"I love that car," sighed the rookie valet at the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica.
The uniformed young man was referring to the 2011
Mulsanne I had just wheeled into the lot — a car he, as a new valet, wasn't allowed to park.
Why did he love this brand-new Bentley flagship, I asked, when he hadn't even driven it?
"The price," he smiled.
Don't we all? A car that starts at $285,000 and costs thousands more with all the trimmings connotes an elite lifestyle envied by the masses and lived by the few. Not surprisingly, 30% of Mulsanne owners also have a yacht.
Had the valet spent a weekend behind the wheel of this prestigious beauty, as I did, he would've learned there's far more to admire about the Mulsanne than its price, which is merely the result of a custom sedan designed, engineered and handcrafted from scratch. The most exclusive Bentley, no more than 800 of these "ultra-luxury" cars will be made annually. Each takes nine weeks to build.
The 2011 Mulsanne marks a return to classic Bentley, with its archetypical and torque-y 6.75-liter V-8 engine, corner-friendly rear-wheel drive and a resurrected namesake that connects Bentley's racing past to the present. Mulsanne is a famous straightaway on the LeMans course in France. What this all means for buyers: drivable Dom Perignon.
With its Mulsanne, Bentley truly does break out the bubbly. It's a celebration of the marque's liberation from
as much as it's a car. Bentley spent 67 of its 91 years run by the similarly
-born but now German-owned Rolls-Royce.
Bentley, which is currently owned by
, is trumpeting its Mulsanne as the first "true" Bentley in 80 years. Engineered and built in Crewe, England, by Bentley engineers and coach builders, the Mulsanne is at once an over-the-top yet understated model that delivers impeccable five-star service.
Entering through the driver door with its knurled and chromed handle, I half expected to find Godiva chocolates on the dashboard. Alas, there was only its aromatic leather interior, a glistening burl wood veneer prompting me to break out my Persol sunglasses and a bucket seat inviting me to relax with its undulating, gentle massage setting that sufficed for a trip to the spa. The Mulsanne's interior is so well-appointed that standard luxury features almost seem crass by comparison.
More than 170 hours of craftsmanship are devoted to building the interior, including 15 hours just to hand-stitch the leather steering wheel, 10 hours to polish each stainless-steel vent to perfection and three hours to craft the slide-out
For the Mulsanne I was testing, some of those hours went toward installation of what Bentley says is the most powerful production audio system ever made for a car. It's from
high-end hi-fi maker, Naim Audio, which has an exclusive agreement with Bentley to install 2,200-watt surround-sound systems for buyers who like their audio to emanate from their environs as if it was DJ'd by God.
As its Naim system alludes, Bentley may hail from the English countryside, but its appeal ranges from rock stars to bluebloods. Anyone with enormous wads of cash.
There were also climate controls for each of its four seats and remote-controlled window screens to shield passengers from the prying eyes of plebes. The only thing the Mulsanne was missing was a staff — a sous chef in the trunk, perhaps, or a butler to handkerchief its exterior.
Already, I was prepared to strategically default on my modest bungalow and re-fi into this Mulsanne, and I hadn't even pressed the ignition button that brought this 505-horsepower beauty to life.
With its newest, Bentley has masterfully fused the disparate aspects of a brand that's both athletic and unparalleled in luxury. Just as its interior is a mix of old-world refinement and modern-day technology, so is its ride quality. I found the Mulsanne solid yet agile, powerful yet quiet. And connected enough to the road that it didn't feel like a marshmallow.
Its twin turbochargers propel it from 0 to 60 in 5.1 seconds — a feat that defies its anvil-esque 5,700 pounds. Peak torque is at a fairly low rpm, so it didn't take much pushing on the accelerator to turn slack-jawed admirers into diminishing images in the rearview. It did, however, require some restraint. It's easy to reach speeds that could prompt more ominous images in its mirrors.
Coach-built with techniques pioneered in the aviation industry, the steel monocoque body with superformed aluminum closures also defies its saloon largesse. There was no discernible body roll at high speeds in tight corners. It was absolutely unwavering in its grip and handling.
Recognizing that Bentley-ites may enjoy driving without being especially good at it, the Mulsanne further aids that psychology of denial. It's equipped with all the stability, traction and braking controls money can buy. One could be a lazy, even inept, driver and still feel like a pro behind the wheel. Almost nothing was out of whack on the Mulsanne, except perhaps the "rain-sensing windscreen wiper," which swept into action a couple of times even when it wasn't raining.
But complaining about that is like
whining that her eyelashes are too wispy. Would anyone really notice — or even care?
The eight-speed transmission was smooth and fast — upshifting all the way through its gears by about 65 mph, even when I'd engaged the steering-wheel-mounted paddleshift and thought I was overriding the automatic. Moving through those gears can be accomplished in four modes that adjust the suspension and steering to match the selected driving style.
Difficult as it is to believe for a car that averaged 15.5 mpg in the time I had it, there's an eco-mindedness to the Mulsanne. It employs a new air-suspension system to lower the car at high speeds and improve aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. It also uses a new variable displacement system that closes off some of the valves when it's cruising.
Future model years will be capable of running on different fuel blends — an environmental decision that shows some forward-thinking for a legacy vehicle that isn't likely to be scrapped and will be driven by their owners for decades.
Just not by me. Much as I love the new Mulsanne, $318,940 is, as it is for most people, way out of my league. And that's just the way Bentley — and its buyers — like it.