Shades of Wo's Finest

Bentley's all-new Mulsanne is a car that upholds the vision of the company's famed founder

Call it an historical nicety, but it's easy to see why Bentley is placing such importance on the assertion that this new Mulsanne is the first unique Bentley since the company founded by WO went bust in 1931.

First, the claim is largely credible. Now that the Continental series is in its autumn years, Bentley no longer squeals at claims it is based on the VW Phaeton; indeed in its suggestion that the Mulsanne is its first bespoke product in almost 80 years it seems tacitly to acknowledge the fact. Just as the Arnage was a Seraph and the Turbo R a Spirit so this hybrid line stretches back to the days of the first badge-engineered Bentleys, the Derby-built 'Silent Sports Cars' of the 1930s. The Mulsanne is none of these things: VW's influence can still be seen if you know where to look — the navigation system differs in no great way to that of a new Audi A8 — but beneath those flowing flanks lies a car designed, engineered and developed in Crewe.

That doesn't mean its pure-bred design immunises the Mulsanne from the spin without which no new car is launched today. It is, says Bentley, not a replacement for the Arnage at all, and points at its price — considerably over rather than under £200,000 — as evidence. But all that proves is that Bentley is charging a chunk more for a new Arnage. Like the Arnage it is Bentley's pinnacle product and like the Arnage it will become available in long-wheelbase, coupe and convertible form.

It differs from the Arnage only in all the ways that matter. The Arnage was a massively flawed product, saved only by its considerable charm. When the VW trucks rolled into Crewe in 1998, the board were so shocked by what they found that they authorised a re-engineering programme which resulted in more money being spent bringing the Arnage up to snuff than Bentley's former proprietor, Vickers, had spent on creating it. But they shouldn't have been so surprised: the roots of the Arnage can be traced straight back to the 1965 Silver Shadow.

By contrast, the Mulsanne appears to owe only its engine to history and then the similarity is superficial. Yes, there's still a 6.75-litre, all-aluminium V8 that rather quaintly retains pushrod actuation for its two overhead valves, but only ancillaries have been carried over from the motor whose half a century of service ended last year. The engine itself, the block, heads and all they contain, is entirely new.

I drove the Mulsanne in Scotland, sampling while I was there its two most obvious rivals: Rolls-Royce's Ghost and Phantom. And while comparison can be drawn between these rival approaches to the full-sized British gentleman's carriage, more interesting is what sets them apart. What they illustrate best is how both brands have profited from their divorce. BMW has not always shown so deft a touch when managing foreign brands (as anyone who worked at Rover during its brief and unhappy patronage will tell you) but it has understood very well what a Rolls-Royce should be. The Ghost is quiet, opulent, effortless and comfortable, while the Phantom offers a majesty and luxury unmatched by any other car in the world.

Similarly, and gratifyingly, you could tell the Mulsanne was a Bentley even if you sat in the back blindfolded. The smell of leather, touch of the impeccably crafted wood and feel of the lambswool carpets would get the choice down to two, requiring one nudge of the throttle from your man up front to put the issue beyond doubt. This engine has 505bhp but that's not the point. Rather more compelling is its 752lb ft of torque, and where it is developed way down at 1750rpm. You're not going to mistake that.

Amusingly, Bentley has felt the need to deploy a transmission with eight speeds to marshal this energy, lending credence to my theory that the number of gears a car has rises in inverse proportion to its need for them. The choice was made for reasons of marketing, emissions, fuel consumption and practicality (this is not Bentley's gearbox but ZF's, and that's what was on offer). Happily though, and unlike other multi-speed transmissions, it doesn't feel the need to pass the time hunting around the ratios, trying to find a better one to be in; by and large it lets the torque do the work. And there remains the option of locking it in the gear of your choice: you'll find fourth offers everything from silent urban running to a lengthy prison sentence all by itself.

And in that very sensation lies the spirit of WO's final, and finest, Bentley. The 1930 8-litre is less vaunted than the Speed Six only because it never had the chance to race, but no Bentley before or since better expressed the vision of its founder. WO never pursued power or speed at all costs. Mechanical refinement was at least as important to him, which is why all the engines he designed for Bentley had the four-valve head but not the twin overhead camshafts of the 1914 Peugeot Grand Prix engine he admired so much.

Bentley is so keen to make the association it bought WO's old company car, a Mulliner-bodied 8-litre saloon, subjected it to a beautifully sympathetic restoration and parked it outside the hotel where the Mulsanne was being launched. Back then it was said an 8-litre would pull from walking pace to over 100mph in top gear — just as well because an 8-speed gearbox is an infernal contraption — and that same sense of effortless tractability remains my most enduring memory of the Mulsanne.

Yet it's also rewarding to drive other than in a straight line. Another clear divide between it and either Rolls is that while the Mulsanne attacked the Scottish highways with relish, both Rollers had no interest in being hustled: the Ghost is grimly tolerant of such treatment but the Phantom doesn't like it at all. And nor should it. It's a Rolls-Royce. And the Mulsanne is a Bentley and as agile, responsive and communicative as you could hope of any car weighing over 2.5 tonnes which sits on a wheelbase that's substantially longer than an entire Toyota iQ. This and the lack of a mechanically locking differential might limit what it can ultimately achieve, but there is still fun to be had, not least at the way a car as substantial and stately as this can cope with a difficult road.

I just wish it looked a little better. Parked next to the gorgeous Ghost, the Mulsanne's awkward frontal treatment appears, at best, a missed opportunity. The idea was that a large pair of inboard headlamps would evoke the spirit of the 8-litre, but better illustrate how even the most gilt-edged heritage retains the capacity to damage if wrongly applied.

I hope it doesn't put people off, for this is a car I liked and admired. Nor should anyone be delayed pondering whether to buy a Rolls or a Bentley: while a Rolls is for riding in, a Bentley is for driving, none more so than this.