Cigar Aficionado

The annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance hosts some of the classic car world's most storied automobiles. But this August, the tony event made history of its own by staging its first-ever new car preview, the launch of the all-new Bentley Mulsanne.

As it pulled onto the ramp normally used by such cars as the 1937 Horch 853 Sport Cabriole, which took best-in-show this year, it became obvious that the British marque's new sedan had the grandeur and gravitas to serve as the flagship of the exclusive Bentley brand. Expected to carry a price tag in excess of $400,000, the Mulsanne is eons apart from the old Arnage that was a holdover from the days when Bentley and Rolls-Royce were partner brands and shared the same products with only modest modifications.

A decade ago, they ended their long marriage, Rolls taken over by BMW, Bentley becoming the prized possession of Volkswagen AG. With VW's assistance, the British maker developed the slightly "down-market" Continental line, and has since become the world's best-selling ultra-luxury brand. But with the 2011 Mulsanne, Bentley pushes towards the pinnacle of automotive perfection. Arnage and Mulsanne have little in common. In fact, "We had just five parts left over" from the old car, "which I could take home in a suitcase," says Bentley CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen. The new car was developed entirely at Bentley headquarters in Crewe, where it also will be assembled, much of the work done, as always, by hand. Mulsanne is a bit larger, though slightly lighter than Arnage, thanks to the use of more aluminum and composite panels.

An all-new 6.75-liter power train improves mileage and reduces emissions with such high-tech tricks as Cylinder Deactivation, which shuts off half its cylinders while cruising. Mulsanne will also be Bentley's first flex-fuel vehicle. The engine makes a solid 500 horsepower and a stump-pulling 738 pound-feet of torque, enough to launch from 0 to 60 in about five seconds and hit a top speed of 185 mph.

Technology has become a hallmark of the luxury car segment, so where Arnage was almost anachronistic, Mulsanne pushes the extremes. An eight-inch pivoting, high-definition video screen is managed by a newly designed computer-style controller, operating everything from navigation to audio, climate control to vehicle performance settings. The new Bentley ride-select system will permit the driver to customize performance and ride feel, dialing up a stiffer suspension, for example, or a more aggressive throttle "tip-in."

Of course, some things never change, especially on this end of the automotive market, and Mulsanne's cabin features the best leathers and woods—hand-rubbed bird's eye maple lined the entire cabin of the debut car at the Concours. With Mulsanne, Bentley now goes head-to-head with its old partner Rolls-Royce in the most exclusive segment of the automotive market. Rolls, in turn, will aim its new Ghost at the Bentley Continental. It's a battle promising affluent auto buyers a range of products and choices not available since the heady Golden Era of luxury cars celebrated, each year, at Pebble Beach.