Old rivalries enter a new era with the arrival of the Bentley Mulsanne alongside the Rolls-Royce Ghost. Steve Cropley makes a tough call.
Why not Mulsanne versus Phantom?
Rolls-Royce is perfectly happy for its number two model (at least in price, if not capability or quality) to be compared with Bentley’s new number one. Bentley, predictably, is keener for the Mulsanne to be seen as a Phantom rival, arguing that its car, already around £30,000 more expensive than a Ghost, can easily cost £260k-plus by the time you’ve added the bespoke features the company wants every owner to consider. But then Rolls owners buy bespoke options too…
Given this (gentlemanly) disagreement, our casting vote was to match Ghost and Mulsanne – because both are relatively practical cars, well able to be used every day, whereas the Phantom is so large, imposing and valuable that it’s almost ceremonial.
The Mulsanne is 175mm (or just under seven inches) longer than the Ghost – not much of a difference in an overall length of 5.5 metres. Both cars weigh roughly 2.5 tonnes at the kerb and use a unique, mainly steel monocoque body with air suspension (to deliver the same ride standards whatever the car’s load condition). Each has a twin-turbocharged engine of just under seven litres, with copious power and torque fed through one of ZF’s new eight-speed gearboxes.
The Rolls majors on simplicity. As in the Phantom, controls are arranged in a strict hierarchy – and non-essentials are hidden – so owners will never be able to complain of complexity.
The Bentley impresses in an entirely different way, by being comprehensive and more appealing to the sporting driver. It has a superb array of dials and switches – including a tachometer and about the best-looking central transmission quadrant put into a car.
On our solus test of the Bentley, we wondered if its V8 hadn’t lost character in the latest round of re-engineering, by becoming a shade too reluctant to produce the V8 thunder of old (although it will do it). But against the always-silent Rolls it is quite a character, whose party trick is amazing thrust barely above idle (peak torque is 752lb ft at 1750rpm).
The Rolls’s twin-turbo V12 is nominally more powerful if you rev it out (peak power is 563bhp at 5250rpm) but its peak torque is nearly 200lb ft less. On combined fuel consumption, there’s quite a gap: the Rolls beats the Bentley’s fairly poor 16.8mpg (combined) by almost 25 per cent.
The Bentley is – narrowly – the better driver’s car. It is as fast and absorbing as a sports car, and a damned sight more comfortable. With every mile you can feel how well its four-position Drive Dynamics Control has been honed, because you find yourself tuning the car for driving conditions and your own state of mind. The Rolls has just one well-chosen setting.
I’d choose the Rolls-Royce. As I said when we first drove the car, the choices made by this car’s creators about price, size, powertrain, suspension settings and styling are all of the highest quality. Above all, I’d prefer the Rolls for its styling, surely the best balanced of any four-door luxury saloon since the discreetly brilliant Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow of the mid-1960s.
Trouble is, having sampled the first-class driving experience this latest Mulsanne affords, I suspect I’d wind up dissatisfied if I chose anything else. In this case, there could be only one alternative, the so-called squillionaire’s option. Buy them both.
You can read the full story, plus see more exclusive pictures from the test, in this week's Autocar magazine, which is on sale now.