2004 Volkswagen Phaeton W12 Road Test

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

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton Sedan

(6.0L W12 AWD 5-speed Automatic)

It's almost impossible to discuss Volkswagen's new luxury sedan without attempting to explain the very reason for its existence first. While most luxury cars have decades of tradition to fall back on, Volkswagen's history is, in fact, precisely the opposite.

Conceived as "cars for the people," Volkswagens have always been inexpensive vehicles for the common man. The Phaeton, on the other hand, is neither of the two. Not only does it start at well over $60,000 and push into the six-digit range for fully optioned 12-cylinder models, but it's targeted at buyers who are anything but typical in their incomes and their tastes. It's this very contradiction that Volkswagen wants to exploit, as the Phaeton was conceived as a car that would drastically change people's idea of what a Volkswagen can be.

While there have been numerous car companies in the past that had the desire to enter the rarefied air of the ultraluxury segment, few have had the credentials that VW can boast. In addition to its own well-regarded lineup, Volkswagen also owns four of the world's most prestigious luxury brands: Audi, Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini. Needless to say, Volkswagen knows what luxury is about and how to build it, but is the Phaeton the true manifestation of these vast resources or merely a half-hearted attempt to prove that it can do more than just build Beetles?

Sitting behind the wheel of the top-of-the-line W12 model, you would be hard-pressed to cite any reason why the Phaeton isn't as overtly decadent as its competitors. From the elegant gauges to the perfectly polished wood trim, this is a car that oozes class from every seam and stitch. And it should, considering its six-figure price tag, one that puts it into an exclusive but hardly vacant class of premium luxury sedans. For those who cringe at the thought of spending that much on a car, the eight-cylinder base model starts at a more reasonable $64,000 and still includes many of the 12-cylinder's luxurious appointments.

The peculiar "W12" name of the top-shelf Phaeton comes from its unusual engine design. Unlike a typical V12 that places its cylinders in one neat V-shaped row, the Phaeton's power plant meshes together two V6 engines in such a way that it resembles a shape more like a "W." The result is a more compact overall size despite the engine's substantial 6.0 liters of displacement.

Developing 420 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque, the Phaeton's W12 delivers the kind of irresistible force necessary to get the nearly 5,400-pound sedan up to speed in a hurry. Our test numbers indicated that its quickest sprint from zero to 60 mph took just 6.4 seconds, a respectable number for any sedan let alone one that weighs as much as the Phaeton. Like most 12-cylinder engines, the W12 produces its enormous thrust in a graceful and muted manner that belies its prodigious output. It's not the kind of engine that you lay into just to hear the exhaust roar and watch the gauges swing, but it's always there with plenty of torque on tap to give the Phaeton a feeling of quickness that can be equally amusing.

Assuring that all of the available power gets to the ground in an efficient manner is a standard 4Motion all-wheel-drive system coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission. In dry conditions, the 4Motion system splits the power equally between the front and rear wheels, but if it detects any loss of traction, it can reroute power to the wheels that still have grip. The Phaeton's five-speed automatic is a traditional gearbox that also offers a manual shift gate should you care to select the gears yourself.

Unlike some all-wheel-drive systems that tend to bind up when turning on dry surfaces, Volkswagen has refined 4Motion to the point of complete obscurity. Get into some slippery conditions and it will no doubt come to the rescue, but during most normal driving conditions, you hardly know it's there. Unfortunately, such a discreet presence is not maintained by the automatic transmission, as it's often conspicuously derelict in its duties. All too often a punch of the accelerator is greeted with confusion from the transmission as it struggles to find the right gear. Even with the near limitless torque from the 12-cylinder engine, the Phaeton can feel clumsy at times due to the transmission's inability to make up its mind in a timely fashion.

You would think that any clumsiness would result from the vehicle's massive size and substantial weight, but the Phaeton's sophisticated suspension setup is able to keep the big sedan well in check when you toss it around a bend. Adjustable to one of four settings, the adaptive air suspension goes from pillow soft to noticeably firm in an instant. At its softest, the Phaeton glides along with the kind of unflappable stability you would expect in an autobahn-bred luxury sedan. Cranked up to maximum firmness, the suspension delivers a more direct feel for the road below, although calling it harsh would be an overstatement.

As adaptable as the suspension is, however, there's no denying that the Phaeton prefers a more sedentary lifestyle than one filled with back road shortcuts. It may be predictable and stable, but it never shakes the elephant-on-a-toothpick feel that keeps it from coming across as nimble. Part of the problem is the steering as it tends to feel a bit feathery even when you're going hard, but the undeniable chief culprit is weight. With well over two and a half tons to throw around, the Phaeton has a tough time duplicating the dexterity of its rivals, most of which weigh 600-1,000 pounds less. Fortunately, the Phaeton's brakes feel well up to the task of dragging the hulking mass to a stop, as the sedan was able to stop from 60 mph in a respectable 130 feet.

The Phaeton's poor imitation of a sport sedan shouldn't come as much of a surprise. It may have an exotic engine, all-wheel drive and a computer-controlled suspension, but its ultimate goal is sumptuous luxury, not overwhelming athleticism. Nowhere is that objective more apparent than within the confines of the Phaeton's lavish interior, as no expense was spared in its attempt to compete with the finest sedans in the world.

Given the fact that Volkswagen's entry-level cars have a reputation for upscale cabin designs, the Phaeton's plush interior is almost a given. Unlike some of its competitors, the Phaeton's cabin manages to offer all the latest electronic features without resorting to an overly complex or distracting design. The classically styled gauges look proper for a car in this class, while the rest of the dashboard remains relatively free from clutter. The center stack control center has its share of gadgets, but once you become familiar with its topography, the controls seem logically arranged.

While both Phaeton models come standard with an 18-way power-adjustable driver seat and a 16-way adjustable front-passenger seat, the W12 one-ups the base model with driver and front-passenger seats that also include multilevel ventilation and massage functions. Each of the sculpted rear seats can be equipped with similar climate control functions, but their range of adjustment is limited to a 10-way system. Further comfort is provided through a four-zone climate control system that allows varying degrees of temperature for each of the four seating positions. Despite a wheelbase that's several inches shorter than a Mercedes S-Class, the Phaeton offers more legroom front and rear than both its Mercedes and BMW rivals.

You don't have to compare the numbers to get a sense of the Phaeton's spacious accommodations. Even with the driver seat adjusted for an over-six-foot pilot, the rear seat still yields more than enough room for a tall passenger to stretch out comfortably. Up front, the nearly infinite array of adjustments for the front seats makes getting comfortable a simple matter of taking the time to find just the right setting and then saving it into one of the three memory presets. Visibility is good in nearly all directions, although the slim rear window cuts down on rearward visibility somewhat. Optional front and rear parking sensors assure worry-free parallel parking.

The Phaeton's cabin displays flawless build quality and materials indicative of its price. Pushing and tugging on the various dash and door panels reveals construction so solid you would need a well-placed crowbar to budge them. The standard walnut wood trim has perfectly matched grains and a rich finish that adds some polish to the interior without looking overdone. For those who prefer a more personalized look, Volkswagen offers three additional choices of wood trim and five different interior colors.

Other than choosing your preferred interior colors and trim, there are few options as the standard features list is extensive. In addition to the previously mentioned items, the Phaeton also comes standard with a 270-watt audio system, OnStar emergency assistance, xenon headlights, rear sunshades and a CD-based navigation system among others. It's an impressive list, but the Phaeton is missing a few key features that its competitors have already embraced, such as adaptive cruise control, an up-to-date DVD-based navigation system and a keyless ignition system. If you have to have the latest gadgets, the Phaeton will disappoint.

The absence of perfection extends to the execution of the interior as well, as there are some elements that prove annoyingly out of place. Although the vast majority of the hardware looks and feels top-notch, a few choice control buttons feel flimsy and look less than substantial. The window switches for the driver are buried so far down in the door that even the tallest drivers are left stretching to work them. The shifter handle also showed signs of looseness that was hardly pleasing, given its role as the most direct link between driver and drivetrain. The motorized vent covers are a neat trick, but should a fuse blow on a hot day with the covers in place, the novelty of the system will wear off quickly.

Dissecting the Phaeton's minor flaws may seem like a concerted attempt to discredit its luxury pedigree, but when it comes to cars of the Phaeton's caliber, nitpicking is pretty much all that's left to do. Like every other $100,000 luxo-cruiser on the market, the Phaeton W12 delivers heaping amounts of power, faultless construction and enough luxury amenities to keep four passengers content even on the longest of trips. There's a reason it costs as much as it does, and those with the means to buy it aren't likely to be disappointed.

But the question remains: Why buy the Phaeton and its Volkswagen baggage when you could get one of its equally competent and more prestigious rivals for roughly the same price? Rational reasons are few and far between. The Phaeton doesn't offer anything that the others don't and its slightly lower price has little relevance in six-digit territory. Then there's the question of its future. If Volkswagen decides not to build a second-generation Phaeton — a thoroughly feasible, some say probable, proposition — owners of this car will be left holding the keys to a very expensive experiment. If that's a risk you're willing to take, the Phaeton will most likely reward you with many years of faithful service. If it's not, buy one of its rivals instead — you won't be missing out on much.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 9.0

Components: The W12 comes standard with a 12-speaker, 270-watt audio system with Digital Sound Processing (DSP), dynamic sound compression and a glovebox-mounted six-disc CD changer. The main bank of controls is placed at the lowest point of the center stack, but soft buttons on each side of the display screen are also used to perform various functions depending on the screen selection. The speaker setup consists of separate tweeter and midrange speakers in each of the four doors, two midbass drivers in the rear deck, a center channel speaker in the dash and a concealed subwoofer.

Performance: Although there are seven DSP settings, we performed our usual routine with the settings manually set to flat across the board. Even so, this system performed flawlessly, recreating our favorite solo vocals and current power rock hits with the kind of clarity that you only get with systems of this caliber. It doesn't boast the kind of power of similar competing systems, but we never managed to find the point where it ran out of juice. Vocal clarity was exceptional, with multiple bass tracks creating the only hint of a problem keeping up. Audiophiles might be able to find faults in this system, but in our minds, it's right up there with the best.

Best Feature: Outstanding clarity at nearly any volume.

Worst Feature: Decentralized control layout sometimes leaves you wondering where the right buttons are hiding.

Conclusion: About what you would expect in a $100,000 car. — Ed Hellwig

Second Opinions

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
So now that we've beaten the "Does anyone really need a $100,000 Volkswagen?" question to death, can we just evaluate the car on its strengths and weaknesses? After driving the Phaeton (and ignoring that "other" issue), I came away impressed by its drivetrain, handling dynamics and interior design. During slalom testing, the car felt secure and confident, even with four people aboard (they were along for display purposes only, the actual test numbers were generated with two occupants). The W12 is capable of producing a vast expanse of horsepower and torque, all while creating no more drama than Al Gore on lithium. Add in the Phaeton's superb sound deadening and you're left with a vehicle frighteningly capable of felonious speed limits. Anyone considering a Phaeton without a radar detector should just start budgeting for speeding tickets and higher insurance premiums at the time of purchase.

What I like most about the Phaeton is the way Volkswagen (and Audi, and Bentley) have figured out how to combine high-tech features with relatively straightforward controls. Everything from the suspension to the audio system's digital sound processing is controlled via the center LCD screen, but by including buttons that get you directly to each major control area (climate, audio, navigation, etc.) Volkswagen has eliminated several steps, and levels of frustration, inherent in certain Teutonic competitors' cars. That said, the Audi A8 L includes all of the Phaeton's best features, and it has the right badge on the grille (sorry, I had to say it).

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Take a chance on a Phaeton and you'll find that, just like other super-luxury sedans, it offers a superb ride. It manages to glide along peacefully without feeling too soft. Only in the firmest damper setting do you really feel the bumps and ruts, and even then it's hardly bothersome. Of course, it's not as athletic as its in-house competitor, the Audi A8 L — but then the A8 has Audi's aluminum space frame and, for now, only eight cylinders, and therefore weighs about 1,000 pounds less, according to the specs. Considering how much it weighs, the Phaeton is a good handler. Turn-in is not overly quick, but body roll is well controlled and the suspension gives the driver a nice feel for the road. The steering is light, but you can tell it's a VW rack because it's very accurate. And the brake feel is excellent. I'd say the overall package measures up nicely to the competition, though buyers planning to do some serious driving in their 12-cylinder luxury sedan should look at the S600 (about 800 pounds less) or 760Li (about 500 pounds less). Throttle response is a little touchy off the line (not unexpected when you're dealing with this much power), but after that delivery is smooth.

Inside, I especially like the retractable wood inlays that cover the vents when the engine is shut off. All of the materials seemed in line with the price of the vehicle, though I wouldn't have minded an Alcantara headliner. The deep purple gauge faces are unusual, but I found the reflections of my hands on the wheel distracting. I didn't mind seeing my face in the vanity mirrors, though, as they offer a secondary magnification function that's perfect for touching up your makeup. Where ergonomics are concerned, it's unfortunate that the Phaeton didn't qualify for the A8's user-friendly vehicle management system. The all-in-one center screen works better than Mercedes' COMAND system in that its "soft key" buttons are larger. But it's worse than COMAND from the standpoint that you can't even make any adjustments to the climate control until you hit the "accept" key each time you start up the car. The seats provide a lot of adjustments for the driver, but I wanted an additional up/down tilt feature for the front part of the seat bottom cushion. The rear seats offer plenty of legroom, but the seat bottom is a little short for a full-size sedan.

A lovely car overall, the Phaeton, but I'm not sure why it exists: You'd think Volkswagen would be worried about it stealing sales from the A8 L. And you'd think the company would be even more worried about the longer life cycles its design and engineering costs forced on the current-generation Passat, Jetta and Golf — the volume sellers that revived VW's fortunes in the U.S. Stick to affordable luxury, VW — that's what you do best.

Consumer Commentary

"15 yrs. ago Mercedes had the best built cars. Now VW creates 'build quality' equal to Lexus, better than BMW and way ahead of Mercedes. The ride, handling, fit and finish are phenomenal. Gas mileage is an acceptable 16 mpg in mixed driving. The W12 engine is smooth and responsive and the car so well insulated that it glides super quietly along the highway at 70 mph with engine rpm @ 2,200. I wanted understated elegance and excellent fit/finish and got what I paid for. I strongly recommend this car if you don't worry about 'hood emblems' and just want fine quality, design and function." — Jesichler, March 23, 2004

"I loved this car from the minute I saw it, it had great design and I knew it was reliable because of Volkswagen's history. Also, I loved the features, most of which were standard, they were easy to use, but attractive at the same time, this car is the best by far. I couldn't be happier with my new purchase." — M. Martz, Dec. 20, 2003

"I have seen Web sites list Phaeton competitors as the Infiniti Q45 and other 'luxury' vehicles (Lexus 400 series, etc). My advice, buy a W12, or at least go to your local VW dealer and test-drive it. It will take you about 2 minutes to figure out that those 'competitors' are not competitors of this machine at all. This vehicle is designed to compete with the S-Class Mercedes and BMW 7 Series, and it not only compares favorably to these, but blows them away." — Luxurycollector, Nov. 25, 2003

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