Mulsanne. It’s a serious name to use. The small commune in northern France is best known for the road that runs north of it – the D338, or the Route Des Tours. It’s better known as the Mulsanne straight, and it connects the village with the town of Le Mans. This six kilometre stretch of public highway is one of the most recognisable names in motorsport. It forms the backbone of the Circuit de Sarthe, used every year since 1923 to host the 24 Heures du Mans. In the 1990s, when race car development reached the tipping point between achievable top speed and regulation from terrified officials, Le Mans cars were hitting speeds in excess of 400kph on the Mulsanne.
So for Bentley to name its latest luxury saloon after this stretch of motorsport legend may seem a touch incongruous. The new Mulsanne is a very large wood-panelled dream car, not a screaming racer. One doesn’t chase lap times in a Bentley. What were they thinking?
Delve into the British company’s history, and the decision becomes clearer. Back in the 1920s, a group of wealthy customers known as the Bentley Boys took Bentleys to victory at Le Mans, giving credence to the brand’s reputation for performance and reliability. And in 2003, Bentley came back for a one-off crack at overall victory with the Speed 8. They succeeded.
So the Mulsanne, despite its genre and appearance, does have motorsport heritage coursing through its veins. How well though will that would translate to its driving experience?
Despite attempts to wangle enough money from the evo coffers for a trip to Le Mans, we decided to stay in the Middle East, find our own version of the straight that gave the Mulsanne its name and give it a serious workout.
The UAE isn’t exactly noted for its twisting, European-style country roads, so finding long stretches of straight tarmac wasn’t difficult. But we needed the right sort. The Mulsanne isn’t a super-highway with 14 lanes of commuter-carrying width; it’s a two-lane road. We also needed some surroundings suitable for a car of the Mulsanne’s stature, and a gas station wasn’t going to cut it.
A scan of Google Maps showed us what we needed. Towards the south of the UAE, deep into the Empty Quarter and near the border with Saudi Arabia, sits the resort of Qasr Al Sarab. Visitors heading from the north must pass Abu Dhabi and turn inland, heading as straight as an arrow along a two-lane road more than 100km long. Perfect.
And so on a swelteringly hot August morning, I load an overnight bag into our champagne-coloured test car and begin the long trek south. The departure follows a period of contemplation about the look of the car. Honestly, I’m less than wowed. Sure, it’s big and hulking and instantly recognisable as a Bentley, but the large central headlights, flanked by smaller running lights, don’t sit well with the flowing lines of the rest of the car. I understand the reference to Bentley faces of old, but it looks to me a bit like a spider’s multi-eyed face. And not in a good way. Moving around the back, the rear end isn’t particularly inspiring either. It’s too similar to the derriere of the Continental Flying Spur – itself no great looker – while somehow conjuring the hints of Lexus SC430. Hmm.