Volkswagen Phaeton
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Story and photos by Laurance Yap

To heap kudos on the Phaeton’s air conditioning may seem like damning it with faint praise, but that’s not at all what I’m trying to do. Four-Zone Climatronic, as the system is called, is a true luxury-car breakthrough, and one of the last real innovations possible in the upper-echelon car market, where even entry-level models pack more features and more luxury goodies than even the Rolls-Royces of ten years ago. The Phaeton, a late entry in what is already a crowded market, had to do something really special on top of the requisite leather, wood, satellite navigation, eight airbags, double-glazed side glass, power moonroof, heated and cooled massaging seats, and long-wheelbase comfort. Climatronic is it, giving the Phaeton one real gee-whiz factor to wow your peers with. They’ll wish they had air vents that disappeared, too (oh, and, cupholders with lids that power up when you take your cups out and touch a button).

2004 VW Phaeton
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Gee-whiz factor is important when you’re asking, say, $100,000 for a car, and especially when you’re asking $100,000 for a Volkswagen (pricing hasn’t been determined yet, though the company suggests the top-of-the-line W12 will be priced close to a $95,000 Mercedes S430). Though the marque has definitely been successful in crafting a premium image for itself in North America – who would have thunk that you could drive a Jetta off a dealer lot for something like $40,000 for a fully-loaded GLX? – there’s certainly a faction that believes the Phaeton is a VW too far, especially when the next-most expensive model in the lineup, the Touareg, is already pushing established VW brand boundaries by breaching the $50,000 mark.

Though there’s no question the Phaeton has the space, power, features, and luxury trimmings to compete with the likes of BMW’s 7-series and Mercedes’ S-class, it wears a really big, and still relatively pedestrian badge in a class that, more than any else, is intensely brand-obsessed. In the past, Audi had enough trouble moving A8s out the door, such was the difficulty of breaking into this segment; how much tougher will VW’s job be, especially when selling Phaetons in dealers where it sits alongside $20,000 Golfs?

Volkswagen Phaeton

Volkswagen Phaeton

Volkswagen Phaeton

Volkswagen Phaeton
Click image to enlarge

Outside such considerations, and judged all on its own, the Phaeton is a pretty impressive vehicle. Despite conservative styling that looks mostly like a pumped-up Passat, it has immense physical presence, hunkered low over its 18-inch wheels and as wide as an entire European traffic lane (thank heavens, then, for the power-folding mirrors). Finished in a dark metallic, you can imagine the Phaeton quite easily shuttling around heads of state, acting as a getaway car for a wealthy and crafty bunch of bank robbers, or acting as a Mafia hearse, hauling bodies to the river in its huge trunk. Huge VW logos aside, though, it’s the details which are most interesting, from the vertical kink in the side window glass, the subtle badging, the beautiful door handles, and the four massive chrome exhaust pipes that are inset into the rear bumper, not hanging below cutouts in it. Mounting the exhausts like that is a show-off move, intended to demonstrate the level of quality VW is capable of in its new glass-walled factory in Dresden, a quality that goes beyond the expected tight panel gaps, vault-like door-slam sound and perfect paint finish.

What’s surprising about the Phaeton is that the interior, a place where the company normally excels to the point of rendering every other manufacturers’ efforts halfhearted, has some surprisingly cheap-feeling pieces in it, namely the huge shiny plastic buttons surrounding the 7-inch navigation/control screen and the strips on the doors holding the mirror and lock controls; the equivalent bits in Golf or a Jetta are a lot better. Other than that, though, the cabin is the expected masterpiece of conservative design coupled with superb build: clear, easy-to-read gauges; ergonomics that are pretty good considering the button count and the number of functions available (aside from audio and climate, you get various customization settings, six power sunshades, adjusters for the suspension system and those clever motorized vent panels). Space is stupendous front and rear, especially in the long-wheelbase model which is the only one we’ll get in North America, though the wide centre console – which extends to between the rear seats on V12 models – makes the cabin seem narrower than it actually is.

Volkswagen says that the big Phaeton will sell to typical Volkswagen customers, just older and wealthier ones. That means that they still, in theory, subscribe to the typical Volkswagen values: honesty of design, classless classiness, and above all, driving enjoyment. What differs about the Phaeton is how it interprets these VW tenets differently from the company’s less expensive models. It’s an honest design, clean and simple – but is conservative rather than groundbreaking. It’s certainly classy and classless, thanks to that badge, but it has a gravitas and a presence unlike any other VW. And the pleasure that one derives from driving it isn’t so much about nimbleness, flingability, and immediate response as it is about amazing high-speed stability, vault-like silence in any condition, and a wave of power from both the W12 and the 4.2-litre, 335 horsepower V8, that builds like a gathering storm. If you’re looking for sharp throttle response and a big luxury car that really HANDLES, you might want to visit your nearest Audi or BMW dealer instead.

2004 VW Phaeton
Click image to enlarge

It’s not so much that the Phaeton can’t go around corners – it certainly can thanks to its clever four-link suspension and monster 18-inch tires. It’s just that it doesn’t particularly enjoy doing so. The steering is feather-light, almost to the point of nervousness on tighter roads, and transmits very little road feel. It’s much more at home on the autobahn, where its immense weight – almost 5000 pounds’ worth – and size make it one of the best left-lane bandits out there, especially with the big, growling V12 pulling the car along in its wake. At such elevated speeds, and when slower road users pull out not knowing they’re about to be run down by the world’s biggest, fastest VW, you’re thankful that the brakes are so huge (huge enough to warrant those 18″ wheels, which they completely fill), so fade-free, and so easy to modulate.

The Phaeton may not be a driver’s car in the sense of other VWs, and that’s okay – there’s the A8 in the corporate stable for customers who want that. But its stiff-legged ride, even on the softest of the air suspension’s four settings, is at odds with the conservative, luxury-oriented image the car projects. On any surface – fast autobahns, cobblestone downtown areas, and typically well-maintained German back roads, the Phaeton never quite settled down. The V8 version, with its lighter front end, was a bit better, but not much, than the W12, and both trail contemporaries like the S-class and 7-series in the comfort department.

Nevertheless, the Phaeton remains a deeply impressive car, and a clear statement of intent of where VW intends to take itself in the next few years. While it may be a struggle for VW Canada to sell a lot of Phaetons – even with dealership-level improvements like Phaeton-trained ambassadors, improved warranty service, and free loaner cars – the Phaeton’s mere existence in the lineup not only will help them sell more loaded Golfs, Jettas, Passats, and Touaregs, but will also pave the way for the brand to fill in the gap between those models and this top-of-the-line limousine. The Phaeton may be a tough sell at $100,000, but it’ll make, say, a $60,000 5-series competitor, or the coming 553 lb-ft V10 Diesel Touareg, a much easier one.

Do that long enough and suddenly a $100,000 rich people’s car will make all the sense in the world.

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