- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

Looking at the new Phaeton, you’re tempted to regard the original Volkswagen as a caterpillar instead of a Beetle.

That’s because the venerable German car company, parent of the People’s Car that revolutionized economical auto transport after World War II, has burst from its chrysalis a beautiful butterfly of a luxury car, the 2004 Phaeton, which is intended to delight the sensibilities of folks who can afford cars with price tags of $70,000 and thereabouts.

That’s fluttery territory for a company that sold sturdy rear-engine economy cars back in the 1960s for less than $2,000. It is also the reason it faces a tough job convincing potential customers that the VW emblem can stand for the same thing as, say, the Mercedes three-pointed star.

The challenge is that most folks who buy luxury cars in this price class buy proven brand names, with instantly recognizable cachet, regardless of the merits. So these shoppers, who eschew blue-light specials, look to BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Jaguar, Cadillac, Lincoln, Infiniti, Acura and Lexus.

Never mind the technological sophistication, which the new Volkswagen Phaeton has in abundance. Its technology is fully the equal of anything out there, and superior in some respects. After all, this is the same company that spawned the Audi A8 L.

In truth, except for the A8’s all-aluminum construction, the Phaeton is similar. They’re both husky luxury sedans in the German idiom, competitors to the S-Class Mercedes-Benz and the BMW 7-Series. The Phaeton’s doors, trunk lid and hood are aluminum, and the front fenders are plastic.

So the Phaeton does its own thing, including offering standard all-wheel drive and a 12-cylinder engine as well as a V-8. The former is called a W-12 because it essentially is two V-6 engines combined. Expected to appeal only to a rare few, it starts out in this country as a Premier Edition with a price tag of $85,505.

That’s a hefty nut, but most buyers who consider a Phaeton likely would be just as happy with the V-8, which gives up little in performance or smoothness to the W-12. Likely the W-12 will mainly provide bragging rights to the well-heeled. The 6.0-liter W-12 makes 420 horsepower while the V-8 delivers 335, but the average driver would be hard-pressed to discern much difference.

The V-8 Phaeton starts at $65,215 but, like most European luxury cars, comes with a list of options that can easily boost the delivered price north of $70,000. On the test car, the options included heated and ventilated rear seats with built-in massagers, as well as a parking assist warning and a powered trunk lid.

As might be expected, the standard equipment is extensive. Unique among these is Volkswagen’s new draft-free four-zone climate system. When the thermostatically controlled system reaches the pre-set temperature, dashboard vents close automatically and the air starts circulating from tiny holes that cover the top of the dash. It eliminates cold air gusts on a hot summer day.

Other standard equipment includes antilock brakes with stability and traction control, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, remote central locking with an alarm system, leather upholstery, eucalyptus wood interior trim, a navigation system, garage door opener and vanity mirrors with regular and magnified modes.

Moreover, the VW people encourage buyers to customize their cars, which they can do through the dealer or by visiting the Transparent Factory in Dresden, Germany, where the cars are assembled. Its name refers to the fact that the factory’s walls, inner and outer, are mostly of glass.

If all of the VW identification were removed from the new Phaeton, it’s likely that not many people would guess that it’s a Volkswagen. It’s big — fully 17 feet long (a shorter version is sold in Europe), and offers stretch-out comfort for five, or one less if you opt for the four-passenger version, which features a center console in back.

With either the V-8 or W-12 engine, the Phaeton is anvil-steady at triple-digit speeds on Germany’s autobahns. Top speed is governed at 130 mph. The V-8 features a six-speed automatic transmission with a Tiptronic manual-shift mode, while the W-12 gets a five-speed automatic.

Minor criticisms include somewhat restricted rear vision because of the back-seat headrests, a ride that is stiff rather than cushy, a smallish trunk and a lack of daytime lighting for the instruments. Volkswagen figures it will be able to sell as many as 5,000 Phaetons a year to savvy luxury-car buyers who don’t flaunt their wealth and have enough self-esteem that they don’t need the mantle of a designer nameplate — sort of like the country doctor of yore who drove a Buick instead of a Cadillac.

There’s little doubt that the Phaeton has the wherewithal to fill the bill. Whether it can overcome VW’s perceived plebeian heritage is the question.

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