Volkswagen Phaeton V8

Review Notes: Volkswagen Phaeton V8
Personality Huge luxury car with elegant exterior seems to be hiding a sophisticated sports car under the skin
Unusual features Standard all-wheel drive, computer controlled vent system, window shades
Above Average: Well-controlled power, intelligent transmission, and excellent handling that doesn't interfere with ride
Needs Work In: Gas mileage, controls
EPA gas mileage 15 city, 22 highway (premium required)
Price Base, $66,515; as tested, $73,365

The Phaeton is the latest in Volkswagen's successful transformation from an economy car company to a premium small car company to "the front drive BMW." Based on the Audi A8, but with many differences - including a unique interior and suspension tuning - the Volkswagen translates the easy hi-test performance of its better small cars to a generously sized sedan.

While quietly speaking elegance and luxury, the Phaeton keeps Volkswagen styling cues, translating the standard grille so it evokes luxury. The rear is more elegant than even similarly priced vehicles, with the single word "Phaeton" in chrome letters, centered underneath a lone Volkswagen logo. No need to discuss the engine size, trim level, or transmission; it's a Phaeton, and that's all you need to know. It's the kind of luxury that doesn't have to be ostentatious, and instead of showing off its size (or exaggerating it á la Chrysler 300C), it deceives the viewer into thinking it's not much larger than a Passat.

Inside, Volkswagen combines luxury with technology, with real wood trim that quietly folds up to reveal air vents, chrome-trimmed gauges, and a massive central LCD with the navigation system. The leather seats include air conditioning as well as heat and a massage unit, and an 18 way positioning system which is easily seen on the side of the seats. Children in the back will appreciate the sunshades that pull out to cover every bit of the rear side windows without completely blocking the view, and most drivers will probably like the electrically operated rear-window shade, which can reduce exposure to the sun and also make approaching headlights less blinding. Our test vehicle had a $2,900 "comfort and cold weather" package, which gave the rear seats the same features as the front seats.

The real value of the Phaeton is under the hood and seats, not in the technology-and-feature festooned interior, despite such luxuries as individual fan controls for each vent, individual thermostat controls for each of four seats with separate rear controls, and a large-screen navigation system. Volkswagen is often called the front wheel drive BMW, but the Phaeton's 335 horsepower V8 engine would overpower the front wheels far too easily; so Volkswagen went with standard all wheel drive, coupled with an active suspension. The result is a car that has effortless power from any speed, and a suspension capable of handling that power and providing superb cornering despite a well-cushioned ride. Unlike some other cars, such as the Lexus LS, the Phaeton provides a great deal of road feel, so the ride on rough roads can be a little busy, but the passengers are generally protected from shocks and jolts.

While an optional W12 engine is available, the V8 provides more than enough punch for just about anyone, albeit with the civility one would expect from a car with this sticker price. Those with one third the budget can get their thrills with SRT-4s and Jetta VR6s; but for $66,000, most want more sophistication. The Phaeton zips forward with dramatic speed, no matter how fast you're going when you punch it, but without jerking or sagging and surging. The automatic transmission is part of that: though it has six gears, it never seems to be indecisive. There's an easy to use manual override feature, usable by pushing the shifter to the right from Drive, but few will probably ever use it. The automatic simply knows what gear to be in. Shifts are gentle but quick, allowing for less than horrific gas mileage despite the power and size of the Phaeton. (It seems odd that the 15 city, 22 highway qualifies for the gas-guzzler tax, when a full-sized pickup or SUV would be content with these figures. They are also good for cars of this class.)

The W12 has another 100 horsepower, but tends to be a bit slower to get moving at first - perhaps because it's coupled to a five-speed automatic rather than a six-speed - and has punishing gas mileage. The extra power is most noticeable at speeds most drivers will not attain, making the W12 more of a status symbol for all but the most enthuasiastic drivers. Getting to highway speed with the V8 takes very little time (under 7 seconds), and acceleration once on the highway is excellent, but it's a gentle, well-distributed power, which makes the brutal power somewhat deceptively tame.

The power of the V8 is not exceptional by today's standards - the humble Dodge Hemi produces about the same power - until you consider the size of the engine, a mere 4.2 liters, which means lighter weight for better vehicle balance. It also pulls well from most engine speeds - midrange to high rpms - while some competitors require high revs. It helps that the automatic is so responsive - and has so many gears, for quiet and efficient driving at high speeds but without large drops between gears.

The six-speed automatic has a sport mode as well, but its advantages in keeping the engine at its power peak are fairly minimal given the quality of the transmission in Drive, and the increased engine braking has a nasty effect on gas mileage. The sport mode can be useful at times but isn't recommended for everyday driving.

Raising the hood is easy, thanks to a tab that pops out of the grille for easy finding and lifting. Underneath is a clearly marked engine bay; the twin air filters both have easily read gauges to tell how much life is left. The air path seems unusually well designed, no doubt a factor in squeezing so much power out of a relatively small engine.

The suspension includes auto levelling, electronic damping control, engine braking control, electronic brake force distribution, electronically assisted power steering, and an advanced anti-slide, anti-skid control system. The driver can control the height of the car to a degree - there are two height settings, normal and tall, which can help with steep driveways - and can choose between a softer, normal, or firmer shock absorber action. The basic outcome is that the Phaeton is remarkably composed and capable of whipping through turns with sports-car nimbleness, even though it's a fairly massive vehicle with a huge V8 that should be able to break the tires' grip when suddenly applied around tight turns. The Phaeton can, plain and simply, deal with anything most drivers, even moderately foolish ones, can throw at it, without breaking its composure or feeling like anything untoward is going on.

Thanks to good body, suspension, and steering design, coupled with intelligent aerodynamics, the Phaeton feels every bit as stable and assured at high speeds as it does at city speeds. Opening up the V8 results in no loss of control, even at very high speed.

For those times when drivers behave with excessive foolishness, or when others don't give you a chance, there are numerous safety features, including front and rear side airbags, side curtain airbags, head restraints for all seats, active head restraints for the front passengers, and intelligent crash response system. To prevent accidents, aside from the suspension controls and all wheel drive, Volkswagen provides xenon headlamps with washers, daytime running lights, and, as an option, electronic parking assistance - essentially, a radar system at each of the car's four corners as well as at the front and rear, a step ahead of most systems which are only good for the front and rear. A separate readout apperas at each of the car's corners. This can really help with parking the large car - though the surprisingly tight turning radius is also quite helpful. (The parking assist system, which can also be useful for preventing accidents with little people, is bundled with the power open/close trunk lid for $1,150, and, given its potential for saving damage and injury, is probably a better buy than, say, the 270 watt sound system upgrade at $1,000.) Also in the visibility line are the windshield washers, which include defrosters for the washer nozzles to prevent freeze-up, a rain sensor for automatic wipers, and pinch protection for the power windows (all of which have an express feature for quick opening and closing). The styling does create some blind spots in the rear corners, and the horn, though satisfyingly loud (and barely heard through the effective sound insulation), is rather hard to use.

At night, the xenon headlights are unusually well focused, which not only avoids blinding other drivers but also provides a clear area where you have excellent vision; it's a more European pattern than American, and not unlike Toyota and Lexus patterns. The "brights" are conventional halogen bulbs that go on alongside the xenon headlights for excellent short and long visibility, which, again, avoids blinding other drivers. The electronic headlight switch is a bit confusing in its function, and whenever the headlights aren't on, a "DRL" light shows up on the instrument panel to let us know that the daytime running lights are on (not that you can shut them off). Presumably this is so at night you'll know when the headlights aren't on, though one would think that the absence of instrument panel backlighting would be a big clue.

All the technology does have its price, and in this case, it's user-friendliness. It's hard to put a half a million features into the space of a car and have everything sensible and usable, and the market is full of vehicles that didn't quite succeed. While Volkswagen does have a number of sensible thoughts, including tilted seat sides so that you can actually see the large array of seat controls - some of which are not at all obvious in function, since few are labelled with anything other than arrows, and a separate stereo volume/control knob - this car takes quite a bit of getting used to, and even once you are used to it, it has some features that are simply hard to use. The seats are a relatively minor issue - sooner or later you will figure out where the seat belt adjuster is, how to shut off the lumbar support, and how to air-conditioning the seat surface (it's the negative numbers on the heat knob) - especially if you use the manual. Once adjusted, the car automatically saves your settings, with three keys tied to driver preferences (and a guest setting as well). The electric steering wheel controls (up and down, in and out) are easy to find and use and are quite a convenience; pedal position controls might be handy, too.

Likewise, the daunting array of buttons in the sunroof/dome light area is lightly marked, but doesn't take too long to master. The moonroof cover is electrically operated, but has express open and close, which helps (it's still easier to toss these things open manually). The slats in the moonroof are sometimes annoying as they let sun glare in, but most of the time they fulfill their purpose of allowing hot air out without letting sunlight in. Volkswagen's usual dial-type sunroof control is the best we've seen.

The area where the Phaeton suffers from featuritis is in the center control panel, which encompasses the climate control, navigation system, main stereo controls, and general preference-setting. This is a problem area for many cars with navigation systems. The Phaeton has a massive video screen, which would be very useful for maps, if the maps showed street names or highway numbers, which it doesn't, rendering it something less than completely useful. Some of the most commonly used features, such as air recirculation and temperature, do have their own physical buttons above the screen, but others require going through a series of menus.

We were rather surprised by the lack of customization options; we've grown used to being able to control things like headlight behavior, door locking, and the like. The big video screen and extensive computer controls would bring one to think that this could be done on the Phaeton, as well. You can change the ride height, to overcome steep ramps and such; you can change the ride quality, making it softer or firmer to match your tastes and driving styles, emulating on one end a Lexus and on the other a BMW; but you can't tell the car to unlock all the doors at once, or to stop automatically locking the doors (to be fair, you can control the delayed perimeter lighting shutoff and the security options).

We had the most problems with the climate control. Some parts of it are pure genius: the individual vent speed controls, for example, and the individual computer-operated thermostatic control for each of four passengers. The system is designed to shut down the fresh air intake when it detects a sudden rise in pollution, e.g. from a big diesel truck or old Chevy with blown seals just ahead. On our particular model, though, the air conditioning was surprisingly weak, and the blower refused to obey our commands and kept blowing very fast, then very slow, then very fast. What's more, even if our test car simply wasn't working properly (it had 13,000 miles and that's a lot for a press fleet car), reaching the fan control required pushing the button on the nav system that made us agree not to be distracted by the nav system - an ironic design - then agree that we want to be User #1 (we had that key), and finally finding and pushing the Climate button (in a row of eight buttons), then turning the big multifunction knob while watching the display; the fan, as on just about all luxury cars, reacted slowly. Indeed, we often thought our actions hadn't registered because of the delay between turning a knob and seeing or hearing the results. One clever aspect of the big multifunction knob, though, was operating with a little friction normally, and turning the friction way up when it hit the end of its intended travel, emulating a "real" knob.

One of the nicer features is an indirect vent system, which uses the front defroster and front and rear side window defrosters to heat or cool the car without creating a draft. The system can automatically switch to direct venting when extra cooling is needed, which, unfortunately, can be fairly often.

The stereo does have its own volume and audio knob, as well as steering wheel volume controls, and a button each for the various modes (FM, CD, etc.) Changing CDs in flight is a bit tough since the changer is in the glove compartment, and there's no slot in the center stack. We found that the electronic on/off/volume knob sometimes ignored our command to shut down, and that the audio controls were split, with bass, midrange, treble, balance, and fade controlled via one easy to use knob, and digital signal processing and compression set up from the navigation system (and each time you start the car, to use any feature that's shared with the nav system, you have to agree not to be distracted). Compression essentially lowers the volume of the loudest parts of music, and is especially useful for listening to classical music, where being able to listen to quieter passages can mean deafening crescendos; despite the Phaeton's excellent sound insulation, it can still be handy in a car due to the background noise. The digital signal processor is an oft-used feature which can optimize sound for the driver - a substantial improvement - or apply a number of different effects (e.g. making it sound like a concert hall, or optimizing for voice radio) - and making it easier to reach would be useful.

Echoing the general theme is the instrument panel, with six gauges - large speedometer and tachometer, small fuel, temperature, voltage, and oil pressure gauges. All have fine gradations and small legends which make it somewhat difficult to get an idea of what's going on at a glance; but it's good that they don't talk down to us, giving actual numbers (e.g. real temperatures instead of "L" and "H"). The 200 mph speedometer may be pushing it, though we have no doubt the Phaeton goes quickly, but it's large size means it's still usable at the speeds normal people normally drive. A large, nicely designed clock sits in the center of the dashboard.

Between the speedometer and tachometer is a fairly large LCD display which displays alerts, error messages, and a variety of trip-computer information, controlled by a wheel on the steering wheel; it's easy to use and a nice convenience. The main screen can also show trip computer information.

In the category of nice gadgets is the outside mirrors, which can be told to fold in at the turn of a chrome knob - the same one that's used to adjust the mirrors. The front cupholders are cleverly disguised - you push down to make them appear, and press a button to make them disappear - but they're not as adjustable to different cup sizes as the rear ones, or typical minivan cupholders. Map pockets on the doors fold out a little for easier access, and the center bin is nicely sized. The glove compartment can also hold a reasonable amount of stuff. Lighting is well done, often subtle and always handy; at night, labels are backlit in bright red, which preserves night vision, but some may prefer a more restful amber or green (gauges are backlit with white).

Also in the clever department is a maintenance panel buried in the nav system controls, which lets you move the windshield wipers into the "change" position for easier access.

The seats have numerous controls, including extension of the lower cushion for better leg support, side bolster, and lumbar. The optional rear bucket seats bring more conveniently located climate controls, more wood trim, and recline adjustments for rear seat passengers. Even without that option, rear passengers have a handsome fold-down center console with storage and usable dual cupholders, complete with a first aid kit. Speaking of emergency supplies, one little-known Phaeton feature is a second battery - if you somehow find yourself stranded with a dead battery, you can switch to the second one (it's for emergency use only).

We did not have some of the more clever options, including the rather desirable solar-powered ventilators which, on a hot day, can do wonders for the interior temperature, and make less work for the air conditioner; and the speedy electric front window defroster. The distance-based cruise control was also absent: it lets you choose a number of seconds you want to be from the car in front of you, a safer way to do it than plain distance, since it automatically adjusts to changes in speed (though it allows a fairly unsafe one-second delay, and may require you to manually apply the brakes if a sudden stop is needed). For those in colder climates, there is a post-stop heat pump which keeps interior heat going until the battery runs down or 30 minutes pass by. Finally, for the sport-oriented, the manual transmission override can be moved from the gearshift right to the steering wheel, with Tiptronic wheel paddles. Again, our test car did not have these options - but they (and the W12 option) help to explain how the Phaeton can reach six figures.

Our vehicle had the advanced entry system, which automatically unlocks the driver's door when you touch it (if you have the key fob), and puts external locking buttons onto each door. Be warned, though, that using these buttons doesn't activate the advanced alarm system (that is, the intrusion and towing alerts). All Phaetons come with a semi-remote window raising/lowering feature: put the key into the driver's lock and hold it on lock or unlock, and the windows will all raise or lower themselves, followed by the sunroof. It takes some patience, and a remote version would be nice, but it is a handy feature to avoid getting back in and putting the key in to raise a window or two, or to cool off the interior a bit before getting in.

The trunk is moderately sized, not small but not as large as we'd expect from a full-sized car that has incredible amounts of leg room for both front and rear passengers. The fuses and such are located in one easily removed panel, and both the panels and spare tire access have nicely finished chrome handles; but the fuse list is only partially filled in, and in German, at that. Our car had the power open/close trunk, which sometimes ignored the key fob control - but, again, fleet cars are often roughly handled. The power open/close control and hinges are mounted in a way which minimizes their intrusion into the trunk space, and speakers are well protected.

Volkswagen, like Lexus, has chosen to use General Motors' excellent OnStar concierge/safety system. It's operated from a simple overhead console, with a green light indicating its location.

The competition is surprisingly crowded in this rarified area, with, among others, the Lexus LS430, BMW 745, Infiniti Q45, Cadillac DTS, Audi A8, and Mercedes S-Class. If you prefer a more direct connection to your car and a firmer ride, the Chrysler 300C with all wheel drive offers an attractive alternative, though it means going to a lower price class (perhaps a 300C, a Golf TDI for fuel-sipping, and a Golf VR6 for quick city jetting).

Volkswagen-Audi Group may not object too much if you opt for the Audi; the Volkswagen seems to be more tuned for performance (á la Audi S8), and has a number of other differences, including to our mind better styling, but some buyers may prefer the dealer experience at Audi.

We have griped about some of the controls, but the Volkswagen is free of BMW's iDrive, and we'd expect higher quality than with troubled Mercedes' offerings. The Lexus is more oriented to driver comfort, with a smoother ride but less road feel and less emphasis on driving dynamics and curved-road performance. The all wheel drive is certainly an attraction, offering both safety and composure on full-throttle turns. The Volkswagen will almost certainly be a unique purchase in your neighborhood, even if other luxury cars abound: the Phaeton is a relatively limited production model, with fewer than 900 expected to be sold in 2004.

Overall, the Phaeton is a good example of what can happen if time, attention, and technology are applied to make the functional parts of a car be all they can be, but also a cautionary tale of the need for judgement and end-user testing of controls in an era of exploding features.