There are few cars that make the kind of impact that a Bentley can. Since 1919, the brand has been producing a certain kind of car for a certain kind of buyer, a buyer who, on average, owns six additional cars -- and we're not talking about beaters found for cheap on Craigslist.
In those nearly 100 years, the brand has expanded and its cars have evolved, but given the importance of tradition here that evolution has been of the gradual sort. That continues with this, the 2017 Bentley Mulsanne, said to be "The Ultimate Statement of Bentley Craftsmanship." Those touches that weren't broken remain unfixed, but some subtle tweaks to refinement and a bit of an injection of technology help to keep this most Bentley of Bentleys current in many ways. Though it still remains charmingly anachronistic in others.
Spotting the difference between the new, refreshed Mulsanne and the outgoing model will take a keen eye and an obsessive love for the brand. It's the headlights that you'll want to focus on first. The LED-powered units are all-new and marvelously detailed, appearing far more like a fine piece of crystal decoration than a functional piece of automotive equipment required by law.
These beauties not only look good but turn dusk to dazzling daylight, automatically dimming themselves to avoid blinding oncoming traffic and magically refocusing to throw more lumens down the road when you start to pick up speed.
Speed you shall pick up, and not just if you opt for the quicker Mulsanne Speed edition. The massive V-8 under the hood of this car, still charmingly referred to as a "six-and-three-quarter liter" lump, now offers a healthy 530 horsepower and a nearly-uncivilized 811 pound-feet of torque. It does have some brains to match that brawn, though, with cylinder deactivation that can turn it into a four-cylinder, enabling it to deliver up to 18 mpg.
Further exterior changes include a larger front grille with vertical strakes, revised lights at the back and a new rear bumper. However, opt for the new, 250 mm longer Extended Wheelbase model (of which only 25 are coming to the US), and you'll get a car that is not only visibly stretched, but sports some rather more generous fender flares -- not unlike the new Bentayga.
On the interior, there are a few new choices of wood veneer and many tweaks, but the major changes are on the other end of an 8-inch touchscreen in the dashboard and in the pair of 10-inch Android tablets that are (optionally) available in the rear.
Up front, Apple CarPlay is on-offer, augmenting a new, Google Earth-powered navigation system that is a big leap forward over what was there before. In the rear, those 10-inch tablets deploy majestically from the seats ahead, allowing the passenger to get an update on the car's progress along its route, stream media from the integrated 60GB SSD, control the car stereo and, otherwise, act like a normal Android tablet.
This, as it turns out, isn't as ideal as it sounds.
The rear seat experience
The back seat on a Mulsanne is arguably the best place to experience the car, and that space is better than ever now, especially in the new Long Wheelbase option. While the normal Mulsanne offers copious leg and headroom, the extra 250mm in the LWB edition (about 10 inches) means you can stretch out as much as you like and not worry about putting any footprints on the back of that hand-stitched seat ahead of you.
A set of folding tables tucks between the rear seats (just ahead of the Champagne cooler), a marvel of engineering that pivots up and out with the sort of just-so articulation that demonstrates the ridiculous amount of time that went into perfecting it. Despite looking rather spindly, the thing can support a massive 40 kilograms of weight, or about 90 pounds. Useful, that, if you're still rocking the giant Windows laptop that your IT department assigned back in the noughties.
Opt for the integrated Android tablets, however, and you may have a little less need for your luggable. These tablets, aspirationally dubbed "Bentley Theater," are Pegatron-sourced and can be detached from their seatback cradles. Reaching them requires a somewhat undignified stretch if you're in the LWB edition, a problem mitigated somewhat by a wireless touchpad.
The UI has been heavily customized and a number of custom Bentley apps live here, including one cheekily called "Mirror" that just turns on the front-facing camera. But you can drop into stock Android easily, and this is where the user experience starts to crumble. The tablets are running Android 4.4 KitKat, a version released way back in 2013.
If you want to install any apps on here you'll soon find yourself wading through the Play Store updating core services and accepting one privacy warning after another. I'm an Android user and found the task straightforward if annoying, but I couldn't shake the thought that applying updates to Google Play Services and the like is hardly in keeping with the effortless experience offered by the rest of the car.
Even if you stick within the customized Bentley experience things aren't perfect. My favorite app is the version of Google Earth that gives you a bird's eye view of your car and your route. It's genuinely useful -- until it crashes, which it did for me. Twice.
Behind the wheel
Despite the amazing accommodations in the rear seats, most Bentley owners drive their fabulous selves in their fabulous cars to whatever fabulous destinations await. And so, while you wouldn't exactly call this a driver's car as such, it is still a rewarding car to drive.
The pilot's seat lacks the dizzying array of adjustments found on other, lesser luxury cars, but it doesn't lack for comfort, positioning you exactly where you want to be and then effectively disappearing from beneath you. This is a seat designed to cosset the hindquarters of some of the world's most important people, and as such it certainly didn't leave mine wanting.
The steering wheel, however, stays up high even when dropped as far as it'll go, and while I didn't find this arrangement particularly comfortable, it does add a bit to the character of the drive, making me sit upright and forward. Very proper, indeed.
The steering feel is light and slow, ensuring that any inadvertent nudge to the wheel won't result in an unwanted lurch that might upset Sir or Madame in the back seat. Indeed, making it around a tight bend in your Mulsanne is a task best undertaken with a fair bit of planning. When reversing, the high-quality rear-view camera is a godsend, but if there was ever a car that needed 360-degree cameras, it's this one.
Once on the move the Mulsanne hides its preposterous mass (nearly 6,000 pounds) well. It may indeed weigh as much as two lesser luxury sedans, but it feels no heavier than one-and-a-half at the most. Regardless, it is always perfectly poised, quite willing and, best of all, doubtlessly able.
The endless well of torque provided by the big V-8 up front means the car gets up and goes from any speed and will likely keep on going well past the point of you running out of road or wits. On the Autobahn I managed to get up over 160 miles-per-hour before encountering traffic and having to slow, but other than your ears popping in the cabin from the increased pressure, you'd hardly know you're going at nearly twice the fastest allowable speed in the US. At this rate, the engine is still pulling hard as ever and there's a commendable lack of noise from the atmosphere you're ripping asunder.
And that was in a base edition. The Mulsanne Speed is a bit quicker, a bit sharper and a bit more rewarding to drive, but neither model is a barn-stormer. On both the focus is on ride quality and refinement, and in 2017 that bar has been raised even higher, with tweaks like redesigned bushings, reconfigured air suspension and foam-lined tires that all conspire to eliminate any unwanted disturbances from poorly maintained surfaces. Local DoT won't re-pave your town's tired streets? Buy a Mulsanne. It'll make every road feel smooth as a billiard table.
But, not all is perfect in the driving dynamics. The automatic transmission in particular does not reward aggressive driving. Yes, you can put it in "M" mode and give it instructions via a set of lovely, knurled shift paddles on the back of the wheel. However, the transmission tends to think of tapping a paddle as a polite suggestion, not a direct request. Downshifts happen only when they won't send the tachometer needle anywhere near the redline and, when accelerating toward that same limit, the transmission will upshift itself with room to spare.
My advice? Don't trouble yourself. Just let the thing shift itself. With all that torque, it really doesn't matter what gear you're in.
I'll keep this section short because Bentleys are perhaps the most customizable cars on the planet. If you have the money, the crew at Crewe will build you pretty much anything you want and then go ahead and slather it in thick coats of whatever color you like.
But, if you're OK ordering off the shelf, you're looking at a minimum of $304,670 to get into a new Bentley Mulsanne. If you need a little more go, the Speed starts at $335,600, while those with long legs will have to stretch their money a little further to afford the $400,900 extended wheelbase model.
Things go way, way, way up from there, and you'll probably need to set aside a full weekend if you want to study the Mulsanne options and configurations manual in full, but I'll go ahead and make things a little easier for you: skip the tablets.
Still a Bentley
With the global economy continuing to roll, for the moment, Bentley sales have been strong, driving the business into new markets and expanding into its current ones. This is a tricky game for a company so squarely rooted in tradition, meeting the needs of new customers while still staying true.
But, with the new Mulsanne, there's nothing to fear. It still very much offers the ultrapremium ownership and driving experience that defines the brand, now with even more polished ride quality and just enough tech to keep relevant in the modern era. This is not a hip new Bentley, nor is it a dusty old one. It is, then, a Bentley, and a very good one at that.