2011 Bentley Mulsanne – click above for high-res image gallery

Contrary to what you might expect, successfully keeping tradition alive in the automotive world isn't just about periodically mining one's stylistic back catalog or simply refusing to change altogether. To convincingly abide by the spirit of one's history without running the risk of extinction, or worse – self-parody – requires stealthy innovation, and to do so is a decidedly tricky undertaking.

Just ask Bentley. The British automaker has a long history of artfully highlighting its considerable heritage, from the exploits of the fabulous Bentley Boys to the timeless craftsmanship employed in its interiors. And despite the upright look of its new flagship, the 2011 Mulsanne, much thought and effort has been exerted into making what is actually a very modern proposition seem... traditional. Accomplishing this in an authentic and timeless manner is particularly important for an automaker like Bentley. Given the rather lengthy model lifecycles that small-volume manufacturers are often forced to adopt, it's crucial to nail the entire package the first time. Follow the jump to see if they've managed the feat.


Related GalleryFirst Drive: 2011 Bentley Mulsanne

Photos by Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.


A Familiar Presence

Forgive the shock of its front end for a moment (those inboard lantern-like headlamps are more jarring in photos than they are in the flesh), and you'll note that the Mulsanne looks about the way you'd expect of an Arnage successor – big, upright body panels and grille, vertically stacked taillamps, outsized oval exhaust outlets, millionaire manhole-cover wheels, liberal use of chrome... it's all quite familiar. But look a little closer and you'll note some compelling details – the 'floating' mount of the rear window and the more pronounced haunch-lines of the rear fenders, for example.

Of course, Bentley design is as much about scale as anything else, and the Mulsanne is no exception. With an overall length and width just shy of 220 and 76 inches, respectively, this is a big beast of a car – about a foot longer than a 2011 Audi A8L. It's so grand that it completely shadows its forbearer by nearly seven inches. A good portion of that increase can be found in the wheelbase, which stretches 128.6 inches – eclipsing Ye Olde Arnage by nearly half-a-foot. The elongation was made in order to increase space in the already capacious rear seat, perhaps a tacit acknowledgment of the limo-centric market in China being increasingly important to the marque's bottom line. Overall height is up a fraction to 59.88 inches, and all-in, this bit of Cool Britannia checks in at a heady 5,700 pounds, or about the same as the smaller exit car.



But back, for a moment, to the Mulsanne's design. As Bentley reps dutifully point out, the oddball front headlamps are a historical artifact of sorts, an aesthetic hat tip to the 1950s S-Type. We see the intent, but not quite the same grace. Regardless, those lights are nestled into some pretty innovative front fenders. Like the doors and hood, they're made of aluminum, only they're 'Superformed,' meaning that instead of being stamped, liquid tin has been poured into molds utilizing a technique first devised for aircraft panels. Doing so was the only way Bentley could get the complex shapes to work without unsightly seams.

Why no matching aluminum trunklid? Because it's rendered in a special composite polymer. The material choice wasn't not so much a token weight saving gesture as it was design dictated – utilizing a 'sharkfin' antenna for the nav system was deemed a gross offense to the Mulsanne's shape, and the solution that best preserved the signal of an internally mounted unit was said composite. Oh, plain old plastic probably would've worked, but that wouldn't have been very Bentley, now would it?

One last note about the exterior: Having sought to safeguard the cold, solid feel of all-metal door handles was at odds with the company's new keyless entry system, for much the same reason as the sharkfin antenna – poor signal transmission. Thus, Bentley had to devise new handles with a small 'window' inside. See what we mean about stealthy innovations to preserve tradition?



New Wine in Old Wineskins – But For the Better

As was true with the Arnage, the new Mulsanne relies on a 6.75-liter (pronounced: "Six and Three-Quarters") 90-degree V8. The keen among you will note that Bentley has offered just such an eight-cylinder for over 50 years. Only this isn't that engine. Once again, Bentley has worked hard to make what's new seem steeped in tradition, taking a time-honored engine format, but adding lightweight pistons, connecting rods and a forged crankshaft. Team Bentley has also introduced cam phasing and variable displacement (read: cylinder deactivation) to the twin-turbo powerplant for improved fuel economy and lower emissions – both are technological firsts in the ultra-luxury segment.

Good for 505 brake horsepower at 4,200 rpm and 752 pound-feet of torque from just 1,750 rpm, the new 6.75 is yoked to a ZF-sourced eight-speed gearbox, and the Mulsanne is the first 'large' Bentley to be fitted with paddleshifters. The latter are simple spoke-mounted +/- pull tabs similar in look and operation to those used on countless Audi models for some years now, although they receive a more substantial chrome finish and knurled finger grips that mimic the pattern on the outside door handles.



Tech Rich For the Rich

While the interior is steeped in tradition, it also seeks to rectify a major downfall of its predecessor – in-car electronics. Whereas a rusty sextant and an abacus would've foiled the navigation system in the Arnage, the Mulsanne boasts a cutting-edge setup. Thanks to its Volkswagen AG owners, Bentley has access to drawerfuls of tech, including a substantially reworked version of Audi's Multi Media Interface (MMI) infotainment architecture.

The MMI is basically the same as on the 2011 A8, but it operates without a touchpad and with a unique look and feel that's consistent with Bentley's upper-crust image. Instead of sullying the transmission tunnel with the Audi's all-in-one controller, Bentley has instead elected to install them vertically in the center stack below the HVAC controls. While the glass switches and knob feel great, the controls don't fall as easily to hand as they would in a horizontal mounting location. By way of consolation, the eight-inch navigation display is lidded with a veneered door, there's a 60-gig hard drive for music and navigation storage, and an iPod hookup is hidden inside a leather-lined drawer which operates with the sort of deliberate action that a butler reserves for opening a humidor full of Ghurka HMRs. All of this convenience technology wrapped in traditional cabinetry could seem absurd or camp – like a titanium rotary telephone. Here, however, it's done deliciously.



Equally enjoyable are Bentley's trademark metal bullseye air vents and their accompanying 'organ stop' regulators. In the Arnage, the latter were physically attached to vanes that governed whether the vents were open or closed. That's no longer the case – the Mulsanne borrows the quad-zone HVAC system from the A8, and the plungers activate electronic switches capable of shutting off airflow entirely, not just redirecting it. Company engineers had to work hard to faithfully replicate the previous mechanism's feel, and they've succeeded. Once again, modern technology is appropriately cloaked in traditional Bentley values.

It's worth noting that our test car was also equipped with a new optional side-view camera system – a valuable ally in tight quarters – and the stupendous Naim audio system with 2,200 very cultured watts pushing through 20 speakers. If you're anything like us, you'll probably remain in the driveway long after reaching your destination just to hear the last few bars of a favorite track in such superb fidelity.

As you might expect, Bentley hasn't dispensed with its traditional interior values just because it's discovered modern dashboard gizmos. On the contrary, there's more wood, leather and polished stainless steel inside than ever before. And how. The broad swath of veneer (the "waistrail" in Bentley-speak) that forms an unbroken ring of wood around the occupants in our car was finished in a gorgeous piano black, but more traditional choices are available, including nine different veneers. Beyond that, there are over 100 paint finishes, 24 leathers, 21 shades of carpet and – wait for it – 23 shades of seatbelt webbing complete with color-matched buckles. Twenty three. And those are just the 'standard' palettes – Bentley's in-house bespokery, Mulliner, will help color-match your Mulsanne to your family crest, your great grandmother's bone china, or your beloved's birthmark. No matter what your inspiration, it takes upwards of 170 hours to fit a Mulsanne's interior – nearly half the assembly time of the entire car. We suspect it takes just as long to decide to choose a paint color, which is why we'd recommend paying the UK a visit in person.




Because Bentleys and castles go together like... well, Bentleys and castles

We toured the factory in Crewe prior to taking the train from nearby Manchester to the start of our castle-punctuated drive in Edinburgh, Scotland and the commissioning service there is gloriously extensive, as are the visuals – the craftsmanship on display in the leather and woodworking areas are positively stupefying. Over 10,000 people tour the factory every year, and about 30 percent of those are current or soon-to-be owners, so you figure to be in good company. From where we sit, if you're going to order a new Bentley, you're short-changing yourself if you don't schedule a sit-down in Crewe first. If nothing else, seeing firsthand that your new purchase is as much a collective work of art as it is a piece of engineering will help you sleep well at night after writing out The Mother of All Checks.

But enough about haute couture. We didn't fly transatlantic and spit in the mouth of Iceland's inconveniently ornery Eyjafjallajokull to get a lesson in carpentry and hide-splitting – we came to drive. While it would have been be easy to dismiss a vehicle of the Mulsanne's heft as a sleepy luxobarge, that's not what Crewe's crew had in mind. After all, the Mulsanne wasn't named for some tony Mediterranean archipelago – it's christened after a legendary straightaway on Le Mans' Circuit De La Sarthe. Although they're too polite to say as much, it's clear that Bentley thinks languid reactions are for those who prefer to ride with the Spirit of Ecstasy.



Give Jeeves the Day Off

Prior to shoving off, company officials we spoke with talked not only of peerless grand touring, but of dynamic excellence – something we were counting on. The Mulsanne's exceptional width combined with Scotland's narrow-gauge country roads struck us as a daunting combination – before factoring in the right-hand drive. Did we mention those full-figured flanks start at $285,000?

As we would discover, this isn't really the sort of car that feels like it shrinks around the driver when putting the bricks to those incredible drilled pedals. Yet this rear-driver is exceptionally quick, cresting 60 mph in 5.1 seconds and topping the century in 11.6. Given a fair bit of straight tarmac, the V8 will locomotive its steel-chassis'd self all the way up to 184 mph. And if you're just trundling along at more modest speeds, unless you produce a stethoscope, you won't notice that four of the cylinders have gone dark – the variable displacement system works like a treat. EPA figures have not yet been released, but really... who's kidding whom? If you're buying a Mulsanne, you're probably beyond the impact of any economy, much less one that governs something as ordinary as fuel.



Straight-line authority is something of a given in a car like this, but it's how well the big Mulsanne negotiates corners that surprises. That's due, in part, to the air suspension tuning and the steering responsiveness, both of which can be tweaked by choosing between four detents on the Drive Dynamics Control knob that's adjacent to the gear selector. Sport, Comfort, Custom and Bentley are the settings on offer – the latter is the setting favored by engineers, and it strikes an agreeable balance between Comfort and Sport. The Custom detent allows drivers to mix-and-match their own preferences, but we suspect few will find it necessary.

Continental bulk requires globe-halting brakes, and the Mulsanne delivers with massive 15.75-inch steel discs up front, and 14.5-inchers out back. Like the rest of the Bentley family, this model will probably get optional carbon-ceramic units for superior fade-free performance, but truthfully, we never came close to testing the standard system's limits on Scotland's lilting country roads – we would need a protracted downhill canyon run or a closed course to really get them hot and bothered.



The Mulsanne's hydraulic steering is well weighted for sporting work and surprisingly accurate, and our car's optional 21-inch 265/40 Dunlop SP SportMaxx GT rubber did a good job of both filling out the wheel wells and telegraphing information back through the surprisingly small steering wheel. Despite such short sidewalls, we didn't observe any ride harshness, even in Sport mode.

If there's a way in which the Mulsanne fails to recall the excitement of its ancestors, it's in the area of powertrain audio. It might be our memory playing tricks on us, but we seem to recall the V8 in the Arnage (and in particular, the Brooklands) producing more of a wonderful 'woofle' when pushing on. It's possible that Bentley has done such a fine job creating a robust new platform and packing it with sound deadening materials that some of the sonic magic has been muted. That, or our hearing is beginning to fail us.



A Legacy Assured With Quiet Innovation

In the automotive space, there's always the worry that new owners will mishandle the icons they've acquired. And while VW AG has owned Bentley since 1998, this is the first new 'big' Bentley produced on the automaker's watch. Thankfully, the Germans seem to have a good understanding of the importance of maintaining tradition and authenticity, and they appear to have periodically opened up their partsbin where appropriate and let Bentley develop its own solutions for everything else.

So, the new Mulsanne is a magnificent piece, simultaneously classical yet acutely modern. But in an era where conspicuous consumption is shunned, will anyone care enough to sign up? Apparently so. Bentley says the 2011 model year is already completely spoken for – no doubt by people who know an enviable tradition when they see one.


Related GalleryFirst Drive: 2011 Bentley Mulsanne

Photos by Chris Paukert / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.