In an era of cookie-cutter cars, the Bentley Mulsanne is something rare — a customizable, hand-built, super-luxurious exotic sedan for the "one-percenter" crowd.
Does anyone really need a $364,000 car? Of course not. At the most basic level, a Hyundai Sonata can do anything a Bentley Mulsanne can do. But there are most certainly people who want a $364,000 car, people who have the means to buy something special that's uniquely their own. It is for them that Bentley has crafted the Mulsanne, the brand's flagship sedan and ultimate expression of motoring luxury. The Mulsanne was reintroduced for the 2011 model year to replace the Arnage model, which itself had replaced the last Mulsanne back in 1993. For 2013, the Mulsanne receives some minor interior equipment upgrades. You can compare the 2012 and 2013 models here.
Exterior & StylingBentley's recent styling direction has been one of understatement and refinement, and the new Mulsanne is no exception. The car cuts a dramatic profile, with its big, upright grille and huge, round headlights meant to evoke Bentleys of the 1920s and '30s, but the sense of scale is somewhat misleading until you walk up to the car. This is a seriously big sedan, especially by European standards, and the shape evokes a sense of mass and solidity that adds to the Mulsanne's considerable presence. My test car was done up with two-tone paint, Tungsten Gray over Onyx Black, which only added to the formal, classic feel of the car. Gazing down the long hood at the winged "B" hood ornament (which you can retract into the hood by hand, if you like) is like stepping back in time, given how rare hood ornaments have become in this age of aerodynamic efficiency and pedestrian-safety regulations. The overall look is attractive, imposing and practically screams "old money."
How It DrivesThe heft and mass of the Mulsanne both works for and against it when the car is in motion. Fire up the hand-built "6 ¾ Litre Twin Turbo" V-8, as it is lovingly called on a plaque inside the engine compartment, signed by the guy who assembled the motor, and you'll be activating one of the most powerful engines you can buy in an automobile. The old-school V-8 (it's been with Bentley, in various forms, since the 1950s) is immensely powerful, generating 505 horsepower and a gut-twisting 752 pounds-feet of torque, then channeling it through an eight-speed automatic transmission to the rear wheels. It's enough to move the big Bentley from zero to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds — faster than many sports cars. Considering the car weighs nearly 5,700 pounds (more than a Chevrolet Suburban), that is an extraordinary accomplishment. Acceleration comes in a mad rush of speed that is almost uneventful, given how quiet and serene the experience is. You'll find yourself at super-legal speeds before you realize it, which is a testament to the Bentley's refinement and comfort.
The steering feel is somewhat numb, with a slow ratio, but is steady on-center and accurate enough. The car is not likely to be autocrossed by anyone, but one could easily imagine it being driven with spirit through the canyons of Los Angeles, from posh hillside suburbs to beachside restaurants. In that application, the Mulsanne does not embarrass itself, providing steady and controlled handling and a compliant, smooth ride. An electrically adjustable suspension allows the driver to select one of four modes between Comfort and Sport, which can firm up the adaptive shock absorbers and steering response or turn them all pillow-soft for enhanced comfort.
At speed, serenity is the order of the day. Everything is hushed in the Bentley thanks to copious amounts of sound insulation and laminated window glass. You know you're in a quiet car when you can hear the fans whirring for the heated and cooled rear seats from the driver's seat. Only two things disturb this calm: tire slap from the massive, optional 21-inch wheels, and a surprisingly unrefined powertrain vibration from the cylinder-deactivation feature in the V-8 engine. Especially when cold, the variable displacement function that cuts off fuel to cylinders in the vain search for better fuel economy sends a buzzing vibration when you lift your foot from the accelerator. A little more help from Volkswagen (Bentley's owners since 1998) powertrain engineers to smooth this out would be a good idea.
The effect cylinder deactivation has on fuel economy has to be negligible. The Mulsanne is rated 11/18/13 mpg city/highway/combined, and my 600-mile drive up through Michigan's thumb region to see the fall foliage saw the Bentley return about 17 mpg in mostly highway driving. That's not bad for such a massive car with an enormous engine, and chances are if you can afford to purchase a Mulsanne, you're not terribly worried about fuel frugality.
InteriorCosseting passengers in layers of luxury is what the Mulsanne is really about, and the big Bentley delivers. Open the massive doors and slide inside, and the first thing you notice is how it smells — like leather. Traditional country club lounges, well-made jackets, expensive handbags and the Mulsanne's interior all share the same scent of expensive leather. Optional diamond-quilted hide covered the seats and doors of my test car, with more leather on the headliner. Slide into any one of the Bentley's comfortable seats and you'll gaze at acres of real wood so glossy it blinds you if the sun hits it just right. Everything from the ashtray lids to the power windows moves with a slow, damped action. The only curious part of the Mulsanne's interior comes from a lack of vertical space — headroom is tighter than one would expect, the result of an unusually high floor. Getting out of the Bentley, you step down instead of up — the Mulsanne is a high-riding car, it only looks low from the outside.
As nice as it is to drive, the real place to enjoy the Mulsanne is from the backseat. My tester came with heated, ventilated, massaging rear seats that also feature tray tables built into the front seatbacks. There's an optional rear passenger multimedia entertainment system, too, and if you'd like to darken the theater to enjoy your movie, there are standard powered privacy screens for the rear window and both side windows, as well.
Ergonomics & ElectronicsThe controls are an interesting mix of traditional Bentley, such as the "organ stop" air-vent pulls, and modern Volkswagen Group bits. The multimedia system is straight out of Audi in its operation and design, with Bentley even referring to it by the Audi "MMI" name. This isn't a bad thing, as Audi's Multi Media Interface system is one of the best in the market, with smooth and straightforward operation. Knobs for things like the gear selector are of a knurled metal that looks and feels expensive. Everything moves with a solidity and precision that seems suited to a car that costs this much.
The Mulsanne also features a full suite of electronics, including an optional on-board Wi-Fi hotspot, full internet connectivity, Bluetooth streaming audio, keyless entry and ignition, satellite radio and satellite navigation. Automatic distance-keeping cruise control is an option.
Cargo & StorageOne would think that a car this big would have a positively enormous trunk, but the Mulsanne does not — it's just 15.6 cubic feet, and while it's fairly deep, it's not all that wide. By comparison, that's a little less than your average Honda Accord sedan and 3.2 cubic feet less than a new Chevrolet Impala. Thankfully, Bentley offers custom-made matched luggage to maximize the space. Or you could just send your bags on ahead in another car on your way to your Gulfstream private jet.
SafetyThe Bentley Mulsanne has not been crash-tested. See all the car's safety equipment here, a list which is not as comprehensive as one might expect. It has airbags, stability control, and not much else. Most interesting is what is not available on the Mulsanne, including safety features like a blind spot warning system, lane-keep assist and a lane departure warning system; all those features are available on cars that cost a fraction of the Mulsanne's sticker price, but they're simply not available here.
Value in Its ClassI suppose we had to come back to this point eventually, so here it is: The Bentley Mulsanne I tested has a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $364,375. That includes a destination charge of $2,725 and a gas-guzzler tax of $3,700. It doesn't start there, however, as the "base" Mulsanne rings in at $302,425 with the guzzler tax and destination. Major options on my test car included the Mulliner Driving Specification Package for $15,750, the Premier Specification Package for $14,425, two-tone paint for $7,505, a rear seat entertainment system for $9,030, a Naim premium audio system for $7,565, and various interior options like seat piping, special wood veneers and more. Option one up for yourself here.
Competitors are rare, but not unheard of. The most obvious choice is the Rolls Royce Ghost, a $256,000 sedan very much in keeping with the mission of the Mulsanne. It's powered by a BMW-derived, 563-hp, twin-turbocharged V-12 engine, is available in a long-wheelbase version and features rear-hinged back doors for a little more unusual style. It's the long-wheelbase version that matches up nearly perfectly against the Mulsanne; their starting prices are within $1,000 of each other. The larger Rolls Royce Phantom is a step above the Mulsanne, starting at nearly $400,000, and really has no equal in the Bentley lineup. In the land of big, super-expensive luxury cars, these are pretty much the only two players anymore now that Mercedes-Benz has closed the doors on the Maybach, preferring instead to move its S-Class upmarket. See how the Mulsanne compares with the Ghost LWB here.
It's hard to use the word "value" in association with a car this expensive. People ask, "Is it worth the money?" and the only possible answer is this: To some people, it's worth every penny. The next question is inevitably, "Why is it so expensive?" That's an easier question to answer. It's expensive because it's almost entirely hand-built and nearly every aspect of it is customizable. You can have just about any interior color combination you can think of. Custom paint, custom wood trims, embroidery, stitching — you name it and Bentley can do it for you. Your only limit is the size of your checkbook. To some people, spending an enormous sum of money to get exactly what you want, something that nobody else has, is totally worth it. If you're one of those people, you'll be happy with what Bentley has for you.