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First Look: Volkswagen Phaeton

Wolfsburg shows it can build a great automobile, but now comes the hard part--selling it in a market rich with quality luxury cars

Greg N. Brown
Nov 15, 2002 SHARE

Wolfsburg shows it can build a great automobile, but now comes the hard part--selling it in a market rich with quality luxury cars

Bent over a Volkswagen engine bay like no other before it, I'm enthralled by the exquisite aesthetics of the 6.0-liter 12-cylinder. Every corner of the Phaeton, in fact, is a treat for the eye, in terms of fit and finish, the quality of materials and how they've been used to fashion an extremely satisfying luxury performance sedan. The Phaeton is the most complex car ever to wear a VW badge. The D-class four-door is of such importance to the company's expansion that a special tech corps with direct, interactive connections to dealerships has been set up in Wolfsburg for rapid diagnosis and repair of fault or damage. However, VW is expecting this service won't be needed very often, for the Phaeton was designed as a very special car. Not only is it the prime product of the Piech legacy, it's recipient of everything the VW combine knows how to do. Which is considerable. Volkswagen has access to technical acumen from across the automotive spectrum, and it has done a wonderful job of fusing established VW values with thoroughly modern technology.

The Phaeton is clearly a VW at first glance, from the outside in its simple yet sophisticated styling and inside from the highly rational yet tasteful ergonomic solutions. But don't mistake familiarity with convention. This is unlike any VW which has come before, equipped to compete against the big Benzes, Bimmers and Lexi. The Phaeton is the first car of its class to combine all-wheel drive and a two-axle "active" suspension, and at a price which should guarantee it gets a serious look. The base Phaeton for the U.S., with the 330-bhp 4.2-liter V8 from Audi's 2004 A8, is expected to go for around $60,000, and the W12 flagship should be about 15 grand more when they go on sale in the U.S. next June. However, even with this attractive pricing, will the well-heeled consider the VW badge on hood and trunk a mark of distinction? Is it enough, at the upper end of the market, for the Phaeton just to be a great car? Should it matter? No. Does it? Sadly, yes.

After-sales service and residual values might have more to do with the car's immediate success than its inherent qualities, which are prolific in number and rewarding in operation. I experienced many of the Phaeton's pleasures on a test drive from Wolfsburg to Dresden, where the car is being assembled in the most amazing facility of its kind. So rich with content is the Phaeton, it would take serious study of the manual and several day's orientation to fully comprehend all the systems. After driving a European-spec standard-wheelbase W12 over a route that included winding roads in the Harz Mountains, wide-open autobahn and cobbled streets in towns of the former GDR, there's no question the Phaeton is competitive in a technical sense, but it's also a delight to drive. It feels smaller than it is thanks to the ultra-stiff chassis, W12's generous torque, almost instantaneous chassis control from the adjustable air suspension, large and powerful brakes and superb Servotronic speed-sensitive steering. The W12's standard running gear of 7.5x18-in. alloys carries 235/50R-18 tires, which might seem wimpy compared to the fitments seen in the aftermarket, but the setup undoubtedly contributes to the car's nimble handling. I never managed to push them beyond their limits in a day of spirited motoring. A number of electronic aids and VW's 4Motion all-wheel drive augment the basic suspension, which features a trick four-link front layout and trapezoidal wishbone rear geometry. It all works seamlessly, delivering sports-car grip in the corners and limousine comfort in a straight line. The driver has the option of four shock values, from comfort to a sport, and even though I kept the setting on sport my entire drive, I never felt the car to be too stiff, even when slogging along over the cobbled streets of old Dresden.

Even when pushed to the max, the Phaeton displayed immaculate manners, the twelve amazingly smooth and responsive, assisted in its power delivery by a well-calibrated Tiptronic five-speed gearbox. (A manual six-speed is available in V6 models.) I'd need dozens more pages to detail all the great technology and creature comfort stuffed under this beguiling new sedan, and so I invite readers to visit www.europeancarweb.com for the entire story of the Phaeton, the incredible factory in Dresden, and a visitor's guide to Sachsen, a German state with a rich cultural history.

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By Greg N. Brown
57 Articles

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