First drive: 2021 Bentley Mulliner Bacalar prototype review

Exclusivity, it seems, is a tricky balancing act. The world’s billionaires want their cars to be unique to them, but they haven’t got to their position of wealth by squandering their cash unnecessarily. The world’s luxury car manufacturers, on the other hand, have to think about bottom lines and boring (but essential) things like durability. 

Price the car too high, or build too many of them, and a manufacturer can soon end up with a series of white elephants that damage the brand as a whole. It’s a wallet-melting trap that many have fallen into, but Bentley hopes it can avoid. 

Hence the reason that the car you see here – the Bentley Mulliner Bacalar – is strictly limited to a ‘production’ run of just 12. Each one found a home within days of being unveiled and every single person who signed up when the car was launched in March 2020 is still committed, despite the ravages of you-know-what over those intervening 12 months. Impressively, despite the various lockdowns, the car is on track to start production on schedule next month.

The cost? Well, it’s all relative at this end of the market. The Bacalar starts at £1.5 million, with a significant proportion of the 12 examples being specced closer to £2m by the time all the customer’s extra personalisation touches are added. Hardly cheap, but given that customers are optioning approaching half a million quid onto the car, it would seem to indicate that Bentley judged the base cost correctly.

We should point out that the car in these pictures is not one of the 12. This is Car Zero, an engineering development vehicle that has undergone a rigorous test schedule (more on that shortly) but is also largely what customers will receive from the middle of this year onwards. 

The Bacalar spearheads a new era at Bentley, one in which it hopes its coachbuilding arm, Mulliner, will lead a personalisation charge to give customers ever more exclusive cars (if the idea of ‘more exclusivity’ doesn’t sound like a paradox too far). Mulliner is the world’s oldest coachbuilder, starting out around 500 years ago when it specialised in four-legged transport. 

Its links with Bentley date back to 1923, when it exhibited a two-seat 3 Litre Bentley at the Olympia Show in London. But the bond grew stronger from 1952, when Mulliner built the R-Type Continental, before the coachbuilders officially became part of Bentley in 1959. 

More recently, Mulliner has three arms within Bentley – the Classic (where it’s building recreation icons like the Blower), the Collections (where customers can spec personalisation options like unique paint or different wood veneers) and the Coachbuilt (where Mulliner will build entirely different versions of the series-production vehicles).

Which is how we’ve ended up here, snuggled into the wraparound cockpit of the Bacalar at a windy Bedford Autodrome. Customers of the regular Continental GT will recognise elements of the interior, but with detail changes that add up to more than the sum of their parts. The layout of the dials is familiar, but there’s a hint of gold highlighting around the edges. (Bentley refers to the colour as Dark Bronze.) The rotary control in the middle of the dashboard is clearly a Bentley part, but again, there’s a subtle ring of gold to give it a lift. The steering wheel is unique to the Bacalar, as is the gearlever, but both are still recognisably Bentley items.

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Of course, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Bacalar will largely reside on the south coast of France, and for that, it feels absolutely perfect. It wafts very well, with the wraparound cockpit doing a good job of reducing wind noise to a minimum and that air suspension keeping the worst of the Tarmac at bay. The Bacalar rides on 22in wheels, and you can feel the weight of those over sharp undulations, but it’s a civilised place to toddle along in. The silken nature of the W12 only reinforces the impression of a car that knows exactly what’s required of it.

Has Bentley tapped a new market for itself? Quite possibly. Half the buyers – admittedly that’s only six people – are new to Bentley. Usually, in the ultra-rarefied world of these sorts of cars, people have to have spent gazillions with the brand before they’re allowed into the limited editions. Not so here. It’s a customer-driven focus and hopefully one that will yield more special projects in the future. The world doesn’t need more of these sorts of cars, but want and need are two different things. If a profitable Mulliner helps Bentley, that’s no bad thing in my book.