Flying the flagship
Is the limousine, in light of the immense popularity of SUVs, a dying breed, or perhaps one that’s quickly becoming irrelevant? It’s certainly a question to ponder, and there’s probably no more appropriate or conducive place to do it than in the back seat of the Bentley Mulsanne (which has been updated for the 2016 model year with new front-end styling and an all-new infotainment system, amongst other things).
The numbers don’t lie — Bentley expects to sell five times as many Bentaygas as Mulsannes this year (5,000 versus 1,000 units), and while the two cars clearly don’t occupy the same space in the model hierarchy, one could argue the Bentayga has just as much road presence as the Mulsanne. Crucially, if you drive an SUV yourself, there’s very little chance you’ll be mistaken for your chauffeur. And there’s the small matter of the Bentayga costing 40 per cent less than the Mulsanne.
Against an SUV, a limousine has a lower seating position, higher waistline and a smaller glasshouse. This creates a more discreet experience; in the Mulsanne’s case, it’s discretion that can be heightened still further if the blackout blinds on the side windows and rear windscreen are drawn.
Then again, one could also argue there’s nothing discreet about a car that’s over five and a half metres long, and that the Bentayga’s interior is just as lavish as the Mulsanne’s.
However, the Mulsanne being Bentley’s flagship product, there are certain elements not found in the Bentayga, the gloriously overengineered folding table in the rear seats’ centre console being a prime example. The table comprises over 600 parts and it folds out via a coil spring and damper mechanism reminiscent of automotive suspension components.
Where the SUV has an edge on a limousine is in how it feels like behind the wheel. In the case of the Mulsanne, its insulated personality also extends to the way it drives, even for the supposedly more driver-focused Mulsanne Speed. This is in spite of its V8 getting a power bump to 530bhp and 1,100Nm (standard Mulsannes muddle along with a paltry 505bhp and 1,020Nm), along with a quicker-shifting eight-speed automatic gearbox.
While it handles well enough for a car measuring nearly 5.6m long and weighing almost 2,700kg, its long bonnet and languid steering rack ratio conspire to give the impression the Mulsanne is reacting to inputs from a long way off, and that’s also true for the Mulsanne Speed. And the less said about its epic body roll, the better. This creates a disjunct between the Mulsanne’s real-world performance and the figures stated on its spec sheet, which flatters to deceive. It may look like a sports car on paper, but it really doesn’t like to do anything in a hurry, be it accelerating, stopping or turning. There’s a feeling of unstoppable force to the proceedings, quite the opposite of a sports car’s irresistible urge.
But more than that is the Mulsanne’s driving position, which is anathema for hard driving. The high dashboard necessitates a taller driving position and while the seats are supremely comfortable, it doesn’t offer enough lateral support for spirited motoring. Clearly, the SUV is better to drive, especially in the case of the Bentayga, which in my brief time with it, proved surprisingly agile despite its bulk. Plus, an SUV is the more practical alternative, thanks to the cavernous load space afforded by its tall glasshouse and tailgate. So, if an SUV pips the limousine in affordability, drivability and practicality, is the latter still a relevant proposition today? If the Mulsanne is any indication, the breed is alive and well.
It’s a throwback to motoring from a different era, such as the use of analogue gauges instead of a digital instrument cluster (a deliberate move, according to Bentley) and an engine that can trace its lineage back to the late 1950s (complete with a retro 4,500rpm redline). And besides, pulling up at a red carpet event in an SUV just doesn’t have the same majesty as arriving in a long-wheelbase limousine. After all, there’s a good reason why limousines have long been symbols of wealth, power and prestige.