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Volkswagen Phaeton



RECENT history has not been kind to mainstream manufacturers' attempts at upmarket cars.

Buyers in the expensive end of the market want a prestige badge. So it looks like Volkswagen might be over-reaching itself with its current UK introduction of the W8 Passat. But that's just the start. Within a year, VW will have launched the Phaeton - a challenger to the Mercedes-Benz S-class - as well as an off-roader called Tuareg positioned somewhere 'above' the Mercedes M-class.

VW has a logic for this extraordinary leap out of its core territory, claiming that it is already perceived as a cut above its mass-market rivals. Its cars ostensibly compete with the likes of Toyota, Ford and Vauxhall, but VW's image is getting near that of Mercedes - not only in consumer surveys but in the concrete measure of higher residuals.

Yet at the moment VW isn't selling many of the profitable top-end cars in each of its ranges. Only 1% of Golf sales are the V6, because buyers at that £20,000 level tend to go for a BMW 3-series instead. If they see VW as a serious top-end contender because of the existence of the Phaeton, more of them might go for V6 Golfs. The Phaeton, says VW's new chief Bernd Pischetsrieder, is an 'umbrella car', protecting the cars below it.

The company knows perfectly well it will take years for the Phaeton, a saloon available with engines up to a 12-cylinder and prices from about £40,000–£65,000, to become accepted in a sector almost owned by the BMW 7-series, Mercedes S-class and Jaguar XJ8. So VW's volume ambitions for the Phaeton are small - barely enough to turn a profit per se - at about 15,000 a year in a global luxury saloon sector of 250,000. These modest ambitions are also used as a rebuff to the suggestion that the Phaeton will cannibalise sales of the sister Audi A8. The A8 sells 35,000 a year, so Pischetsrieder contends there's easily room for them both among that quarter-million total. Besides, the next A8 (due in a year) will be lighter and sportier than the steel-bodied Phaeton.

The Phaeton arrives in the UK at the end of 2002, but an early winter test shows it to be a remarkably able and hi-tech machine - as indeed it must be if it's to be VW's technical flag-carrier. Its styling is reserved, looking much like an expanded Passat or Bora, but again that's part of the masterplan to get the desired rub-off.

We drove the 6.0-litre version. It carries its 12 cylinders in W formation, essentially two V6 Golf engines at an angle on a common crankshaft. Its 430bhp output gives majestic performance, though there's no doubt the car feels its 2,300kg.

The engine's utter smoothness is matched by the near-imperceptible slurring of the five-speed transmission's changes. Drive goes to all four wheels, backed by an ESP stability system, giving vast security and confidence in the snowy conditions of the test.

The next technical novelty is an air suspension system mated to variable adaptive dampers. It's self-levelling, and can also be pre-set by the driver to a series of programs between 'sport' and 'comfort'. The former is firmer than even the sporty BMW, while the latter is smoother than a Merc, without ever getting floaty. It's impressive stuff.

Inside, there's absolutely impeccable build quality, a step ahead of the Mercedes, which has slipped in its latest generation. The control layout is conventional except for a central multi-function screen that deals with hi-fi, phone, navigation and climate settings. It's easy to manage. The climate control deserves special mention, as all four passengers can set their own temperature and distribution of air, and new technology delivers draught-free cooling. Once the draught-free vents are activated, the conventional dashboard vents disappear behind motorised veneer panels.

Comfort and refinement has been a primary development aim, and it's definitely first-rate, but only if you sit in the front. Though rear passengers get reclining, heated seats, the huge front chairs rob them of legroom. Chauffeured passengers should wait another year for the stretched version.

The range will probably sell at a 10–20% discount over an equivalent Mercedes. It starts with a front-drive 220bhp V6, runs through a W8 to the W12, and an extraordinary 313bhp V10 turbodiesel that will nearly match the W12's real-life performance with about half the fuel consumption - another reason why the Phaeton is a serious calling-card to the established luxury players.

  • Will the Phaeton be on your choice list? We want to know your views. Email fleetnews@emap.com today.
  • CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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