x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Bentley Mulsanne is both master and misfit

Road Test Though it seems to be lacking something, Bentley's Mulsanne still exudes a commanding power and presence.

There could be worse things than spending a weekend with a Bentley Mulsanne. And it doesn't really matter if you're sitting in the front seats or the back.

So what better way to test out the full luxury and touring capabilities of the British marque's flagship saloon than a cross-UAE trip to the shores of Fujairah and back, along twisty mountain motorways and bumpy two-lane rural roads? And what better way to travel this route than wrapped in the overindulging luxury found in a Bentley?

From the burled walnut dashboard to the thick shag carpeting to the acres of buttery cowhide lining almost every other surface, passengers are ensconced in the highest level of grandeur and extravagance inside. The whole layout gives an almost Victorian-era level of opulence, almost to the point of being garish, depending on your tastes. The seats are thick and wide, and can be adjusted almost infinitely - even the two rear seats. Every button and switch feels like it was hand carved from solid aluminium, but you'd expect that in a car that costs Dh1.6 million. What you wouldn't expect, though, is seeing the same infotainment system as you would in an Audi. As Volkswagen owns both Audi and Bentley, the shared parts bin is evident and a little off-putting in this supposedly exclusive luxury barge. But the system does work well, to its credit.

What's not shared between the carmakers is under the bonnet, and Bentley owners are better for it. The 6.75L V8 is a beast; yes, 505hp is a lot of power, but not really a standout these days. But 1,020Nm of torque? That's equivalent to a locomotive, and it feels like it behind the wheel. What's more, twin turbochargers make all that pull available at a tick over idle, giving a driver instant power for passing or quick merges onto the motorway. It really has astounding strength, although it doesn't have the raw, brutal feel of, say, a supersports car. There are no white-knuckle moments with the Mulsanne, even though it will hit 100kph in a little more than five seconds, and maybe that's a good thing considering the purpose of this luxury saloon. Perhaps it's the lack of engine and road noise that would normally enter what is a tight and silent cabin, making it seem all too peaceful for such neck-snapping performance. Perhaps it's also the fact that the Mulsanne weighs more than 3,000kg when fully laden, which would make the locomotive analogy all the more logical. But commend the eight-speed transmission for getting all this power down to the wheels in such a smooth manner, too - shifts are almost immeasurable and, depending if you select normal or sport, can be seamless or, well, not quite as seamless. Even the sport mode leans more towards comfort than most other cars.

But once you get the Mulsanne up to speed, it feels effortless. Indeed, as one passenger riding in the back seat described it, it's more like flying in an airplane than being driven in a car. The power is smooth and unending, yet the cabin is quiet and the air suspension and big tyres soak up anything the Mulsanne rolls over, from a pebble to a small hatchback stalled on the road. And even though it rides silky smooth, it's no tugboat in the corners. The Mulsanne has the poise and stability to give the utmost confidence to a driver at higher speeds dipping into a curve, surprising and commendable for such a heavy car. For whatever parts it does share with Audi, this is most definitely not a rebodied A8; this is a car unto its own.

But lest you think I am head over heels in love with the Mulsanne, I have to say I am not. From a company that built the Continental, a timeless design that will be revered decades from now, the Mulsanne is, well, rather plain. It lacks the eye-catching, muscular lines of the Continental, and relies on its huge, round headlamps circled with LED lights as its defining features. It's a big car, but it just doesn't have the presence of that "other" saloon in its price range, the Rolls-Royce Phantom - another design that will surely stand the test of time.

Yes, the Mulsanne is supposed to be a "sportier" car than the Rolls (though how sporty can a car that weighs as much as two whole Ferraris be?), but as a flagship for a company as storied as Bentley, its look is somewhat forgettable. Were it not for the Flying B logos on the bonnet and boot, it could appear to be just another luxury saloon among the likes of a Jaguar XJ or a Mercedes-Benz S-class, and not the higher level of car it's supposed to be. And when you're paying almost triple the price over those other cars, you would expect it to stand out. Even the Rolls-Royce Ghost combines those qualities of presence and sportiness better than the Mulsanne, and for a cheaper price tag, to boot.

But there's little else to disappoint here. The Mulsanne is big - stepping inside is more like getting into an SUV than a car - and the rear quarters have plenty of space to stretch out in, along with TV screens, climate controls and even dinner trays. There's no complaining about the ride, handling or power, either. But for such a special car, I just wish it looked more the part.


The specs

Price, base / as tested Dh1.4 million / Dh1.6 million

Engine 6.75L, twin-turbocharged V8

Gearbox Eight-speed automatic

Power 505hp @ 4,200rpm

Torque 1,020Nm @ 1,750rpm

Fuel economy,  combined 16.9L/100km