Thursday, February 12, 2004

The most unusual new vehicle in the 2004 model year arguably isn’t a brutish Hummer or an exotic sports car.

It’s a Volkswagen sedan with a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $65,215 for a V-8 model and $80,515 for one with a 12-cylinder engine.

The first VW with such a lofty price tag, the 2004 Phaeton luxury car is designed to move the venerable German brand, which became popular because of its inexpensive Beetle in the 1960s, upscale in a big way.

With a base price that’s at least $20,000 more than the next highest-priced VW, the Touareg sport utility vehicle, the Phaeton isn’t just the priciest VW. It’s also the largest car, at 203.7 inches long, VW has ever sold in this country.

What a luxuriously refined 203 inches it is. That’s an inch less than 17 feet.

The Phaeton test car seemingly glided over road bumps and cradled passengers in a leather-and-wood-trimmed interior that’s neither stuffy nor overly high-tech.

Good road manners and plentiful power made this sizable VW easy to drive in city traffic and on mountain twisties.

And then there’s the car’s quietness. I scarcely noticed the engine was on when I first turned the ignition.

A lot of equipment is standard. This includes 4Motion all-wheel drive; four power outlets for accessories; minimum 190-watt, premium audio system with 12 speakers and six-CD player; real wood interior trim; navigation system; multiadjustable leather seats; sunroof; eight airbags; and carpeted trunk.

There are special high-tech features, too. The Phaeton’s air suspension system with Electronic Damping Control automatically adapts the suspension to all driving conditions. Its climate-control system, called Climatronic, offers a draft-free, four-zone interior with humidity sensors and separate temperature controls.

The German-built Phaeton puts VW into a new class and is designed to compete with long-standing, large, luxury sedans from Germany such as the 2004 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $74,320 for an S430, and the 2004 BMW 7-Series, which starts at $69,195 for a 745i.

But where buyers of a Mercedes or BMW large luxury sedan might be seeking a badge to show off, Phaeton buyers are expected to not be so status-conscious, according to VW officials.

“They’re a lot like our current Volkswagen owners,” said Frank Maguire, vice president of sales and marketing at VW of America Inc. “They are drivers. They’re not looking for status or a badge. They don’t worry about what their neighbor is driving.”

For some buyers, it might be a way to enjoy a luxury car that won’t offend their customers.

For example, Mr. Maguire said he met a dentist who said he couldn’t drive a BMW or Mercedes because his patients might think he was overcharging them for his services. Other buyers just won’t want “to be saddled with showoff luxury,” he said.

U.S. sales of the Phaeton began late in calendar 2003, but unlike luxury brands from Japanese carmakers such as Lexus, Infiniti and Acura, VW isn’t establishing a new marque and new dealerships for this luxury product.

Phaeton’s well-heeled buyers are handled at the same dealerships and service areas that provide service to owners of the low-priced VW Golf, New Beetle and Jetta, which is sort of an interesting experiment.

The test Phaeton had the uplevel, 6.0-liter, double-overhead cam W-12 eagerly providing 420 horsepower and 406 foot-pounds of torque between 3,250 and 4,250 rpm.

I didn’t notice, at first, how quickly the car responded because the shifts from the five-speed automatic transmission were quite smooth. But there I was, before I knew it, with the speedometer needle smack in the middle of the gauge, going over 80 mph.

Yikes. This controlled, heavy sedan sure didn’t feel like it was racing along.

The Phaeton’s fuel economy is poor, as is typical in this segment, with a city rating of just 12 miles per gallon and highway rating of 19 mpg. Premium fuel is required for maximum performance in the Phaeton.

Note the top speed is electronically limited to 130 mph, but the Phaeton speedometer is crowded with numbers going all the way to 200 mph.

The base engine is a 4.2-liter V-8 capable of 335 horsepower and 317 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm.

The Phaeton’s ride character can be changed as you travel, thanks to the air-suspension system that has settings that can make the ride more sporty or more cushioned.

My passenger and I felt vibrations from manhole covers and road surface imperfections quite readily when the setting was sporty. But the ride was never harsh.

The car’s standard 18-inch, all-season tires imparted some road noise. But wind noise and even engine noise were nearly nonexistent at legal speeds.

Interior controls are well laid out and businesslike. However, the interior materials’ fine stitching and the soft touch of the armrest and dashboard top convey attention to detail.

Even the Phaeton pedals have stylish, stainless-steel covers, and the trunk lid hinges are eye-catching aluminum.

Don’t be fooled into thinking, though, that you can sink into the Phaeton seats. They have the usual VW supportive, firm feel.

The large doors open wide, so watch that they don’t bang into other cars at the shopping center.

The Phaeton is offered in five- or four-seat arrangement. The latter is quite pretty and includes a wood-trimmed rear center console with controls.

VW made sure the Phaeton’s trunk can hold four golf bags.

Note: This model is subject to the federal government’s gas-guzzler tax and cannot be bought without this tax first being paid. The Energy Tax Act of 1978 established such a tax on the sale of new model year vehicles whose fuel economy fails to meet certain statutory levels. The gas-guzzler tax applies only to cars, not trucks, and is collected by the IRS.

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