The arguments for and against Volkswagen's entry into the premium luxury market began long before the Phaeton was debuted at the 2002 Geneva Show. Where your, or anyone else's, sentiments lie is moot: The 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton is here. Is it a smart move? It's still too soon to tell. The more important question is, "Is the Phaeton a premium luxury car?" The answer is an undeniable yes.
Look past the badging and forget it's a Volkswagen (for a moment, at least) and evaluate the sedan for what it is and not who it's made by. Do this and you'll discover a car that compares well and measures up to a 7 Series or an S-Class. Start with the sedan's top-of-the-line engine, the W12. Comprised of two compact V6s (in essence it's two 15-degree VR6s placed together in a 72* angle), the 6.0-liter W12 delivers 420 bhp at 6000 rpm and 406 lb-ft of torque from 3250 to 4250 rpm. It moves the quite heavy 5,399-lb sedan from 0 to 60 mph in an estimated 5.9 sec. It's a new engine from a consumer standpoint, but its pedigree was established at the Nardo racetrack, where the Concept W12 race car set a world speed record for its class. Ironically, top speed is limited to a relatively low 130 mph (a source of frustration while rocketing down the autobahn) due to its V-rated tires. Where are the ZR-rated tires this car deserves?
The W12's output is manipulated by a five-speed Tiptronic DSP automatic gearbox in conjunction with 4Motion, VW's permanent awd system, which distributes power to the wheels 50/50 during normal driving and up to 67/33 when needed during hard cornering and inclement weather. Oddly enough, the V8-powered version comes with a six-speed automatic. The W12 with a five-speed was already in the works when the V8 appeared on the horizon. Thus the V8 got the newer transmission. The five-speed's gearing is matched so well to the W12, however, that you never notice the "missing" gear, especially when set in sport mode.
As is now the standard for any new high-end luxury sedan, the Phaeton's suspension setup is an air system, here with Continuous Damping Control (CDC), which automatically adapts the suspension to road and driving conditions. The system has two driver-adjustable heights and four shock absorber settings: comfort, basic, sport 1 and sport 2. The adjustments are made through VW's infotainment center, similar to Audi's MMI system. For the rough, constantly-under-construction back roads around Dresden and Berlin, basic was the best setting. For autobahn blasts, sport 2 is perfect, although I recommend sport 1 if you have backseat passengers. Comfort mode is appropriate for the weak of stomach and hiney.
The W12 comes equipped with 8.5x18-in. alloy wheels wrapped in the previously mentioned V-rated all-season tires, sized 255/45. A smaller 17-in. wheel is optional for those needing snow-chain compatibility. Peeking through the seven-spoke wheels are silver brake calipers grasping 14.17-in. vented discs in front and 12.2-in. vented discs at the rear. The usual emergency handling and safety systems are also present, including ABS, Brake Assist, ESP and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
The interior is exactly what you'd expect in a premium luxury car. Fine-grained walnut wood inlays, sinfully soft Italian leather, tasteful chrome accents and an incredibly long list of amenities. The Phaeton W12's list of standard equipment is so extensive it would take at least a page in the magazine to detail them all out. Here's just a sampling: an 18-way power-adjustable heated driver's seat with a 10-min. massage function (the passenger seat is only adjustable 16 ways, while the rear seats are merely heated); a navigation system; the aforementioned infotainment system that includes a 12-speaker, 12-channel 270-watt sound system with a glovebox-mounted six CD changer--it is an awesome-sounding system; a four-spoke leather-wrapped heated multifunction steering wheel; VW telemateics provided by On-Star(R); and four-zone climate control (Climatronic) with rear controls and display for the rear passengers.
Speaking of the rear passengers, they'll have ample room in the back seat. The U.S.-destined Phaetons are the stretched versions, measuring nearly 5 in. longer for a total length of 204 in. And depending on your people-hauling needs, you can have your Phaeton outfitted with the Four-seater Package option, which includes two 10-way power-adjustable heated seats and an integrated rear center console.
The time spent in the Phaeton W12 was brief, less than a day's worth of driving from Dresden to Berlin. Still, I was able to get the feel of this luxury sedan upstart. The W12 is a responsive engine that smoothly pulls the long-wheel-based sedan along. The air suspension combined with the awd 4Motion makes the 5,399-lb car behave like one that is much lighter. The interior is so well appointed that I could have spent many more hours driving--or riding in--it. The thought of wandering off across Germany for a day or two crossed my mind before giving the car back. (Volkswagen was pleased that I didn't.) I really wanted to spend more time in such an enjoyable car.
For those who doubted Volkswagen could do it, be prepared to change your minds. The company has done what it said it would do: make a viable entry into the ultra-luxury market segment. The W12 pricing has yet to be announced, but expect in the $60,000s for the base V8 model. Obviously, the W12 will be a bit higher, but whatever the final tag, the Phaeton W12 is well worth it.