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29 September 2009

I’ve only been standing here absorbing the new Bentley Mulsanne’s design for fifteen minutes, but already I’ve picked my favorite line. It isn’t the longest or the most flowing line—it’s the one that cuts between the headlight and foglight before rising up to form the car’s shoulder. From there, it runs rearward to carve out the lower limit of the Mulsanne’s greenhouse before fading away. In those few feet where it runs along the hood, this line is able to single-handedly (well, two-handedly since there’s one for each side) announce the grand Bentley’s presence. It gives it a bold shoulder, separating this car from the soft design that defines the character of the smaller Continental. There’s a lot of heritage in that line, too, as it harkens back to the sprawling front fenders of Bentley’s early years. It also carves out a defined space for that controversial foglight to live, and without this line the front end surely wouldn’t have the authority that it does.

Someone inside Bentley must agree with me, because there was another car destined to wear the Mulsanne name, one that won’t see the light of day. This first design study was apparently nearing approval when the higher ups turned it around and sent it packing. The problem? They weren’t happy with the car’s soft edges. So we have the real Mulsanne, this one, and we have that line. And Bentley, delayed as it were by the design restart, isn’t left launching its car for the kings in the middle of a global economic meltdown. That’s a blessing in disguise, we think.

The rest of this newest Bentley’s design is gorgeous as well, and as with most things exquisite, the details hold the true brilliance. Like the way the short overhang in front and the large one at the rear accentuate forward movement, a classic Bentley trait. Or that all the brightwork is indeed stainless steel, painstakingly polished using a ten-hour process. There are cutting-edge details as well, like the headlight assemblies that use a center-mounted HID low-beam surrounded by a ring of LED high-beam bulbs. The taillights, too, use very modern light tubes in the shape of three rings, growing larger from highest to lowest, dual exhaust outlets mimicking their shape and progression at the bottom of the bumper.

Behind the serving platters that are the Mulsanne’s 21-inch wheels live another lovely detail. Bentley will offer carbon-ceramic brakes optionally, and they promise to deliver outrageous stopping power. We didn’t expect to see a caliper squeezed so tightly against a wheel of this size, but there it was. These optional rotors measure 16.4 inches in diameter up front, with eight-piston calipers doing the squeezing. That’s as world-class as brakes get.

Needless to say, we were amazed by another statistic lurking under the aluminum hood. The newly-revised 6.75-liter V8, which just celebrated its fiftieth birthday, produces a staggering 752 lb-ft of torque at just 1800 rpm and 505 horsepower, thanks to two turbochargers. Fully exposed but surrounded by a plastic cover for everything else under the hood, the polished engine looks like a framed piece of art. While the block’s dimensions are the same as every Bentley V8 of our lifetime, lightweight pistons and connecting rods, along with a new crankshaft, help reduce reciprocating mass. Cam phasing and cylinder deactivation are also new, and contribute to lower C02 emissions by more than 15 percent over the outgoing Arnage. An eight-speed transmission should click off shifts unnoticed, though drivers will have the option of doing that task manually via wheel-mounted paddles.

Not surprisingly, it’s the Mulsanne’s cabin that will likely win over oil barons and princes on the fence about their next car purchase. Robin Page, head of Bentley interior design, says that over 170 hours—that’s half of the car’s entire build process—goes into crafting the cabin. A solid wood waistrail, perfectly symmetrical along each side of the car, wraps the entire passenger area from front to rear. Touch any panel, or examine where it wraps around the door ends, and there’s little doubt that it’s as real and as thick as a farmhouse floor. Even the tray tables for rear passengers have a warm, inviting feel to them. And the smell—oh my, the aroma of all those rich hides—it’s as relaxing as a day at the spa.

There’s more than enough room for four adults, despite the fact that the Mulsanne also carries a whole herd of bulls and a small forest. But there’s also a sense of intimacy about this Bentley that the cavernous Rolls-Royce Phantom can’t match. Think of it as a cozy dining room to the Phantom’s grand hall. It’ll be interesting to see how comparison tests line up when the Mulsanne nears its on sale date (production begins in the spring of 2010, while US deliveries begin next fall) because it doesn’t quite match up with the Phantom’s size, yet it’s more opulent than the upcoming Ghost promises to be.

We’ll have to wait to drive the Mulsanne before we can offer many more impressions. Sales and Marketing Director Stuart McCullough insists that engineers have designed this grand sedan to be “focused on the journey, not the arrival.” The car’s resume certainly seems to demonstrate its ability to execute that task of carrying on Bentley’s storied history of performance and luxury. When asked about future variants, specifically a coupe and convertible to replace the Azure and Brooklands, McCullough simply said, “You know those engineers, once they get going you just can’t stop them.” We’ll go ahead and take that as confirmation. This is just the beginning for the Mulsanne as Bentley’s grandest representations of the brand ideals.

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