REVIEW DATE: 10 Jan 2008
Volkswagen hasn't given up with its luxury Phaeton saloon. Andy Enright checks out the latest changes
We're now well used to the idea of paying over £40,000 for a Volkswagen. The impressive Touareg luxury 4x4 has broken that barrier well and truly, as has the Phaeton luxury saloon we're looking at here.
Of the two cars, it's the Phaeton that has struggled to make an impression on the British market, but that's more to do with the fact that luxury saloon buyers are more badge-conscious than their 4x4 counterparts than any real failing in the product.
Still, Volkswagen haven't given up and we're looking here at the revised version that features more changes than you might think from a casual glance. From the exterior, only the bi-xenon front lights, LED running lamps, a subtly reprofiled bonnet and new designs for the alloy wheels really give the game away.
Perhaps a bigger clue comes with the changes made to the engine line-up. Disappointingly, it's no longer possible to get the awesome 5.0-litre V10 TDI engine in the Phaeton as this would have required massive investment to pass the latest Euro IV emissions standards: as sales volumes were so small, this wasn't deemed feasible. Therefore, the only oil burner in the Phaeton line up is a 3.0-litre TDI unit that develops 236bhp, up 13bhp on the old V6 TDI option. This engine already exceeds the tough Euro V requirements that become law in 2009.
Otherwise, there are three butter-smooth petrol units to choose from; a 238bhp 3.2-litre V6, the beautiful 4.2-litre V8 that's good for 332bhp and the mighty 6.0-litre W12 behemoth that cranks out no less than 446bhp. All of these powerplants are also offered in both short and long wheelbase versions. With the extra 120mm discreetly massaged into the car's wheelbase, you get the benefit of that Club Class seat pitch without looking like a member of a rap star's entourage. The longer chassis isn't the only benefit of opting for the long wheelbase version of Volkswagen's finest. A rear console for operation of the 4Zone electronic climate control is included and there are also rear side window sunblinds, an electrically-operated sunroof and for added discretion, a rear screen sunblind. The car can be specified as a standard five-seater or, should you so wish, in a four seat configuration.
"Set aside the badge snobbery and the Phaeton makes a very effective case for itself"
Whichever wheelbase you choose, you'll find a number of subtle enhancements to this improved Phaeton. The 'Front and Side Scan' system is fitted for the first time. 'Front Scan' can bring the Phaeton to a complete stop should the system detect a hazard ahead, while 'Side Scan' monitors the area beside the vehicle for any obstacles, the idea being to make lane changing on motorways safer and easier. Should an obstacle be detected in your blind spots, a warning is transmitted to the driver.
The information system has also been tidied up, with simplified controls following the lead of both Audi and BMW. A Bluetooth-enabled phone with voice control and the ability to store up to 1,000 contacts is also offered.
Set aside the badge snobbery and the Phaeton starts to make a case for itself. The 6.0-litre W12 model that represents the extreme of the model range is an astonishing thing insofar as it remains totally focused on the task of being a luxury car. This may at first sound a little odd, but consider how the sporting pretensions of Audi and BMW have affected their brief as luxury expresses in the often-knobbly low-speed ride of the A8 and the 7 Series. The Phaeton makes no bones about the fact that it's a plutocratic wafter, the chassis raising an unamused eyebrow should you attempt to hurry it through a corner. Although the all-wheel drive W12 can hit 60mph in 6.1 seconds and would run on to over 180mph were it not electronically restricted to 155mph, its key assets are its huge torque, its relaxed air and its silky ride quality.
The interior will be familiar to most Passat drivers, the layout of many of the controls being similar, but the materials quality is a league removed, the comfort features mind-boggling and the sheer space a distinct revelation. The five-speed automatic transmission's take up is so smooth that it comes almost as a surprise to see the view outside changing, your inner ear not registering the fact that the car has started rolling. The adjustable damper settings vary between 'blancmange in the midday sun' and merely soft, but high speed body control is always kept well in check. The air conditioning is exemplary, most of the airflow being directed through a set of mesh grilles on the top of the dashboard, providing effective temperature control without annoying draughts. There are vents on the fascia itself, and should you require a blast of air, wooden covers slide back automatically to reveal the vents beneath. Satellite navigation and ultrasonic parking sensors are just two of the features on the epic standards equipment list.
Rear seat accommodation is superb (even if you don't opt for one of the long wheelbase models), with passengers getting their own air-conditioning controls, but legroom isn't quite as generous as in the long wheelbase versions of the 7 Series and S-Class. The attention to detail is impressive throughout the Phaeton. Revolutionary construction techniques at Volkswagen's astonishing Dresden factory have resulted in panel gaps that are incredibly tight, paint that's as smooth as polished onyx and some interior features that have to be seen to be believed.
Taken in isolation, the Phaeton remains a towering achievement. The problem for Volkswagen is that we don't buy cars in isolation. We compare and contrast. We agonise over what the car says about us. And that, for all the Phaeton's technical achievements, will remain its Achilles heel. It does so much but says so little. Only a vanishingly tiny proportion of target customers see that as a plus. For those that do, this is an astonishingly effective piece of design.
|For PHAETON RANGE|
|OVERALL||6.9 OUT OF 10|
|Space / Versatility||7|