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Many have mocked the new VW Phaeton luxury sedan for being an uber-priced attempt to gain upscale credibility. I have, indeed, been with auto industry executives who loudly flaunt their disdain for VW’s outsized hubris in desiring to break into the luxury-car market. “Seventy-five thousand dollars for a Volkswagen!” one cackled at me recently. “I thought longer about breakfast this morning than those guys must have thought about how they were going to sell a $75,000 Volkswagen.”
After a week with the car, I have banished any preconceived notions I once harbored concerning what a Volkswagen should or should not be. This stunning new luxury sedan is a Volkswagen in name only; by every other standard, it is in a class of its own. It is a Phaeton.
For potential buyers there is no alternative to a confrontation over the truth. Only by experiencing the Phaeton firsthand can one possibly know what VW was thinking. True, the Phaeton exhibits the same size, elegance, and performance of its severest rivals, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 740i, and Audi A8 L (with which it shares substantial engineering features). It is a different car entirely, however.
Its construction, upholstery, even cabinetry are impeccable. Switches and controls, which are but a means to an end in other vehicles, are virtually an end in themselves in the Phaeton. One of the best telematics systems yet designed graces the dashboard with its seven-inch color monitor. With it, one manages climate control, navigation, music and “personal profiles” that preserve seating and other preferences. The interfaces between buttons and screen are naturally understandable; and a panoply of steering wheel controls, including an innovative “scroll roll” for the thumb, renders most dash controls irrelevant.
2004 Volkswagen PhaetonEnlarge Photo
Just the same, the Phaeton’s electronics strategy betrays some controversial choices: Although the car incorporates General Motor’s OnStar emergency navigation and rescue system, there is no provision for factory satellite radio. A six-CD changer resides in the too small, 13-cubic-foot trunk; but there is no in-dash CD player for more spontaneous music selections. And incorporating a telephone means resorting to dealer installation and all the potential complications that entails.
These matters tend to be overlooked once one comprehends the enormity of the Phaeton’s accomplishment overall. The interior is a cocoon of comfort for driver and passengers alike. The driver’s seat adjusts 18 ways. “Climatronic” HVAC distributes individualized control of heating and cooling to four different zones, so that front- and backseat passengers can manage their own comfort independently of the driver. Woods like eucalyptus and walnut complement Italian leather upholstery and subtle, brushed metal accents. Eight airbags surround the occupants with front, side, and head protection. Automatic tire pressure indicators continuously monitor inflation levels.
Eight or twelve?
The Phaeton is offered with either an eight- or 12-cylinder engine. An innovative 6.0-liter W-12 engine is available in two versions that start at $83,000 and $98,000, respectively. I, on the other hand, drove a 4.2-liter V-8 that the Phaeton shares with its Audi cousin. For a car that weighs 5,200 lb, its 335 horsepower is more than enough to accomplish brisk launches and very high-speed cruising. Variable valve timing helps spread ample torque throughout a broad powerband, and VW’s 4Matic all-wheel-drive system distributes traction evenly and automatically to every wheel.
The six-speed automatic transmission is a masterpiece. It is seamlessly smooth, particularly on highway stretches, where it matches gearing to power without a driver even being aware--unless he or she happens to note the gear indicator in the instrument panel. In town, I preferred to override the automatic with a bit of manual shifting, which executes almost as crisply as a true clutch-and-shifter transmission. I can imagine other drivers, on the other hand, who will notice, if not necessarily complain about, the Phaeton’s ever-eager tendency to shop for a different gear in stop-and-start city driving.
Suspension feel is an interesting combination of the stately and the spry. A console controller selects between four different driving modes, from plush comfort to racecar-like sportiness. Self-leveling air suspension and electronic damping control do the rest by compensating for both speed and road surface conditions at all times. It is uncanny, in fact, the way Phaeton’s suspension mode directly influences one’s driving mood. At the “Comfort” setting, one feels and acts posh; upon graduating to “Sport 2,” all one seems to notice are the invigorating growl of the Phaeton’s exhaust note and the sedan’s knife-edge reactions to corners.
Once having experienced the Phaeton’s stunning feats of luxury and performance, one will be changed by the experience forever. That, alas, is the tragedy for a mere mortal the likes of me. It’s altogether too easy to adore — and too difficult to afford.
2004 Volkswagen Phaeton V-8
Base price: $64,600; as tested, $74,365
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 335 hp/317 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 203.7 x 74.9 x 57.1 in
Wheelbase: 118.1 in
Curb weight: 5194 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 15/22 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, side curtain airbags, front-seat side airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, stability control, OnStar emergency system
Major standard equipment: Automatic A/C, power windows/locks/mirrors, GPS navigation, 270-watt AM/FM/six-disc CD changer
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles