Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
It didn't seem like a dangerous maneuver at first: a simple pass on a two-lane road in a car with an engine putting out 752 pound-feet of torque. Piece of cake, right? Yeah, well, even with its aluminum body panels this new 2011 Bentley Mulsanne still weighs 5,700 pounds, which is only slightly less than the sizable truck bearing down on us from the opposite direction.
No backing off, though; this isn't a Rolls-Royce. We keep our foot in it and the eight-speed transmission drops another gear or two. The Mulsanne doesn't exactly leap forward and doesn't make much noise either, but according to the speedometer we are indeed moving quite a bit faster.
We clear the little penalty box that was slowing us up and snap the Mulsanne back into our own lane before the opposing truck gets a new, $285,000 hood ornament. The Bentley tucks back in nicely before settling down onto its air-spring suspension as if it just rounded a gentle curve.
Yes, this latest version of the "big Bentley" is still a bruiser of a luxury sedan, but unlike the Bentley Arnage it replaces, the 2011 Bentley Mulsanne doesn't embarrass itself when you want to do more than just float down the highwayail. This Bentley looks, drives and feels as if it might actually be worth the six-figure sticker price.
So why is the 2011 Bentley Mulsanne so much better than the Arnage? The simple answer is money. This is the first "big Bentley" (which is how those within the company refer to the flagship sedan, as opposed to the Continental GT and Flying Spur) built under Volkswagen ownership. That means expensive things like an all-new chassis and a complete reengineering of the 6.75-liter V8 weren't out of the question.
It has also meant that Bentley's engineers wouldn't have to build everything from scratch, since they had a sizable selection of Volkswagen group parts to choose from. Technologies like the suspension design and navigation system were borrowed from Audi, while the 80 different computer chips spread throughout the car were no doubt part of a larger company-wide purchase.
The Bentley Big Block
With most of the smaller parts already taken care of, Bentley's engineers focused on the big stuff like the aging V8 used in the Arnage. They liked its configuration and displacement, but ended up carrying over just four parts: the two turbochargers and the exhaust manifolds.
Everything else has been updated to save weight and improve performance, a goal that brought down the engine's overall weight by 66 pounds while adding 6 horsepower (for 506 hp in total) and 14 lb-ft of torque. Bentley also claims that all this has been done even while reducing air emissions and fuel consumption by 15 percent. (Yes, even Bentley cares about that stuff now.)
More important, this V8's torque peak has been brought down to a mere 1,750 rpm. No wonder we had such little trouble making that highway pass, and also why the engine felt so "unstressed," as the Bentley engineers like to say. The addition of cam phasing is a big reason for this engine's increased low-end power, while a new cylinder-deactivation system accounts for much of its increased fuel-efficiency.
It's also worth noting that all this power is made with good ol' pushrods moving the valves. As they say in Crewe, if they're good enough for the Corvette, why not the Mulsanne?
Quiet Like a Church
With so much power on hand we thought there would be a greater sense of it, but the noises are so well contained that we hardly know it's there. Even at 80 mph, the new V8 is almost completely silent, and at full throttle only a low murmur barely registers above the sound of the air-conditioning.
It's much the same with the new eight-speed ZF automatic transmission. We hardly notice it sliding between gears, and even full-throttle shifts barely generate the slightest nudge forward. There are nicely surfaced metal shift paddles on the steering wheel, but we can't think of a situation where we would use them.
Not that the 2011 Bentley Mulsanne is completely devoid of driver interaction. Thanks to its new all-steel chassis, rear-wheel drive and an adjustable air suspension, the Mulsanne can carry a corner with some measure of speed and confidence. The steering is precise (if a little light) and the brakes are plenty powerful. There are three levels of suspension adjustment, too, along with a programmable custom setting.
With 5,700 pounds to throw around, the Mulsanne never feels nimble, though. It simply can't change direction fast enough. But let's face it; the Arnage was a mess in the dynamics department, so the Mulsanne had a relatively low hurdle to clear in this regard.
Mix of Old and New
As dramatic as the improvements are underneath the skin, we prefer the Mulsanne on long stretches of straight, level highway. Its long 128.6-inch wheelbase gives it exactly the kind of ride you would expect — smooth, unflappable and perfectly relaxed, like driving the world's most powerful smoking chair.
The thick A-pillars and short windshield actually make the new Bentley feel a bit smaller from behind the wheel, which is probably a good thing, as this Mulsanne is 7 inches longer than its predecessor. The instrument layout has big, traditional analog dials, although they look a bit odd given that they zero out at the 1 o'clock position. A small screen between them relays auxiliary info like navigation commands and audio choices, while secondary engine info is left to smaller gauges in the center of the dashboard.
We've been following a route displayed on the collapsible navigation screen, and the system is better than we expected. The crisp, clear graphics are as modern as you'll see in any Lexus, and the interface is simple to use, too. The helping hand of the Volkswagen group is obvious here.
Still Plenty of Bentley-ness
As modern as the electronics are in the 2011 Bentley Mulsanne, there are still enough touches of old-world craftsmanship to remind us that this is largely a handmade car. Every knob, switch and trim piece feels substantial and is set perfectly in its place. The vent pulls are real metal and they move as if they're sliding through a suede-covered cylinder.
Every stitch on the steering wheel is laser straight, all the more impressive given that they've all been hand-stitched by a woman named Kath Green. We met her the day before; she's lovely and didn't seem to mind that it takes her five hours to complete her work on one heated steering wheel.
The rest of the interior takes another 165 hours and includes various levels of wood finishing and leather cutting. Bentley went back to an old treatment process to make the leather smell better and the result seems perfectly pleasant to us. There's three times the wood used in the previous Arnage and every piece looks as perfect as the last.
There's more than enough room in both the front seats and the rear, and all four positions have an extensive level of adjustments and temperature controls. Nods to convenience include an iPod drawer with dedicated connector, plus there are cupholders, although they're discretely placed in a drawer to be deployed only when necessary. Then there's the 2,200-watt Naim audio system, which sounds perfectly capable of breaking the double-paned glass should we feel the need to show off.
A True Bentley?
After an entire day behind the wheel of the 2011 Bentley Mulsanne, it's pretty clear that no one will miss the Arnage. It's also quite clear that the Mulsanne is still a classic Bentley — big, powerful, well-built and luxurious in every way possible.
Hard to tell if all this will be enough to allow Bentley to sell the 700 or so examples of the Mulsanne it expects to build each year. With a base price of $285,000, this Bentley remains in a small class of cars that demands a certain kind of buyer.
And we're not talking merely rich buyers, either. There are plenty of those around and they don't always know one luxury sedan from another. Bentley needs to find buyers who want more than just exclusivity. They want a certain kind of style, hand-crafted detailing and enough torque to make split-second passes on country roads. For them, the Mulsanne will be an easy sell.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report, which originally appeared on insideline.com.
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