and spends most of its time operating between 1200 rpm and 2000 rpm, even when you're pressing on. At 70 mph in eighth, the engine is loafing along at just 1550 rpm, and while the old Arnage V-8 rumbled like a distant artillery barrage when you nailed the gas, the Mulsanne engine is like a low murmur in a hushed gentlemen's club when you kick all those horses into action.
Indeed, the improvement in smoothness, refinement, and silence compared with the Arnage is instantly obvious. "We have measured it, and the Mulsanne is 3dB quieter than the Rolls-Royce Ghost to 120 mph," says Paefgen. Sound-deadening material under the car to absorb reflected road noise, and double glazing all around, are just two of the decibel-busting tricks employed by Bentley engineers.
Although bigger than the Arnage - the Mulsanne is 7.3-inches longer, just over an inch wider, and rolls on a 6.4-inch-longer wheelbase - it feels much more agile on the road. The computer-controlled air suspension - double wishbone up front, and a multi-link setup at the rear - offers three different stiffness settings (switching between them also varies the weighting of the steering) and truly impressive control of roll, dive, and squat. While the Arnage would leave you shaking your head and grinning from ear to ear at the sheer lunacy of its point-to-point pace, you were always aware this was a very big and very heavy car, with brittle reflexes at the limit. Driving the Arnage fast on a twisting road was an exercise in joining the dots; a dash from apex to apex, with deliberate pauses as you slowed, turned, and then gunned it at the next corner. The Mulsanne still feels substantial and indefatigable - like a proper Bentley - but its transient responses are much more fluid. It flows down the road rather than bludgeoning it into submission.
It's more fluid-looking, too. The increases in wheelbase and overall length, and the rakish C-pillar, mean the Mulsanne looks lower and sleeker than the Arnage, and the pronounced hips over the rear wheel make it a more expressive piece than the new Rolls-Royce Ghost. We're still not sure about the front end. The small outboard running lights give it a jowly, unhappy droop from some angles, and the mesh grille under the bumper looks far better in the standard black finish than the glittery chrome Bentley was forced to offer as an option to prevent dealers installing cheap, shiny aftermarket items. But there's no mistaking this car for anything else on the road.
It's only after you walk around the Mulsanne that you realize there are no visible body seams; it looks like it's been milled from a solid billet of metal. The complex body in white is difficult to build, requiring more extensive - and expensive - hand finishing (such as brazing and filling the seams) than even the Arnage. That's one reason the Mulsanne's body shop was located in Crewe, where Bentley still employs craftsman metalworkers. "This body could never be built in Germany," says Bentley engineering chief Ulrich Eichhorn.
For all the olde-worlde craftsmanship, however, the Mulsanne's body is state-of-the-art in many ways. The front fenders are huge, single piece superformed aluminum items, while the doors and the hood are also aluminum. The trunk lid is made from composite material - which allows the sat-nav and radio aerials to be integrated within it - and the trunk well is made from carbon fiber.
The same mix of heritage and high-tech can be found inside. There's the warm glow of real wood veneers, the rich tang of leather, and the bright splashes of stainless steel you'd expect in a Bentley; it looks every bit an interior that takes more than 170 hours - almost half the Mulsanne's entire build time - to complete. It takes 15 hours to hand-stitch each steering wheel, for example, while the stainless steel takes 10 hours to polish to perfection. Yet there's a sharp new 8-inch multi-media screen hidden under a panel in the center of the dash, and even a leather-lined drawer in the center stack for your iPod or iPhone. The optional Naim for Bentley sound system boasts 20 custom speakers and a shattering 2200 watts of amplification.
The Bentley Mulsanne's technology is discreetly deployed. What counts is the authenticity of the materials customers see and touch. If it looks like metal, it is. The wood veneers are laminated onto real oak substrates, not aluminum. The leather is tanned the old-fashioned way so it's soft and supple, and smells like leather. The carpets are made of wool. Franz-Josef Paefgen, whose personal collection of classic Bentleys includes an S1 and a recently acquired Mk VI, sums up the new Mulsanne this way: "In a world where cars are meant to be scrapped, this is a car that is meant to last forever."
|2011 BENTLEY MULSANNE|
|Vehicle layout:||Front engine, RWD, 4-door, 5-passenger sedan|
|Engine:||6.75/505hp/725lb-ft OHV 16-valve twin-turbocharged V-8|
|Curb weight:||5700lb (mfr)|
|LxWxH:||219.5 x 75.8 x 59.9in|
|On sale in U.S.||Fall 2010|