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Expert Reviews 2 of 4
By Jason Stein
January 4, 2004
Old-school Volkswagen Beetle owners, hold your wallets. Stereotypical mind sets, hold that thought. If the Volkswagen Phaeton, the automaker's first true luxury vehicle, doesn't get you thinking differently about VW, maybe the climate-control
system in the new four-door, ultra-long ride is enough to alter conventional thinking. There's more than just cool technology in the motorized wood panels that drop down over the vents after the cabin in the Phaeton reaches your desired temperature.
Suddenly, there's a whole new player in the high-end market. Motorized vents? Four-zone climate control that allows each passenger to select his own settings? A $64,000 price tag? Herbie the lovable VW "Lovebug," the econo-Beetle that starred in so
many 1970s films, would never recognize this VW. Which is exactly the point. From the first blink of the message on the Volkswagen Web site - "Fresh perspective anyone?" the Internet message asks - it's clear VW is no longer just delivering
small, dependable midsize sedans. It's suddenly delivering outright, caviar-laced luxury. First introduced in Europe last year, the Phaeton (pronounced: Fay-ton) now finds its way to North America where it will receive a long-wheelbase version that
is stretched almost five inches more than the European model. Size is important with this VW. At nearly the identical length and width as the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 745Li, the Phaeton asks you to stretch preconceived notions. It arrives with more
legroom for front and rear passengers than you've ever known in a VW and more power. Offered with two engines, a 335-horsepower 4.2-liter V-8 or a 6-liter, 420-horsepower 12-cylinder, the Phaeton isn't shy about going after those European heavy hitters.
The V-8, our tester for a week, is mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift capability while the W12 receives a five-speed automatic that also offers manual shifting. Drop the pedal, and it's powerful from the word go, an
engine that will rev and rev and rev. But it's all so silky smooth. The Phaeton is almost - dare we say it? - Limo-like in its ability to push you back in the seat but with the greatest of ease. Equipment levels vary depending on which engine is
chosen, but all Phaetons come standard with the aforementioned four-zone climate-control system, high-density discharge headlamps, heated windshield washer nozzles, an oversized sunroof and a 10-speaker premium sound system. Choose the V-8 Phaeton
and you'll get 17-inch wheels with a 12-way, power memory heated front seats and power rear-window sunshades. The 12-cylinder Phaeton adds 18-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, quad exhaust pipes (versus dual pipes on the V-8), a 12-speaker sound
system and 18-way power-adjustable front seats that are heated and ventilated. For ultimate driving pleasure, the Phaeton comes standard with full-time all-wh
eel drive, an air suspension system that adapts to the road surface automatically, plus a list of features Mercedes would be proud to call its own. It offers plenty of gee-whiz gadgets, including: cupholders with lids that power up when you take your
cups out and touch a button; humidity sensors; an onboard computer that can be operated from the back seat; wood trim ranging from walnut to eucalyptus; Italian leather; a seven-inch color screen that incorporates the navigation system, trip computer and
stereo; and a coming home" function that uses the headlights, taillights and two additional lights in the outside mirrors to illuminate the surrounding area around the car. Eucalyptus? Uh, is this a VW? I thought eucalyptus was the name for the
college drink you gave your buddy out of the back of the old Beetle. VW also gives you the option of four seats or five, with a wood-trimmed console resting between the rear seats on the four-passenger setup. Speaking
the back seat, it's downright enormous. Stretch out and relax, Phaeton says. On safety, all Phaetons arrive with eight air bags, including full-length side curtain air bags to protect the head and torso in the event of a side impact. Also standard is
electronic park assist, to warn the driver if objects are getting to close in the front or rear, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. On the con side, road feel and handling is not great (especially in a 5,000-pound ride), fuel economy is not
glorious - 15 in the city and 22 on the highway - and, admittedly, it's still a bit of a stretch trying to justify all that money for a VW. Volkswagen marketing executives say they realize it may take time for consumers to cozy up to their sedan. They're
convinced there's a market for Phaeton, especially when VW loses sales every year to consumers who want a more upscale product. But (we hope you're sitting down here), this is much more upscale. The base V-8 Phaeton arrives at $64,600 and escalates
from there. The interior pieces aren't as rich in quality as you'd expect for that price, but cover up the logo and you would be hard-pressed to say it was a VW. Uncover the logo, and it's difficult to justify. It's an ultra-luxury flagship sedan from a
company that hasn't been accustomed to such rich blood in the backseat. If VW is trying to move upscale with the brand, this is the car to do it with. I'm just not sure the buying public is ready to move out of the Jetta and into the penthouse.
Especially when you compare it to a BMW 7-Series or Mercedes Benz. It's not that rich. Will it make that 1970s Beetle seem like a bargain? Sure. And, besides, you can always say you're part of the Phaeton family. Membership suddenly has new
privileges. 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton Rating: 2.5 High gear: After years of steering clear of the luxury end of the spectrum, Volkswagen delivers an "upper-class car in a modern dimension," VW says. It's powerful, it's roomy, it comes with
standard all-wheel drive and it's something you can (gasp!) take to the country club. Low gear: Gas mileage is as rich as the price tag (especially in the 12-cylinder). Road feel is a little numb, especially with so much weight on board. And,
ultimately, the end is too difficult to justify the means. Compared to its other German competitors, it still seems more Audi than BMW. Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, front-engine, four-door, five passenger luxury sedan. Key competition: BMW
7-Series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class Base engine: 335 horsepower, 4.2-liter V8 Torque: 317 lb.-ft @ 3,500 r.p.m. Transmission: Six-speed automatic transmission Standard safety equipment: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; ABS; traction
control; electronic park assist and tire-pressure monitoring system. Wheelbase: 118.1 inches Length: 203.7 inches M
PG rating: 15 city/22 highway Manufactured: Dresden, Germany Warranty: Basic warranty is four years/50,000 miles. Base price: $64,600 Price as tested (including options, destination and delivery): $64,600