The Bentley Mulsanne was parked across the street from our non-descript New York office tower. It gleamed in the sun, but nevertheless a Bentley Motors employee was giving it one last spit and polish, although I'm sure that Bentley would never use spit to polish unless it came from a special Bentley tended pride of lions; it's just that lux.
The Mulsanne, a rolling palace of dignified luxury, drew eyes from every direction, and several passersby stopped to ask about it in tones that can only be described as awed. Indeed, the car does deserve a certain level of awe. Each tiny detail and component is finely crafted and engineered in a way that seems calculated to satisfy even deep-seated desires you didn't know you had.
The Mulsanne, which debuted at the Pebble Beach Concours D'Elegance in 2009, is Bentley Motors' magnificent, handcrafted grand tourer flagship vehicle, and it embodies an idealized image of British motoring from a bygone age. Crewe, England-based Bentley Motors distilled the luxury and refinement most commonly associated with 1920s British manor houses or embassy receptions of world leaders and combined it seamlessly with some of the best modern technology available.
There does seem to be a psychological force field of sorts around the Mulsanne. Despite the fact that everyone wants to look at it, it also deserves -- nay, demands -- the respect of those around it. It looks simultaneously intimidating and reserved, stately yet dominant, unwaveringly respectable. Driving the Bentley Mulsanne through the busy streets of New York was a breeze; even the notoriously cranky New York cab drivers patiently waited for the 'Guvnor' to roll past, and nary a honk was to be heard during three days of testing.
Of course, not hearing any horns might also have something to do with the fact that the interior of the car effectively blocks even the loudest sounds. For instance, if you stand outside the car and gun the monster 6750cc twin-turbo V8, you hear a satisfying growling, rumbling roar. Inside the car, even with the peddle down hard, you might hear a low, almost imperceptible murmur.
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The massive engine means that the Mulsanne, despite being over 18 feet long and 5,700 pounds, can do 0-60 mph in 5.1 seconds with a top speed of 184 mph, once all 505 ponies start pulling. All that is to say, unlike what you would expect, the Mulsanne is an absolute blast to drive, and the burst of acceleration will give you a gentle push into the deep, loving comfort of its seats. Electronic Stability Control with traction control and some very large disk brakes help keep the whole heavy package on the road and let Mulsanne drivers live a little with the lovingly handcrafted gas peddle to the floor.
The driving experience of the Mulsanne, regardless of the engine's size, is focused on the comfort of the passenger. The Mulsanne offers an unparalleled passenger experience. Each seat is heated and cooled. Each back seat has its own screen and DVD player. The sound system from Naim is staggering in volume and quality. The back seats of the car can give you a gentle massage. Everything is trimmed in beautiful walnut and leather, the dials and controls are all polished steel. It has an analogue clock. If you plug in your iPod or sync your iPhone, it will load your music into the car. It has 3D satellite navigation.
The real story of the Mulsanne, and no surprises here, is that the ride is pristine and the passenger experience is luxurious, comfortable, even triumphant in a way. Sitting in the back of the Mulsanne, the whole world goes by as if it is your own personal domain, and it's easy to forget that you're a part of it. The Mulsanne is a palimpsest of perfectly considered and executed features from precisely placed vanity mirrors to the chrome joystick to adjust the steering wheel, from the perfectly sculpted shifter to the perfectly sculpted hood ornament, from cup-holders tastefully hidden beneath wood paneling to the button that closes the boot for you -- the car is the product of almost 100 years of automotive and comfort know-how.
The Mulsanne carries its passengers gently, like a mother gorilla rocking her children to sleep, an enormous, powerful creature in a moment of tenderness. The Mulsanne can be driven in several different modes, ranging from Comfort to Bentley to Sport. The tighter suspension of Sport mode makes the car a bit tighter and, well, sportier on the road, like a polo horse, whereas the in Bentley mode, or especially Comfort mode, road bumps won't be felt at all.
It was raining the day that I returned the Bentley Mulsanne. Soon, hopefully, it will grace the garage of a deserving owner. Low, wet, grey clouds sucked between the buildings of the Financial District, matching my mood as the attendant drove what I had come to think of as my Bentley away. It's hard to give a satisfactory review of the car; it is incontrovertibly wonderful and beautiful, perfectly constructed and powerfully equipped. For $343,000 you can buy a relic of British upper-crust -- staid, yet powerful, a monolith of power and comfort. But those who will one day be able to buy the Mulsanne certainly do represent rarified society; they live where the air is thin and the price is of no consequence.
The Bentley Mulsanne makes the subway seem a bit dirtier, yes, and it feels palatial. Yet at the same time, all the perfection and craftsmanship can also be a kind of reminder that a car is just a car. Eventually you have to park the Mulsanne and step out into the dirty, loud, messy, out of control world, and the realization smacks you in the face the while the Bentley is gleaming chariot, it is still a conveyance.
No matter what the world dishes up, though, the Mulsanne will always be the best way from point A to point B on wheels. Bentley can be confident of that.