The first thing to get used to in the Bentley Mulsanne is the length of the thing. I erred on the side of caution: at the first set of lights we stopped at, a bus could probably have fitted into the gulf I left between the heraldic “B” at the tip of the Mulsanne’s bonnet and the tail-lights of the car in front.
Then there was the attempt to take the vehicle into, first, a municipal car park, and then, in what may have constituted legal misuse of a car which costs more than most homes do, that of a local Sainsbury’s. The Mulsanne could probably just have simply shouldered other cars aside – instead I drove the car as far as I dared into a vacant space (fortunately, it’s not proportionally wider than most other cars – just very, very long) then looked out the window to discover more than half the car was still outside the white lines, the tail end sticking way out into the path of other drivers. They might not have been shaking their heads and tutting – despite driving one of the most beautiful and arguably best luxury cars in the world today, you sense more goodwill from other drivers than resentment – but I still cowered low in the driver’s seat, covered in blushes.
We were on our way to the Shingle House in Dungeness, NORD Architecture’s ultra-contemporary revamp of a trad black bitumen-coated fisherman’s cottage – a suitable destination for Bentley’s own very successful reinvention of a classic design. While my passenger, or co-pilot as it felt more like when he was separated from me by an acre of dials and screens in the passenger seat, went to stock up on fuel for the wood-burning stove, I turned the temperature of my seat up a couple of degrees centigrade, set it to massage my back, and set about investigating the onboard computer.
The Mulsanne’s satnav appears on two platforms. A large-scale map of the drive ahead is shown on the screen between front seats, while a more detailed indication of impending directions is set into the driver’s dashboard. Set to “shortest time to destination” (it can of course be configured in all sorts of ways to avoid B-roads, traffic black-spots, et al), it guided us unfussily to all our destinations, though I was a mite confused when – having not quite mastered reading the display – I missed two recommended turn-offs in quick succession yet shaved five minutes off our journey time.
A similarly extensive entertainment system, which streams live television or plays CDs and DVDs via a six-disc changer in the glove compartment, showed up the fact that Bentley clearly expects you to have adopted a very up-to-date lifestyle, technologically speaking: I was disheartened to discover that my iPod – the Methuselah of MP3 players, at a staggering five years of age – was not supported; an iPhone 4 worked fine, however, though the automatic play facility meant we heard the same song, picked apparently at the Bentley’s rather odd sense of what constitutes “random”, every time we used it. My co-pilot passenger sorted this out, but it would have been annoying (or required a bit of advance playlist-planning) had I been driving alone. Like the satnav, the entertainment system can be trained to respond to voice commands, meaning one could simply instruct the car aloud to play a certain song; regrettably, despite my time in the Sainsbury’s car park, I didn’t have the chance to try this. The handbook suggests cutely that one should avoid trying to use voice-recognition to dial emergency services in the event of an accident – one of those injunctions you might have hoped would be covered by common sense.
Mission Control, as well as being technologically cutting-edge, is also immensely luxurious. Wherever a luxurious option is available, Bentley has taken it: where other cars might utilise plastic for buttons, controls and handles, the Mulsanne uses stainless steel, polished to mirrored (there are two especially pleasing ridged steel flanges behind the steering wheel, marked “+” and “–”, but whose function remained mysterious). Instead of clear plastic on casings of controls, there’s glass. The seats are upholstered in soft, hand-finished leather, the stitches particularly pleasingly prominent and tactile. Remarkably, Bentley even spent time exploring the aroma aspects of the tanning process for the leather used – taking that “new car smell” to a whole new level. The Mulsanne cabin is encased in a “ring of wood”, with a single piece of walnut making up the dashboard (a variety of different ultra-fine veneers are available). 170 hours of workmanship go into furnishing a single Mulsanne interior, and it looks, and feels, like it.
An initial level-headed acceleration as you depress the gas is followed, as you increase pressure, by a startling, super-boosted, G-force zoom that involves no lurching or awkward shifts in the eight-speed automatic transmission
In the back, screens are set into the reverse of the front seats, and some decidedly snazzy headphones are also provided so that whatever’s being screened in back needn’t distract the driver. Four different microclimates can be set throughout the car, or the same conditions imposed on the whole vehicle. Beside the circular air vents set in the dashboard, pleasing little silver knobs can be pulled out and set in to regulate airflow – a nod to the classic Bentley’s technology, and far more pleasing than the ubiquitous notched plastic wheels in other cars. And on a the long drive home through the sudden snow and cold, I was glad of the innovation that allows each seat to be heated to degrees above the ambient temperature (as I was of the aforementioned massage function, which can be set to pummel its way up the back of each seat with, in the driver’s case, much the feeling of impatient feet kicking the back of the seat in the wish to be home sooner).
Should you actually have a real someone demanding a quicker journey, the Bentley is happy to oblige. An initial level-headed acceleration as you depress the gas is followed, as you increase pressure, by a startling, super-boosted, G-force zoom that involves no lurching or awkward shifts in the eight-speed automatic transmission (your passengers, chortling over their DVDs and helping themselves from the integral mini-fridge in the rear, won’t spill a drop of their drink on the polished leather seats). You’re at 100mph before you know it – and so smoothly does the Mulsanne handle that, without glancing at the tachometer, you might not realise it. For long stretches of open road, the “Comfort” setting of the Bentley’s Drive Dynamics System, also controlled via the central instrument panel, is ideal; a “Sports” setting – which alters the car’s suspension and automatic shift settings – is designed for more dynamic touring and defter manoeuvring and cornering than our fairly laidback driving days demanded.
Our final day, I angled the Mulsanne into a third and final local car park, this time in Folkestone, and set off with my travelling companions for a splendid lunch at Rocksalt. Watching the tide come in fast into the harbour, we quite lost track of time, and returned to the car to find, to our horror, we’d received a parking ticket. We didn’t, as we set off for London and snap snow, catch sight of him, but I’m sure one particular parking warden was walking Folkestone with a strut in his step that day.