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New Car Review: 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton W12

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Some automakers build high-performance sports cars to advertise their technological and engineering prowess; Volkswagen has chosen a premium luxury sedan, the Phaeton.

For anyone who still equates Volkswagen with the old Beetle, all that can be said is `` It's time to wake up, Mr. Van Winkle.'' Volkswagen has changed over the years. The Beetle was a long time ago, and Volkswagen is now the cornerstone brand of the Volkswagen Group, a major player in the world automotive industry. Under the VW Group umbrella are marques and models covering every price class in the industry, from the inexpensive Volkswagen Lupo and Polo (both smaller than the familiar Golf and Jetta) through Audi in the mid- and premium luxury levels and Bentley and Lamborghini at the extreme high end of the luxury and performance segments, respectively.

Who are the intended Phaeton customers? According to Volkswagen, ``...`transcendent drivers' - people who are not resigned to traditional German luxury car pretenses, traditional boundaries, and badges.'' In other words, people who could afford any car they want, but would rather not have the most cliched and common choice. This is not a large group, and Phaeton ownership will be very exclusive. Anyone who buys one will not have a difficult time finding it in a parking lot. It is a major investment for Volkswagen, built in a brand-new facility in Dresden, Germany. Although it shares some parts with other Volkswagen Group vehicles, the Phaeton is largely unique. Two long-wheelbase models are available in the U.S., one with a 4.2-liter V8, and one with a 6.0-liter W12 that is, in essence, two VR6 engine blocks on a common crankcase.

To investigate the Phaeton experience, I've just spent a week with a the top of the line W12 model. At $102,205, it is the most expensive car I've ever reviewed, and around four times the price of an average Passat. It is indeed the most value-priced German 12-cylinder luxury sedan, but whether people who can afford a German 12-cylinder luxury sedan care about value is more a subject for a sociology thesis than marketing research. Suffice to say that, despite the untraditional badge on the grille, the Phaeton is every inch a premium luxury sedan, offering the elegant comfort and refinement expected from such a vehicle. As such, it reflects well on the rest of the Volkswagen line. With 420 horsepower under the hood, it packs quite a punch, too. Think of it as the automotive equivalent of a private luxury jet.

APPEARANCE: No brash, nouveau-riche ostentation here. In dim light, with no clear reference point for size, a Phaeton could conceivably be mistaken for a Passat. But, although there are similarities in contours and the shapes of the front and rear ends - which establish its Volkswagen identity - the Phaeton is considerably larger. With its size, and long wheelbase and passenger cabin, no matter how unostentatious its styling its proportions proclaim it to be an executive limousine. The W12 model may be told from the V8 by its quad exhausts versus the V8 twin pipes.

COMFORT: Imagine a Passat that got a luxury makeover and you'll be looking at the interior of a Phaeton. It is elegant, but not opulent, with a simple design that is highly reminiscent of the Passat's but larger and made with more upscale materials. Supple leather covers the seats, and a choice of wood trim, with walnut standard in the W12, graces the instrument panel, console, and doors. The W12 front seats are heated, ventilated, and have a 10-minute massage function; the same specification is available for the rear seat as well. The reclining rear seat may be specified for two or three passengers; my test car was configured for three, with the optional ventilation and massage in the outside positions. Two-passenger versions have a large central console. ``Climatronic''(tm) four-zone climate control with humidity sensors and separate controls allows all occupants perfect comfort. Navigation, climate, and audio systems are controlled through a LCD screen-based interface that is simple to use, without recourse to the manual. This alone puts the Phaeton in a class of its own among German premium luxury sedans, many of which have high-tech systems with complex, unintuitive interfaces. But don't think that the Phaeton is Spartan. There are plenty of high-tech gadgets inside. However, they are all add to comfort, ease, and simplicity rather than boast of complexity. The Phaeton's trunk is quite large, and can be opened remotely and closed with automatic assistance.

SAFETY: Energy-absorbing crush zones and a strong central structure, dual front, side, and side-curtain airbags, ESP stability control, and front active head restraints are all standard safety features of the 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton.

ROADABILITY: The Phaeton's natural environment is the German Autobahn, and with its long wheelbase, it is optimized for high-speed cruising on relatively open roads. It doesn't even breathe hard at US-legal highway speeds. But, at 5400 lbs., the W12 is a heavy vehicle, and its mass and wheelbase work against any sporting ideas that might be suggested by the engine's great power. Leave that type of driving at those speeds on those roads to an R32. Excellent soundproofing and details like triple door seals and double-pane windows with an anti-infrared coating help keep the interior as quiet as expected in a premium luxury car, even at high speeds. The W12 model features adjustable air springs and electronic damping control at all for corners of its independent suspension for the smooth, supple, and very well-controlled ride expected of a sedan in its class.

PERFORMANCE: Volkswagen's innovative engineering first seen in the compact narrow-angle VR engines gets its ultimate expression in the W12. Put most simply, it is two 15-degree vee-angle VR-6 blocks connected to a common crankshaft at a 72-degree angle. ``Compact'' is understatement - this 6.0-liter engine is 21 inches long, 28 inches high, and 27 inches wide. Statistics of 420 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, with 406 lb-ft of torque available between 3250 and 4250 rpm don't do it complete justice. It's turbine-smooth, and matched to a five-speed automatic transmission with ``Tiptronic''(r) manual shift mode. 4MOTION all-wheel drive gets all of that power to the wheels that can best use it in all road conditions. Because of the car's mass, acceleration feels deliberate, like a jumbo jet on takeoff, not neck-snapping. Don't be fooled into thinking it's not quick, though - 60 mph comes up in about six seconds.

CONCLUSIONS: Volkswagen enters new territory with the premium-luxury Phaeton W12.


2004 Volkswagen Phaeton W12

Base Price			$ 94,600
Price As Tested			$ 101,205
Engine Type			aluminum alloy 48-valve W12
Engine Size			6.0 liters / 366 cu. in.
Horsepower			420 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			406 @ 3250-4250 rpm
Transmission			5-speed automatic 
Wheelbase / Length		118.1 in. / 203.7 in.
Curb Weight			5400 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		12.9
Fuel Capacity			23.8 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline for best performance
Tires				P255/45 HR18 Michelin Pilot HX MXM4
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / vented disc,
				 antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent 4-link /
				 independent trapezoidal wishbone
				 adjustable air springs and electronic 
				 damping control	  
Drivetrain			front engine, all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		12 / 19 / 14
0 to 60 mph				5.9  sec

Gas guzzler tax				$ 3,000
Comfort package - includes:
  rear outboard seats with A/C ventilation
  and massage, power lumbar support, 
  power adjustable head restraints	$ 1,790
Electronic parking assistance		$    700
Keyless access				$    500
Destination charge			$    615