The Bentley Mulsanne, it turns out, is a pleasant car to drive.
I can hear the snorts already: "Excuse me? Bentley's flagship costs $330,000. I should hope it's pleasing."
Yet there's a reason the movie wasn't called "Drive, Miss Daisy": movable penthouses like the Bentley are usually best experienced from the back seat. The idea is to leave the driving to the guy in the funny cap while the owner peruses his Davos itinerary.
In the fragrant bellies of these behemoths, the world outside is silenced and the ride is like clotted cream. But again, the word is "ride," not "drive." Traditionally, the indentured pilot feels as disengaged from the road as his boss.
While this new Bentley would still seem misplaced on the Mulsanne for which it is named -- the straightaway on the Le Mans racing circuit -- its surprisingly able handling and top speed of 184 mph make it the rare ultraluxury chariot that encourages you to drop the Champagne flute and grab the reins.
The Mulsanne is an enormous car, weighing almost 6,000 pounds and measuring nearly 220 inches in length, some seven inches more than the aging Arnage it replaces. That's more than a foot longer and roughly 1,500 pounds heavier than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
The Bentley manages to look richly imposing, yet tasteful, avoiding the chromed-Panzer strut of the Rolls-Royce Phantom and the soulless-limo look of the Mercedes Maybach. Crisply tailored shoulders and flowing haunches evoke Bentley S-Types of the '50s.
Those creases and curves rely on a range of costly techniques including superforming, which allows a single sheet of superheated aluminum to be molded by pressurized air into complex, three-dimensional shapes.
Rear fenders envelop the striking "floating ellipse" taillamps with no unsightly cut lines around the lamps. Hand-finished stainless steel provides gleaming contrast on the mesh grille, door sills and other components.
The retractable Flying B "radiator mascot" is a $2,550 option. In that vein, if a buyer isn't satisfied with 115 standard paint shades, 24 leather colors and a magic forest's worth of woods, many whims can be met through the Mulliner bespoke-ordering program. Customers have previously requested colors matched to a favorite nail polish and even a turquoise kitchen mixer. The company occasionally draws the line: Bentley says it has politely refused eccentrics who asked for quick-release shotgun holders, a solid-gold radiator shell or a microwave oven.
Whereas even a typical mass-produced luxury model can be finished in about 24 hours, it takes nine weeks to build a Mulsanne at the factory in Crewe, England: 170 hours alone to assemble the interior, including 15 hours to hand-stitch the steering wheel.
Workers inspect the leather for insect bites and other blemishes; 17 hides are required to outfit the cabin, including a single sheet for the enormous headliner.
Wood from 3-foot-thick, 80-year-old root balls is shaved into thin veneers and applied atop five sturdy layers of tulip-poplar wood ΓÇö not simply stuck atop an aluminum substrate ΓÇö and mirror-matched so the grain pattern on the left perfectly mirrors the one on the right. The lumber-loving detail plays to great effect in the Mulsanne's waistrail, an unbroken band of wood that encircles passengers front to back. I drove a pair of Mulsannes, a primed-for-South Beach model with piano black wood and (my preference) a blue-black model stuffed with burl oak, including fold-down "picnic tables" in the back and saddle-leather seats with contrasting blue piping.
The Mulsanne's ergonomics benefit from a version of Audi's Multi Media Interface, a welcome improvement over the wretched Volkswagen-derived navigation screen that scarred the first-generation Continental GT coupe.
Volkswagen snapped up Bentley in 1998 and has revived the once-musty brand, modernizing performance and technology while largely keeping its mainstream fingerprints off the cars. In that vein, the navigation screen is discreetly hidden behind a motorized wooden panel. Phones and iPods tuck into a dainty wooden jewel box.
And while Audi's Bang & Olufsen audio system is tremendous, Bentley tops it with a 2,000-watt 20-speaker Naim unit ($7,415 extra) that's simply the best I've experienced in an automobile. It's certainly the most powerful factory audio in history.
Clearly, you could bask in the Bentley without leaving the cobblestone driveway. Yet the Mulsanne is more than a Hogwarts library that levitates on command.
What Bentley calls its first ground-up design in more than 80 years ΓÇö neither a modified Rolls-Royce nor a VW-based car like the Continental GT ΓÇö keeps its traditional engine size of 6.75 liters. With twin turbochargers, the V-8's 505 horsepower urge the Mulsanne to 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds.
The engine's torque has reached biblical proportions: 752 pound-feet fully available at just 1,750 rpm. Mated to Audi's new ZF 8-speed automatic transmission, the engine peaks at a diesel-like 4,500 rpm, meeting Bentley's goal of "unstressed" performance.
Even as the Bentley does its bullet-train act, passengers hear only a distant rumble, as relaxing as the sound of thunder from three counties away.
The Mulsanne covers ground like a fairy-tale giant, quicker and nimbler than you expect. You feel its prodigious momentum, yet there's no clumsiness; an adjustable air suspension keeps the car flat and poised through curves. The car might seem unstoppable, but huge brakes halt this dreadnought in surprisingly short order.
Road imperfections, noise and vibration are washed clean away, yet the driver-selectable steering communicates just enough to instill confidence. At night in the pitch-black Catskills, on narrow and devilishly winding lanes, the Mulsanne seemed to beg, "Is that all you've got, mate?"
The engine can also switch seamlessly to 4-cylinder operation to save fuel, although that might be a Pyrrhic victory: the EPA rating of 11 mpg in town and 18 on the highway draws a $3,700 guzzler tax.
The oddest thing about the Mulsanne is its econocar-size trunk, just 11 cubic feet. Chief executives must travel light.
Reality rudely interrupted when I walked out one morning to find the front end slumped atop the huge 21-inch wheels. The air suspension had deflated; the car was towed away, quite demeaningly I thought, on a greasy flatbed. A loose clamp proved the culprit.
Spaciousness aside, whatever the Mulsanne does on the road, a 12-cylinder Mercedes, Audi or BMW does as well at half the price. Executives admit that the brand's exclusivity, history and obsessive luxury help to convince customers that a Bentley is worth the price.
They don't have to convince many. Bentley will build just 700 to 800 Mulsannes a year for the world market, roughly 200 for Americans, starting at $291,295. With options, my Mulsanne test cars reached a respective $324,840 and $333,885.
Some commentators suggest the Mulsanne is handicapped in the world-domination race because it's roughly $90,000 cheaper than the Phantom. (But about $50,000 more than the new Rolls-RoyceGhost.) On the contrary, the Mulsanne reveals Rolls' emperor as nakedly overpriced for what it delivers. The Mulsanne isn't as spacious as the Phantom, but it is less fusty overall.
Ultimately, even these stratospheric sedans must be judged on how well they drive. In appealing contrast to the one-note Phantom and Maybach, a driver might take the Mulsanne for a fast spin without coming off as that social-climbing cliche: the man who could afford the car, but not the chauffeur.