Volkwagen's Phaeton is a luxury car for people who prefer to wear their designer labels on the inside of their clothing.
If you can afford a hand-built luxury car but don't need to go around with a three-pointed star or a leaping cat or a flying lady hood ornament to proclaim your arrival, then you may find that this new $64,600 VW more than meets your needs.
We use the word more because the Phaeton offers a luxury car with a 12-cylinder engine for about the price of a V8-powered Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Phaeton comes standard with features such as a navigation system for about what you'd pay for a basic short-wheelbase 7 Series BMW.
Volkswagen is moving upscale and the Phaeton is its new luxury sedan, the flagship of a fleet that in the North American market includes the Golf, New Beetle, Jetta, Eurovan, Passat, and the new Touareg sport-utility. In 2006 we should see a modern interpretation of the hippies' favorite, the VW Microbus, followed, perhaps, by a new, mid-engine, two-seat sports car. The expansion of the Volkswagen brand is part of an effort to widen the scope of the entire VW Group, an automotive empire that includes VW, Audi, SEAT, Skoda, Lamborghini, Bugatti and Bentley. In 1999, the Volkswagen Group ranked sixth in worldwide sales, but subsequently has overtaken Renault/Nissan and DaimlerChrysler and trails only General Motors, Ford and Toyota.
The term phaeton dates back to days of horse-drawn carriages, and then was applied for special, coach-built touring cars with custom features. In the case of the Volkswagen Phaeton, most of those custom features are included as standard equipment.
Volkswagen Phaeton V8 ($64,000); W12 ($79,900)
While the Phaeton is available in two body versions in Europe, only the long wheelbase model will be coming to North America, where bigger is better when it comes to luxury vehicles.
Phaeton is built on its own chassis. It is built at its own assembly plant, a new, glass-walled facility in Dresden, the historic arts and cultural center of Saxony that for 50 years was hidden behind the walls of East Germany, but now has become one of Europe's prime tourist destinations.
Rumors of the Phaeton being little more than a so-called Passat Plus are unfounded. Nor does the new Volkswagen look like a warmed over Audi A8. The new car has its own design, and that's clear from the moment you see the wide, trapezoidal and chromed grille with six horizontal bars aligned in three couplets as a stage for the large VW emblem.
That grille is part of a hood that features an elevated center section that subtly reminds you that this is the hood of a luxury car and that there's a substantially powerful engine underneath. While the body structure is steel, the hood, as well as the doors and trunk lid, are made of aluminum and the front fenders and bumpers are a composite material.
Germany's prestigious Auto, Motor & Sport magazine reported that the Phaeton had the highest scores in the history of its crash-testing program. The car has a very stiff chassis built from tailored blanks, a more expensive steel that is cast specifically to put maximum strength where it is needed rather than having uniform thickness throughout.
The Phaeton looks good, thanks to its body being painted twice, with a hand sanding in between. To protect that paint during the assembly process, the Phaeton assembly plant in Dresden, which is located next to a large city park, is equipped with special filters to keep pollen out of the building.
To give you an idea of the degree of care Volkswagen exercises in building the Phaeton, the plant has Canadian maple wood floors over most of its surface, but in the areas where the tires might touch the floorboard, darker smoked oak is used.
Chrome bars that mark the top corners of the front fascia underscore the car's status and its wide stance. A similar chrome bar runs back through the doors and around the top of the rear bumper.
Xenon headlamps are standard. Fenders are flared around large, 18-inch wheels and tires, and the doors are long, hinting at the room inside the passenger compartment.
Strong, substantial C pillars that flow into a short rear deck enhance the Phaeton's stance. Though the rear deck appears short, there's a lot of depth in the trunk space between those C pillars, Volkswagen says room enough for four sets of golf clubs.
Two large tail lamps are located on each side of the rear view, and each set appears to be enclosed in a single large element. But one light is set into the rear quarterpanel and the other into the rear deck lid, with the housing designed to visually unite them.
The car's proportions remind us more of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class than either a Passat or Audi, though the Phaeton's lines are rounded and smooth rather than angular. It's clear that this car was designed in the Volkswagen styling studio even though the word Volkswagen does not appear on the car. Instead it has the VW emblem on its nose and tail, with PHAETON in small letters just below the rear corporate symbol. The W12 is distinguished by W12 and 6.0 badges, as well as four exhaust tips instead of two.
We think the Phaeton was designed for people who can afford designer-label clothing, but who prefer to wear those labels on the inside of their clothes, and it is in the interior where the Phaeton sets itself apart.
For example, open the door, step into the well-bolstered driver's or front passenger's seat and one of the first things you should notice is that there are no air vents in the dashboard. Well, there are, but they're hidden behind wood-covered panels that retract when you start the car. Even then the vents are designed so you get cool or warm air without drafts, because VW chairman Ferdinand Piech doesn't like drafty cars and insisted on a new design for his company's luxury car.
Opt for the four-seat interior package and you'll also notice the center arm rests, which look like some artist's metal and leather interpretation of a crocodile's jaws snapped shut. They're long and wedge shaped, and covered in smooth leather instead of something that looks like a gator's rough back, and they easily open to provide storage for small items. They're also the most attractive armrests we've seen in any automotive application.
The Phaeton is available in four- or five-seat configurations, with 12-way standard power for the front seats in the V8 and 18-way in the W12, which includes a massage feature. If you get the two-seat rear package, it includes 10-way power for those heated, cooled and massaging rear seats, and a button so someone sitting in the right rear seat can power an empty front passenger's seat far forward for even more legroom.
Also in the four-seat version, the center console extends the length of the interior, and for those sitting in back it includes what appears to be a video monitor. Actually, it houses their part of the four-zone Climatronic controls. A rear entertainment system is planned that will include a pair of monitors, one each on the rear face of the front seat headrests.
Finding your way to the restaurant or symphony hall is eased by the standard navigation system, which includes both a display at the center of the dashboard and another within the instrument cluster, where the driver can see directions without a long diversion of eyes from the road. We found the navigation and other switchgear to be intuitive in its location and usage.
The car's interior is very quiet, thanks in part to all dual pane glass and triple door seals.
Real wood trip wraps around the passenger compartment, with a band of wood along the base of the windshield instead of some rubbery molding. Seats are well bolstered, the steering wheel both tilts and telescopes and the centerpiece of the dashboard is an analog clock.
We drove both the V8- and W12-powered Phaetons, and while the W12 provides nearly 100 more horsepower, we'd recommend the V8 and its more responsive six-speed automatic transmission for typical American driving conditions. The W12 comes with a five-speed automatic.
Realize that all Phaetons sold here are electronically limited to a 130 mph top speed even though the car is engineered to run at speeds approaching 190 mph on the German autobahn. Volkswagen says the speed governor for American customers is in place because Americans prefer to drive year around on all-season tires (rather than switch from high-speed summer to special wet and winter weather tires, and all-season radials are only rated at speeds of up to 130 mph.
Obviously, 130 is more than sufficient and well above the legal limit in North America, and with the six-speed gearbox, we found the V8 to have plenty of zip for acceleration off the line and for responsive downshifts needed for passing, whether on two-lane roads or in expressway traffic. The V8 also has more than 200 pounds less weight to move, and that weight is better balanced with only 53 percent in front versus 57 percent for the weightier W12 engine.
VW claims a 6.7-second 0 to 60 mph sprint time for the V8 and a 5.9 figure for the W12. Both engines earn the Phaeton low emission vehicle certification (LEV).
The V8's lighter nose can be felt in the speed-sensitive Servotronic steering system. Both versions provide confident directional reaction and excellent feedback to the driver, but the V8 steering feels lighter and thus even more responsive.
However, both cars we drove were equipped with 18-inch wheels, which are optional with the V8 engine but standard with the W12.
The V8 has 317 pound-feet of torque while the W12 provides 406, and provides maximum power all the way from 3000 to 4750 rpm. Still, we thought the V8 had a more pleasing exhaust note for those who like to hear their car while it's accelerating from a stoplight. Not that you hear very much sound inside the Phaeton, at least not until you reach speeds of around 110 mph on the autobahn, where you start to get some wind noise around the car's rear view mirrors.
Thanks to double-pane windows, triple door seals and various other sound deadening techniques, the cabin of the Phaeton is whisper quiet even at speeds approaching 90 mph.
The Phaeton's all-wheel-drive system is shared with Audi's large sedans (not with VW's Touareg SUV) and is designed for on-road traction and safety. The system features a Torsen center differential that normally divides power 50:50 between front and rear axles, but can shift as much as 67 percent of power to the wheels with the greatest grip.
The air suspension can be set to comfort, normal, sport 1 or sport 2 settings. It can be set at the push of a button or continuously adjusts on its own. For example, drive for more than 30 seconds at speeds of more than 70 mph and it automatically lowers the car nearly six-tenths of an inch to enhance aerodynamics and stability. The system also can raise the car nearly an inch on rough roads, at least until you reach 30 mph, at which point it returns the car to a lower and more normal ride height. In addition to constantly adjusting the shock absorbers for ride control, the system includes self-leveling technology to provide proper ride height regardless of load.
Standard electronic driver aids include ABS, EBD, EBC, ASR, ESP, EDL, and should the worst-case scenario still occur and the car become involved in a crash, the doors unlock, the heating and air conditioning system deactivates, the batteries are disconnected and the telemetric equipment automatically makes an emergency call that includes the vehicle's precise location as tracked by the navigation equipment.
After driving both cars, our favorite Phaeton is the V8 with the four-seat interior and 18-inch wheels.
A $64,600 Volkswagen? Or maybe that should be: A $64,600 Volkswagen!!!
Maybe you grew up with the original Beetle, and remember how shocked you were when its sticker price finally edged up past $1,800. Or maybe your first VW was a Rabbit or a Golf, or even a Jetta or a New Beetle. Whatever your personal experience, the thought of any Volkswagen with a sticker on its window showing the sort of numbers most commonly associate with Mercedes-Benz or BMW may seem an anomaly, if not absolute blasphemy.
But if you're a small town dentist or banker, you likely can afford a car with a three-pointed star or a blue-and-white propeller emblem, but perhaps you can't afford to be seen driving one, lest your patients think they're being overcharged or your depositors worry that their accounts are being skimmed. Or maybe you're an entrepreneur or executive who has made it, but doesn't need to flaunt it.
Regardless, if you've arrived at a place in life where you can afford the finer things, but prefer to wear the labels on the inside of your clothing, the 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton may be just the car for you.