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New Car Review: 2004 VW Phaeton W12

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MODEL: Volkswagen Phaeton
ENGINE:  6.0-liter W12
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 420 hp @ 6,000 rpm/406 lb.-ft. @ 3,250rpm 
TRANSMISSION:  5-speed automatic with manual-shift capability
WHEELBASE:  118.1 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT:  203.7 x 74.9 x 57.1 in.
TIRES:  235/55HR17
ECONOMY: 12 mpg city/19 mpg highway
PRICE:  $105,000 (est.)

When I began writing this column more than 20 years ago, I worked under a philosophy that has boded me well over the years. That is: Unless a car is built by God, it has something wrong with it; unless it's built by the devil, it has some redeeming social value.

Even the best hand-built Rolls-Royce suffers because it's way overpriced; even the Yugo had its price going for it. So all cars are winners - and losers - in some way.

Which brings us to the Volkswagen Phaeton. Here, the price of approximately $105,000 isn't a detriment. The V12-powered Phaeton competes favorably with the V12 Mercedes-Benz S600 and the V12 BMW 760iL, both in performance and price. In fact, the VW is approximately $20,000 cheaper than the other German cars.

It's the name. In my mind, I think $105,000 is too much to pay for a car with the VW badge on it. If they had chosen to call the car an Audi or Bentley (both brands in the VW stable), they'd have a much easier time of selling it. I'm also willing to admit that VW marketing people are a lot smarter than I am and they're probably selling more than they can make, but that's what makes them do what they do and what makes me do what I do.

Back to the car. The VW Phaeton is, hands down, one of the best cars I have ever driven. The W12 engine (originally developed for the Bentley) is smooth, quiet and powerful. If you ask it to do something, it will do it with no complaining. The speedometer goes all the way up to 200 mph and the Phaeton gives you the impression it can reach that lofty number. The engine is rated at 420 horsepower. It's power you sense more than feel, but it's there when you need it.

The engine powers the rear wheels through a five-speed automatic gearbox with a manual-shift capability. Shifts were smooth and almost imperceptible. This is the way CVT transmissions are supposed to feel. On a few tight corners I noticed that the transmission didn't downshift as quickly as I would have liked, so I shifted into manual mode a few times for a quicker response. This wasn't necessary, since the automatic was fine. In these few instances I was simply looking for a quicker move out of the turn.

I liked the fact that the readout on the instrument panel told you exactly which gear the transmission was in. This was an important piece of information if you're interested in the car's performance.

Staying in the instrument panel area, I loved the instruments. They were analog, white-on-black and wristwatch style. All the instruments were there, including oil pressure and battery amperage. They were clear and gave information without being gaudy. The tasteful burled wood paneling added a touch of elegance.

Handling of the Phaeton was also excellent. In general the ride is limousine-luxurious, but when the road started to bend, the Phaeton was able to handles corners with the best of them.

With a 118.1-inch wheelbase and an overall length of 203 inches, the VW Phaeton is a large car. It's in the same class as the S-Class Mercedes and BMW 760i, not the iL. One of the advantages of the extra length is increased rear-seat legroom. We took some friends to dinner with us and they raved about the added legroom in the back. There have been times when we've stuffed them into much smaller cars, so they appreciated the luxury. There are even movable foot rests if you need them.

The rear seat is nominally a three-passenger width, but with the fold-down armrest extended, it becomes a two-seater in the back. Rear passengers also have their own HVAC controls with a screen. Rear seats, like the front, are heated and cooled.

On the rear doors and across the rear window are privacy panels that can be raised to guarantee the privacy of the A-list celebrities in the rear.

In the front, my wife liked the vanity mirror. At first she said she thought it was too small in area, but then when she slid it she discovered that it magnified, so she was able to tweeze her eyebrows one last time before we went out.

In the center console are two chrome-ringed circles that depress to form cupholders. When you don't have cups in them, they rise to form a neat flat surface.

The trunk is huge. Our golf bags fit in the back with room to spare. There was easily enough room for four golf bags, and room up front for the entire foursome to ride in comfort.

When I first asked my wife how much she thought the VW Phaeton was, she looked at the badge on the steering wheel and said $48,000. She was off by a bit. She and I both feel that the VW badge, though honorable, isn't the right one for this car. I hope we're wrong, because this is one car that deserves a long life.

2004 The Auto Page Syndicate