What is it?
Despite being Bentley’s newest flagship motor, the Mulsanne Speed is probably closer to the original vision of WO Bentley than any of the last half-century. Think of vintage Bentleys and you think of his cars pounding around Le Mans, exhausts thundering, impossibly raffish drivers smiling wolfishly beneath flying hats and goggles.
But for his road cars, Bentley would never have sacrificed comfort or mechanical refinement for raw speed. It was the blend that mattered, and so it is today.
In typical Bentley form, extensive modifications have been made to the Mulsanne's vast V8 engine and ZF transmission for apparently rather modest gains: a 25bhp power hike that has to been seen in the context of a car weighing almost 2.7 tonnes, and an 8% increase in torque, leading to a 0.4sec reduction in the 0-62mph time and a 6mph rise in top speed. The standard car's adaptive damping and steering mapping now allow a much wide range of driver-selectable settings.
Visually, you can tell a Speed from a standard Mulsanne from the darker tinting of the grille and lights at both front and rear, while inside there is the diamond quilting on the seats Bentley has often set aside for its most sporting models.
Bentley logos are embossed on every seat and there's even aluminium alloy pedals, before you go crazy with the options and kit the car out with the carbonfibre door cappings that look as out on place here as would a walnut dash on a McLaren.
What's it like?
Objectively, a Flying Spur is probably more accomplished in every area of endeavour and costs almost exactly £100,000 less, so it is perhaps just as well that raw ability counts for little in the rarefied air of the quarter-million-pound ultra-luxury saloon. Or I might also have to point out that the Mulsanne Speed's stablemate, the Volkswagen Golf R, costs £220,000 less, has just as many seats and a far better power-to-weight ratio and, on any track other than a speed bowl, would rapidly drive out of sight.
More relevantly yet awkwardly for Bentley, an extended-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Ghost is not only quieter and more comfortable but also more powerful, lighter and therefore even faster. To these eyes at least, it’s far better looking, too. And it’s cheaper.
And yet nothing, not even Rolls-Royce’s twin-turbo V12, can approach the majesty of Bentley’s grand old pushrod V8. The torque it develops – and the revs at which it is developed – still provides a driving experience like no other.
The Speed has eight gears, but there are times when you wonder if it really needs more than one. It’s a trait those fortunate enough to travel in big old Bentleys like the Speed Six and Eight Litre will understand very well.
And while there would be few things worse for a Rolls to be than overtly sporting, a Bentley committed only to the interests of ride and refinement would be equally unfortunate. Despite its size and weight, the Mulsanne Speed offers superb body control, unlikely feel and thoroughbred manners throughout.
It is, in short, and in its own, unique way a genuine driver’s car, something I hope never to be able to say about any Rolls-Royce.