Miami used to be the place to score cocaine but, these days, it is attracting dealers of (arguably) more savoury kinds.
Like the 267 galleries drawn to last year’s Miami Beach edition of the Art Basel fair, just 18 short of that garnered by its more established parent. Or the thousands of traders working in its tony downtown “Wall Street”, address to one of the highest concentrations of global and domestic banks in the US.
Ensconced in the hand-stitched leather armchair of the new Bentley Mulsanne Speed while wa fting through Miami’s bustling morning rush-hour traffic, I am struck by the parallels between the car I’m piloting and the city hosting its launch.
For Bentley has enjoyed a spectacular transformation of its own. The marque has gone from being the preferred purveyor of playthings to 1920s society elites called the “Bentley Boys” to a mediocre has-been in the ’70s and ’80s after years of mismanagement. At its zenith, the cars were so reliable and its Le Mans credentials so crushing that archrival Ettore Bugatti once jealously denigrated them as “the world’s fastest lorries”. At its nadir, though, a pitiful one Bentley was sold for every 20 Rolls-Royce cars. It was so uncool that even the tweed jacket-wearing, pipe-smoking coterie were turning their noses up at it.
Today, in a brilliant turnaround, the world’s young self-made billionaires are once again flocking to Bentley’s hand-made, wood-swathed sedans, coupes and convertibles (and soon, a 4×4) for their motoring fix. In 2013, Bentley shifted over 10,000 cars worldwide and 125 in Singapore alone – both record smashers – and looks set to beat the first figure in 2014.
Look at its products and it’ll become easy to understand Bentley’s recipe for success. Take this, the new flagship. As alluded to by the “Speed” nomenclature, reserved for Bentley’s most sporty models, this car is tuned for those who’d rather take the wheel than be chauffeured. It’s hence fitting that the road test kicks off with a self-drive from the hotel in the glitzy Bal Harbour beachfront district over a smattering of Interstate highways and State routes to the pretty seaside town of Islamorada in the Florida Keys down south.
First thing to mention: the legendary 6.75-litre engine – or simply “The Six and Three Quarter”, like how Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is known as “The Queen of England”. It has been deployed in Bentleys in some form or other for 55 years, with fuel-injection and turbocharging added along the way. It still uses old-school pushrods, though. In this incarnation, it has been tuned to eke out 530bhp and 1,100Nm (up from 505bhp and 1,020Nm from the “standard” Mulsanne, for the lack of a better term). Its torque? Second only to the Bugatti Veyron.
But it’s not the headline numbers that matter; it’s how the engine doles them out. Traffic is slow on this segment on the gorgeous Overseas Highway, a road linking the coral cay archipelago built over a former railway wrecked by a hurricane. With one lane in each direction and overtaking opportunities few and far in between, when you spot a gap, you’d want to plant your right foot straight down.
Here, instead of a jolt you’d expect, you get a robust and relentless delivery as the revs build up in an almost perfectly linear fashion, whether you are going from standstill to 100kmh, or from 100kmh to a very illegal 200kmh.
It doesn’t feel fast in the way that your internal organs are being rearranged in your body cavity. It feels fast, almost as if the car is casually pushing away the earth beneath it. It’s the closest thing to a nuclear-powered vehicle.
The redline is a lazy, diesel-like 4,500rpm, necessitating a lot of cog swops for progress in its eight-speed gearbox, yet nought to a hundred comes in 4.9 seconds. It will keep going until it hits 305kmh. Or till the police catches up, if ever. In a straight line, it’ll just about outrun a entry-level Porsche 911 – and that’s a car almost half its weight.
150 hours The time it takes to complete the interior trim on a Mulsanne.
25-40 additional hours If the customer opts for contrast stitching.
14 Number of bull hides that go into every Mulsanne Speed.
620 Number of stitches that go into each steering wheel.
1-in-5 Ratio of Mulsannes ordered with a refrigerated bottle cooler, compared to 3-in-5 for a Wi-Fi hotspot.
99% Reduction in tailpipe emissions in the Speed engine, compared with the 1959 original.
360° The ring of wood that goes around the interior of the car.
2,200 watts The power of the 14-speaker Naim for Bentley sound system in the car.
∞ Number of paint options through bespoke colour matching. The options number 120, if the customer picks from the standard palette.
Surprisingly, the additional power and torque over the standard Mulsanne come at… no price at all. In the optimisation process, the boffins at Bentley managed to make the engine 13 per cent more efficient, which increases its range by 80km. Bentley claims that the new motor is so parsimonious that it could theoretically run at idle on the tailpipe emissions of the 1959 original alone. Stupendous.
After lunch on a private island, we are whisked off by helicopter to an obscure airfield in the middle of the swampy Florida Everglades.
The otherwise nondescript Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport is a casualty of the oil crisis of the ’70s. Originally dreamt up of as a hub for supersonic air travel, only one of six planned runways were built after it became apparent that 14 was the maximum number of Concordes that were ever going to fly.
Here, we are safely away from the grasp of law enforcement and pesky obstacles. Under the watchful eye of Bentley racing driver and five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell MBE, we test out the dynamics of the Mulsanne Speed over a test course not dissimilar to the layout BBC’s Top Gear uses at Dunsfold Aerodrome.
It has to be said that the Mulsanne Speed, with its portly 2,685kg girth, isn’t going to win any cornering contest here pitted against a sports car.
But otherwise, the exercise reinforces how quick this monster is, especially with the steering, suspension and gearbox put into “S” mode (new to the Speed, as are paddle shifts behind the steering wheel).
Up against my limited courage, I had to be constantly encouraged to take corners faster and tighter, and, each time, I am surprised by how well the car takes it. On the straight, I mustered an eye-watering 265kmh. Observing others from the tarmac, the car sounds like a plane roaring to take off.
In any case, these figures are all but academic. The Bentley Mulsanne Speed is about having sufficient capability for whatever you could possibly throw at it – and then some.
We are then chauffeured back to the hotel from the airfield, allowing us an opportunity to unwind with a glass of champagne (served in a bespoke crystal flute normally stored in a refrigerated compartment behind the rear armrest) and consider the new features of the cabin.
The Speed gets the full Mulliner Driving Specification treatment as standard, which includes, among other things, diamond quilted hide seats and door panels, knurling on the gear lever, “organ stop” ventilation controls and alloyed pedals.
On top of that, the Speed receives a new two-tone interior with contrasting hides and stitch lines and, in a first for the Mulsanne, carbon-fibre inlays for the veneer panels to boost its sporting cred.
If work beckons, there is a pair of iPads with matching wireless keyboards served by on-board Wi-Fi tucked discreetly in the electrically operated tray tables behind the front seats.
The exterior accrues further tweaks. The most apparent would be the dark tint finish on the headlights and the stainless-steel radiator grille.
We’re told, for the latter, Bentley has bought all the metal it needs in order to guarantee colour uniformity throughout the entire production run. Also new is Bentley’s first directional style wheel, with a design that is handed for the right or left side of the car. Alongside this are four new exterior paint colours and rifled exhaust pipes.
The big question thus-far unasked: Is the Mulsanne Speed worth the extra cash? (Local prices on application only.)
To be very honest, if you are looking at the marginal improvements alone, probably not. But in the world of luxury, differentiation is an important driver. It’s more appealing to the customer when a product is tailored especially for him or her.
And for the new generation of Bentley Boys, the Mulsanne Speed has that in spades.
Bentley Singapore, 45 Leng Kee Road, tel: 6378-2628.