Beauty in the beast
Being invited to drive a Bentley Mulsanne is like being summoned to Buckingham Palace: it doesn't happen every day unless you're a chauffeur. The 2011 model was launched in Hong Kong last April and the first orders are just being delivered.
Now, those lucky owners are taking possession of a five-star luxury resort of a car that screams champagne and cigars. In fact, the Mulsanne's direct competitor is probably the only other motor as familiar within the palace gates - the Rolls-Royce Phantom.
It's a rivalry that begs the question: why have Bentley and Rolls-Royce in recent years been sold on car designs that wouldn't look out of place in front of a column of tanks? Both marques have opted for a more puggish front end and a box-like appearance that risks detracting from the gracefulness that is a hallmark of these fine breeds.
Most carmakers have made serious style inroads over the years as they streamline their designs, but what still sets 92-year-old Bentley apart is sheer class, accentuated by the Mulsanne's almost intimidating size, from that flattened visage, topped off with Bentley's trademark Flying-B at the end of the bonnet, and along 5.57 slender metres of elegant, straight shoulder line to the classic swept-down rear.
Everything about the range-topping Mulsanne is big: eye-popping 20-inch wheels; the main circular headlamps with LED halos in the four-lamp set-up; the broad crosshatch grille; and even the pan-sized foot pedals. The substantial doors feel armour-plated, but automatically snap shut with just a little push. Then there's that 6.75-litre, twin-turbocharged V-8 engine - but we'll come back to that.
There's no mistaking the craftsmanship that sets a Bentley apart from its conveyor belt contemporaries (it takes more than two months to build a Mulsanne). The marque's superiority shines through, and any exterior design quirk is easily forgiven.
Like all Bentleys, the Mulsanne is built for maximum comfort, and since it's the pinnacle of an already elite marque, made at the British carmaker's headquarters in Crewe, England, that means 170 hours of work by craftsmen on the interior alone. Nestle in the bucket seat and you are caressed by yielding, skin-soft leather.
The spacious interior reeks of luxury - no nasty new-car whiff of vinyl here. Sitting in the Mulsanne is a leather aromatherapy experience; there's more flawless cowhide here than you'd find in a fetishist's playroom. It coats the door panels, ample stowage compartments, console and almost everything else from the floor up (though even the carpets are leather coated). The leather-trimmed steering wheel alone takes 15 hours to hand-stitch, Bentley says, and there are 24 colours available to choose from.
The walnut veneer dashboard is crafted from a single piece of wood, while other veneer finishes are mirror-matched for a seamless finish that rings the cabin. The veneer has such a depth of shine that you half expect to see goldfish swimming beneath the surface.
Then there's the polished stainless steel - no chrome plating here - on the bulls-eye air vents, control buttons and other fittings. Reach down the side of the driving seat and you'll find the controls (stainless steel again) for the fully adjustable seats. Beyond forward, backwards and recline, the seats can also be shifted up and down - so no booster cushion needed for shorter drivers - and you can also opt for lumbar support. Full adjustment is also possible in the back, with controls in the rear-centre arm rest. Headrests, too, can be electronically adjusted.
Other hi-tech gadgetry in the cabin includes an infotainment system with eight-inch screen, voice control for all major programmes, an audio system with 14 speakers (20 optional) and connectors for an array of electronic devices.
Bentley is protective of its test car - understandably, with a starting price of HK$5.6 million - and the ride was restricted to congested Hong Kong Island. So this grand tourer with a solid racing pedigree had no chance to race the MTR trains that run parallel with the Tolo Highway. (Bentley also wanted to know the route in advance.)
It's a frustrating experience to be at the wheel of such a powerful, 505-brake-horsepower car, designed for long-distance driving, but be stuck behind double-decker buses and construction workers' trucks on the winding roads to Stanley. Its drive dynamics control system, which has three modes, must have been bored. It manoeuvres as easily down the winding roads of Island South as in the clogged traffic of Causeway Bay, and its size isn't intimidating from the inside. A three-point turn in a narrow residential cul-de-sac was surprisingly easy.
When you get a rare stretch of open road to torque it up, as with other big luxury cars, the Mulsanne's engine is so whisper quiet that it renders you oblivious to speed. Travelling at 60km/h, it feels like driving a golf cart. Sadly, however, that was the top speed I reached in a car capable of topping 296km/h with a staggering 1,020Nm of torque.
Bentley says the Mulsanne puts 'the grand back in touring', but this limousine cum sports car is wasted on Hong Kong's roads. The carmaker should nevertheless have no problem finding local customers who just love driving a Bentley, or enjoy sitting in the lap of luxury in the back of an ostentatious, chauffeur-driven status symbol. Lucky chauffeurs!
AT A GLANCE: Bentley Mulsanne
What drives it? A 6.75-litre, twin-turbocharged V-8 engine with an eight-speed automatic gearbox and paddleshift mounted on the steering wheel. Powers out 505 bhp and 1,020 Nm of torque at 1,750 rpm.
How fast is it? Shoots from zero to 100km/h in 5.1 seconds and has a top speed of 296km/h.
How safe is it? Head and chest air bags fitted to front and rear seats rather than car body to optimise positioning; three-point seat belts with electric height adjustment and memory function in front; eight-inch screen that displays rear view while reversing.
How thirsty is it? Combined fuel consumption for city and highway driving is 16.9 litres per 100 kilometres. Engine management system closes the valves of four of its eight cylinders when cruising to boost fuel economy.
How clean is it? Emits an average 393 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre.
Available: From HK$5.6 million (including tax), Bentley Hong Kong, tel: 28901918.