2004 Volkswagen Phaeton First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton Sedan

(4.2L V8 AWD 6-speed Automatic)

Three years ago, Porsche introduced its first sport-utility at the Chicago auto show. During the ensuing months, individuals wondered, marveled and downright chuckled about why a company like Porsche, known solely for its high-performance sports cars, would even consider getting into the SUV game. Today, the Porsche Cayenne can be seen cruising along the freeway, just like any other well-heeled SUV.

In 2002, when Volkswagen announced its intention to build not just a near-luxury vehicle, but an all-out luxury sedan expected to compete against the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class, again there was a collective gasp from automotive enthusiasts around the world. Would the maker of the New Beetle, that cute little love bug, be able to bridge the German extravagance gap to reach the top luxury brands?

Against the odds, Volkswagen seems to think so, and it has invested over $216 million in a manufacturing facility to fabricate its latest endeavor. Volkswagen's new top-of-the-line model, the Phaeton sedan, is currently in production in Dresden, Germany, at one of the most beautiful factories in the world, the Die Glaserne Manufaktur, known in English as the "Transparent Factory."

Smack in the middle of Dresden's city center, the Transparent Factory handles final assembly only, with no smoke stacks, loud machinery or other pollution spoiling the traditional Saxon skyline. Although Phaeton production officially began when the regular-wheelbase sedan went on sale in Europe in 2002, Volkswagen recently introduced the long-wheelbase Phaeton, the only version coming to the United States, at the 2003 Frankfurt International Motor Show.

The Phaeton arrives in the U.S. this fall with two different engine options: a 4.2-liter V8 and a 6.0-liter W12. Comprised of two V6 engines, Volkswagen claims the W12 is the most compact 12-cylinder in the world. The V8 engine puts out 335 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque, while the larger W12 cranks out a whopping 420 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. We spent two days driving the country roads of eastern Germany, as well as the high-speed autobahn, and were delighted by the power the Phaeton released at the mere touch of the accelerator pedal. The rush of the W12 felt every bit as strong as the BMW 760Li, which we feel benchmarks the large performance sedan category. The Phaeton comes standard with VW's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, which helped stabilize the sedan as we cruised the autobahn at 137 miles per hour (alas, as fast as the electronic speed limiter would allow) during a light rain shower.

The V8 and W12 use different transmissions — a six-speed automanual for the V8, while the W12 gets a five-speed automanual instead. The W12 was engineered prior to the V8, and the six-speed had not yet completed development at that time. All Phaetons ride on a height-adjustable air suspension with electronic damping control, which we found to be comfortable, yet communicative, as we covered the kilometers from the Transparent Factory while en route to Berlin.

When traveling at such high speeds, a true sense of safety is necessary to make the driver and passengers feel comfortable. We felt protected and secure inside our elegant VW, surrounded by eight airbags including a complete side curtain system. Additional safety features include a four-wheel antilock braking system with emergency brake assist, electronic stabilization ESP, a tire-pressure monitoring system and the OnStar telematics system in case you need to call for further roadside assistance.

At nearly 204 inches long and 57 inches tall, the Phaeton is the biggest car VW has ever built. Known traditionally for its small, economical cars, the Phaeton is just about as far away from a New Beetle as one can get in looks, luxury and size. Its super-sized body is just a half-inch longer than the 7 Series, with nearly identical measurements compared to its Audi A8 L cousin. Seating configurations can be ordered in a standard five-passenger setup, or an optional four-passenger grouping that gives the rear passengers a console between them which houses rear climate controls, 10-way power seat controls, seat heating and ventilation controls, plus a control for the front passenger seat back that allows rear-seat riders to move the front seat forward when it is unoccupied.

Volkswagen has equipped the remainder of the interior with enough luxury components and amenities to please even the most discriminating sedan shopper. Interior temperature is controlled by Climatronic, a draft-free four-zone climate control system with humidity sensors and separate temperature controls for all seating positions. A sunroof with a shade and side window sunshades also work to keep the cabin comfy. The 7-inch color screen that controls the stereo (with a glovebox-mounted six-disc CD changer), navigation system, trip commuter and air conditioning is simple to use, even while negotiating unfamiliar German territory. The instrument panel above the steering wheel has a 5-inch color display, ready to communicate necessary vehicle information to the driver.

Other features that confirm the Phaeton's luxury status are bi-xenon headlamps, heated washer nozzles for the windshield and self-dimming power-folding exterior mirrors which are heated for better vision during inclement weather and have a memory feature to return them to the optimal position for each driver. Luxury meets sport with stainless-steel pedals that add an attractive touch to the driver footwell.

At 13 cubic feet, the Phaeton's trunk space isn't as all consuming as the 7 Series' 18 cubic feet, or even the S-Class' 15.4 cubic feet, but there is a rear-seat pass-through with a ski bag to protect the seat leather, and the trunk lid conveniently closes automatically with the push of a button.

Phaeton shoppers who choose a V8 will get 12-way power memory heated front seats with four-way power-adjustable lumbar support, eucalyptus wood trim and a 10-speaker, 190-watt sound system. W12 drivers upgrade their driving experience with 18-way power front seats (with memory, heating and ventilation) that have a 10-minute massage function and four-way power lumbar support. Rear seats, whether in two- or three-passenger configuration, are also heated. Audio in the W12 is upgraded to a 12-speaker 270-watt sound system with digital processing.

If you pull up alongside another Phaeton at a stoplight, how can you tell from the exterior if the other car is a 4.5-liter or 6.0-liter? The only exterior clues that distinguish the V8 from the W12 are quad-visible exhaust pipes on the W12 versus dual pipes on the V8; 18-inch alloy wheels on the W12 compared to the 17-inchers fitted to the V8; and the 6.0 W12 badge displayed only on the Phaeton's hind quarters. Also, a barely noticeable coating of metalized infrared foil is standard on the W12 windows to reflect heat and maximize interior comfort.

But is all of this enough to lure buyers away from BMW and Mercedes-Benz showrooms? And if not, are there enough Volkswagen loyalists ready to take a leap from their Jetta or Passat to the Phaeton? Since pricing hasn't yet been announced, it's difficult to say just how big that leap will be. Volkswagen tells us that it realizes it may take time to present the Phaeton as serious competition against the other large German luxury sedans, and therefore it intends to price the Phaeton competitively in order to get the attention of buyers seeking to get more for their money. The Phaeton definitely has luxury and performance on its side, and if pricing is low enough to entice shoppers into the Volkswagen dealers for a test-drive, they might just find that the prominent VW badge isn't so terrible after all.

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