Volkswagen, long the people’s car company, is taking some of the biggest risks in the company’s history. They’re entering high-end markets with vehicles like this Touareg SUV and the new 8- and 12-cylinder Phaeton sedans. But to compete with the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Jaguar takes a lot more than just determination. It takes unquestioned refinement, sophistication, and prestige. Is Wolfberg’s new flagship sedan up to the task?
Engineers and designers have given the 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton all of the features needed to attract buyers considering an S-Class, 7-Series, or XJ. But while pretenders expect big ticket sedan prices at Mercedes, BMW, and Jaguar, throw a Volkswagen into the mix and they may be baffled. After all, who ever heard of a VW window sticker approaching 6-figures?
But Volkswagen has a lot more at stake here than just reach-for-the-sky pricing. The Phaeton is a symbol of great satisfaction for the European car maker as it receives its final assembly at Volkswagen’s striking ‘‘Transparent Factory’’ in the former East German city of Dresden. With the Phaeton, VW has put their national pride on the line.
For this is clearly a Volkswagen. Despite a higher style, the Phaeton easily resembles its working class siblings Passat and Jetta. Starting with a familiar VW facia, and arch 6-window greenhouse, the Phaeton’s stretched 207.1 inch-body adds tall fenders on 17-inch alloy wheels with tire pressure monitoring. With a long 118.1-inch wheelbase, Phaeton’s short overhang styling refuses to copy any competitor, staying true to Volkswagen’s nonconformist attitude and individuality. The rear fascia also speaks to VW’s quietly classic style with sweeping taillights and contoured lines Ð no give away here.
There is plenty of take on power, however, with engines comparable to Phaeton’s best rivals. Standard is a beefy 4.2-liter V8, also shared with Audi’s A8L. Output is 317 horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque. But for prestige the Phaeton is also available with a 6.0-liter W-12. Output is 420 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque.
Our V8 was mated to a 6-speed automatic with Tiptronic, Dynamic Shift, and sport mode, while the W12 is fitted with a 5-speed automatic. Power is fed to all four wheels by way of the standard 4-MOTION all-wheel-drive system, with traction control. AWD is optional on S-Class and not offered on the 7-Series or XJ. At our track this V8 Phaeton dispatched 0-60 in 6.3 seconds, and skated through the quarter mile in 14.8 seconds at 96 miles-per-hour. Fine numbers for any 5200 pound sedan.
The Phaeton is also extremely nimble for its vastness and reminiscent of the all-aluminum A8L with just a tad less gusto. It ran flat out through the cones, and despite all-wheel drive, there was only a hint of understeer. Initial turn in is crisp and direct with sport sedan-like reflexes. Drivers easily maintained control even when the tail loosened. Driver adjustable air springs, electronic damping, and stability control aid a refined link front, control-arm rear suspension.
Braking is by way of 4-wheel vented discs with ABS. Secure stops are managed from 60 to 0 in 121 feet. Pedal feedback is adequate with slight ABS pulse, but there is none of the grabbiness we’re used to in Passats. With so much electronic control over the load leveling suspension, we’re not surprised that highway ride quality is taut, yet plush and enjoyable.
Inside, the wide open and luxurious cabin is, in a word, opulent. Wood and leather abound. The V-8’s front seats are 12-way power, with heat, lumbar adjust, and memory. The dash features a clean center stack complete with 4-zone climate controls, AM/FM CD audio and Navigation system. Couples will love the Phaeton’s no-draft ventilation system and find the driver information display easier to use than Mercedes or BMW.
The second row bench offers 43 inches of leg room, deep foot wells and plenty of room for three. A special-order, front-to-rear center console shrinks rear passenger room to two, and features a visual display for rear climate control. Safety measures are complete, with front, side, and curtain airbags.
And luggage fits safely into the one-touch automatic trunk. Its 13 cubic feet of cargo space, while less than rivals, is adequate.
Quite adequate are EPA estimates for the Phaeton V8. 15 city and 22 highway. Our mixed loop returned 18 mpg on, yes, premium fuel.
And yes, the prices are premium, too. The Volkswagen Phaeton V8 start at $65,215 Ð add $1,300 for the gas guzzler tax and $66,515 is the final base sticker. The Phaeton W12 begins at $95,215 Ð tack-on $3,000 for its gas guzzler tax and end up paying $98,215.
And VW’s aim is very high for the Phaeton. They hope enough well-heeled buyers who don’t want to advertise their good fortune will choose Phaeton over more obvious trappings of success. We have our doubts. But we also know that Volkswagen understands that patience is a virtue, and one that they will have to practice so Phaeton’s mission of secret success can flourish.
Engine: 4.2-Liter V8
Torque: 315 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 6.3 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 14.8 Seconds @ 96 MPH
60-0 MPH: 121 Feet
EPA Mileage: 15 MPG City 22 MPG Highway
Motorweek's Mileage Loop: 18 MPG Mixed City/highway