PEOPLE WHO live near a busy road often moan about traffic noise, and they have my sympathy. I’d rather listen to a wounded hare than a motorway. And I’d rather live in Svalbard than near a busy roundabout.
There are many reasons why traffic makes such a din. Motorbikes are a big source, and so far as I can tell from my vantage point in west London, they’re getting even louder. When I come to power, the banishment of these hideous and ugly machines from the roads will be near the top of my “to do” list.
Buses are noisy too, and I think it would make sense to get rid of them as well. This would force poor people to use bicycles instead, and that would cause them to be less fat. Which would mean there’d be less of a drain on the National Health Service. Speaking of which — ambulances. Do they really need sirens that can be heard 20 miles away?
With cars it’s a different story. With the exception of some found in extremely expensive supercars that you never really encounter, modern-day engines and exhaust systems are pretty much silent.
Bob Seger once sang about being on tour — “You can listen to the engine moanin’ out his one-note song” — but he’s wide of the mark. Because in fact between 75% and 90% of the noise made by a car on a motorway comes from the tyres.
It’s not just the sound of the rubber gripping the road; it’s the sound of the air in the tread pattern being compressed, and it’s all amplified because a tyre is basically a big echo chamber.
And that brings us to the Bentley Mulsanne Speed that you see photographed this morning. It was delivered to my office by two earnest chaps, who were at pains to point out the various interesting features. But the one that stopped me in my tracks was the Dunlop rubber, which, they said, had been tuned for quietness.
They weren’t kidding. At 70mph this car is as near as makes no difference silent. It’s a huge thing, with the aerodynamic properties — and weight — of a house, but it barges its way through, and over, the elements with all the aural fuss of a butterfly alighting on a buddleia petal.
It’s not just quiet for the occupants. It’s quiet for everyone. So quiet that after just 30 miles on the M4 I made a mental note to make sure that when I take control of No 10 those tyres become compulsory for all cars. They’re brilliant.
And so, for exactly the same reason, is the 6.75-litre V8 engine in this automotive leviathan. Amazingly, it was designed before I was born. And, on paper, you can tell. Words such as “single camshaft” and “pushrod” are from a time of rationing and diphtheria.
Eighteen years ago, when Volkswagen took control of Bentley, it said this venerable old V8 would have to be discontinued in the near future because it simply couldn’t be tuned to meet various emission regulations. But it was wrong.
It has fitted a couple of Mitsubishi turbochargers to provide forced induction and added a system that shuts down half the cylinders when they’re not needed to save fuel. And you’d imagine that all this tweakery would cause it to become feeble and weak. But it doesn’t.
The numbers are incredible: you get 530 brake horsepower and, at just 1750rpm, a truly colossal 811 torques. There are bulldozers with less than that — 811 lb ft is planetary force. It’s hysterical force. And you’d imagine that its creation would cause an almighty din. But astonishingly it doesn’t.
If you really stab the throttle deep into the inch-thick carpet, there is a barely discernible hum. But at all other times it’s as silent as a sleeping nun.
“Motorbikes? When I come to power, the banishment of these hideous and ugly machines from the roads will be near the top of my ‘to do’ list”
So this is a quiet car. And no matter what setting you choose for the air suspension, it’s a comfortable car too. It’s also good-looking. The aggressive new front end is especially impressive.
And it is extremely well equipped with all manner of things that you didn’t even know were possible. The rear touchscreens, for instance, rise silently from the back of the front seats. And then there’s the 2,200-watt stereo. That’s not a misprint. The manufacturer has fitted this completely silent car with a sound system that could blow your head clean off.
However, it’s precisely because of all this equipment and all these toys that I would buy a Rolls-Royce Ghost instead.
Someone at Bentley obviously believes that luxury can be measured in the number of buttons. They think that a house is palatial if you can run a bath from the garage and open the front gate using your television remote. And that is probably true — if you are a footballer. But I’m not.
I have criticised Bentleys in the past for being a bit “last week” when it comes to electronics. The Continental GT Speed, for example, doesn’t have a USB port, and that, in this day and age, is obviously nuts.
The problem is that with the Mulsanne Speed, Bentley’s gone berserk. So you now have two satellite navigation screens in the front that can be operated from the dash or the steering wheel or by touching the screen itself or by using your voice.
Eventually, I’m sure, you could machete your way through the operational complexity that results, but I suspect it would take many years.
Happily, there is a USB port. But it’s in a little drawer that can’t be shut if you’re using it. Then there’s the charging point, under the central armrest, which also can’t be shut if it’s in use.
You get the sense that asking Bentley to fit modern-day electronics is a bit like asking David Linley to reprogram your iPhone. Or Bill Gates to make a chest of drawers.
The result is daunting. You sit there, behind the wheel, confronted by hundreds and hundreds of buttons and switches, and you can’t help thinking how much better this car would be if only it were less complicated.
And maybe a tiny bit smaller. On the A40 in west London, where there are narrow lanes to “protect the workforce” — that’s never there — I was recently unable to pass a coach for miles. Which was a bore.
It’s annoying. I like the idea of a Bentley more than the idea of a Rolls-Royce. My grandfather had a Bentley R Type, and it was the first car I drove. I like the idea, too, of telling people I drive an “MFB”.
But I never once drove this car as a Bentley could and should be driven. I never felt obliged to put the suspension in its Sport setting and unleash all those torques. I just wafted about in it. And if I want a large and luxurious car in which to waft, I’d rather have the simpler, airier, more tasteful Ghost.
Because when you sink into one of those, you say: “Aaaah.” Whereas when you sink into the Mulsanne Speed, you think: “Oh, for God’s sake. Where’s the button that shuts the bloody sat nav woman up?”
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