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First Drive: Bentley Mulsanne Speed

Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t be terribly sensible to pound down the outside lane of a motorway at 160mph in the pouring rain.

These were not normal circumstances. For starters, we were in Germany driving on an unrestricted autobahn and, on this stretch at least, it was relatively free of other traffic.

And I was at the wheel of a Bentley Mulsanne Speed, a car with a potential maximum of 190mph, so I was well within the car’s capabilities. Legal and safe, then… but that’s merely scratching at the surface of what this car can do.

The Speed takes a hand-built Mulsanne and, as the name implies, adds speed. Bentley is not being shy about its ‘pinnacle flagship’ which it says ‘redefines the fastest ultra-luxury driving experience in the world.’

It’s a bold claim, but clearly one based in reality. The numbers alone are impressive. Under that long bonnet lies Bentley’s long-serving hand-built 6.75-litre V8 engine, breathed upon to deliver more of everything. Power is up to 537PS (from 512PS), but the engine’s torque has risen to an extraordinary 1,110Nm. To put that into perspective, a Golf GTi makes do with 350Nm.

The result is mind-blowing. This three tonne battleship rockets to 60mph from rest in 4.8 seconds yet it is even more efficient than the previous model. Bentley reckons there’s a 13 per cent fuel economy gain, partly down to an improved cylinder deactivation system which turns the V8 into a V4 when performance is not required.

That means you can now go a further 50 miles on every tank, but these things are relative; the official combined fuel economy figure remains stubbornly below 20mpg and you’ll be doing well to see anything like that in normal use.

Fuel economy isn’t really the point of the Mulsanne Speed. Although many Mulsannes are chauffeur driven, the Speed is aimed at the captain of industry who enjoys driving as much as being driven.

He (and most buyers are male) will need to be seriously wealthy, of course. The ‘basic’ Mulsanne Speed weighs in at £252,000 – that’s £22k more than the ordinary Mulsanne and a reassuring £100,000 more than the most expensive Flying Spur saloon.

That price includes a number of features unique to the Speed, such as the 21-inch wheels that are machined from solid forged blanks. Even the raised ‘Speed’ badges on the front wings are special, made from polished stainless steel and framed within a laser cut stainless steel bar.

But that’s really just the start. ‘My’ Speed had a further £50k worth of optional extras, ranging from a pair of city umbrellas at £155 to a refrigerated bottle cooler between the rear seats with three bespoke crystal champagne flutes for an extraordinary £8,225. Even the rear-view camera is a £1,400 extra.

So what does our buyer get for his £304,000 investment? He gets a quite remarkable machine with a genuine dual personality.

On one hand it’s a supremely comfortable and cossetting bolide that feels just about perfect from the back seat. Surrounded by diamond quilted premium cowhide – 15 hides are used in each Mulsanne – and confronted with an optional £21,500 (yes, really) entertainment package that includes integrated iPod, DVD player, the world’s most powerful in-car amplifier and goodness knows what else, it’s a pretty good way to travel.

But it’s much better up front. It’s not just the engine that’s been modified to create the Speed. The chassis features electronic control that allows the driver to switch from Comfort to Sport mode, stiffening the all-round air suspension for better body control and modifying the steering feel to give better feedback and accuracy.

The driver can also scroll through various options to come up with custom settings covering steering, chassis and engine tunes. And while the Speed should never be considered a sports car, it certainly a sharper act than the conventional Mulsanne.

Nothing shows that better than a drive along a strip of unrestricted road. Pounding along the autobahn at a modest 120mph or so, the traffic (and spray from the wet road) cleared sufficiently so that I could bury the throttle in the deep pile Wilton over mats (yours for an extra £1,085).

With its lights ablaze, the prow of the ‘Extreme Silver’ machine rose majestically and the Speed, er, sped away. The eight speed automatic dropped a couple of gears – well, it probably did, but the changes are so smooth that it’s almost impossible to say for sure – and within a couple of seconds the speedo was showing 160mph.

At that point we were travelling notably faster than the other cars around so discretion suggested it would be unwise to go any quicker. At that speed, however, the Mulsanne was utterly beguiling. This might have well been a gentle amble in the country rather than a full on blast down a soaked motorway.

It’s not bad away from the autobahn, either. It’s a big car, yet it seems to shrink around you when driving on ordinary A and B roads. Part of that is down to the commanding driving position and the square-rigger styling that makes visibility out as easy as possible. The Flying B bonnet mascot, meanwhile, helps the driver’s aim and provides a useful pointer as to the car’s length when parking. Shame even that is a two-and-a-half grand optional extra.

But perhaps that’s the point. If you can afford to spend that sort of money on a car you can equally well afford to plunder the options list to create your bespoke Bentley.

Even better you can spend a couple of days up at the factory in Crewe, meeting the men and women who will spend 400 hours building your car. Here you can choose the colours you want, the style of cross-stitching on the leather-bound steering wheel, the type of veneer, the extras…

Whichever way you look at it, the Mulsanne Speed is a long way from being merely a motorcar.

Model Tested: Bentley Mulsanne Speed
Price: £252,000
Engine: 6.75-litre V8 turbo petrol
Top speed: 190 mph
0-62 mph: 4.8 seconds
Power: 537 PS (530 bhp)
Torque: 1,100 Nm (811 ft-lb)
Official fuel economy: 19.3 mpg
Road Test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 342 g/km
VED Band: M / £505 per year
Car insurance group: 50
Kerb weight: 2,685 kg