– Decent power and economy
– Cabin space and features
– Quiet and comfortable
– Very pricey with options
– Not very sporting
– Understated styling
It is hard to believe that the Volkswagen Phaeton has been around for the past decade. This expensive VW was expected to die a slow death, given its unpopularity in most markets, but it managed to garner a fan following in burgeoning markets such as China, and therefore the big gentleman gets a second chance at life with a facelift.
We drove the “old” one back in 2006, but not much has changed really. The Phaeton continues to have an imposing presence, mostly due to its size rather than its styling. The styling itself remains clean and understated, but it now receives a frontal clip with lots of tasteful chrome, while the back gets some modern LED lamps. Some may still confuse it for a Passat or a Jetta in their rear-view mirror, but then its length makes it obvious that this is no ordinary VW. With 18-inch alloy wheels, LED-encrusted headlights, smooth bulging fenders and dual exhaust tips integrated into the rear bumper, it has all the usual luxury car cues without bragging about it loudly.
Our Phaeton was a V8-powered example, available only in long-wheelbase form locally, and in the fancy four-seater configuration. The four-passenger layout is an extra-cost option over the traditional five-passenger setup, replacing the rear bench with two separate chairs. The largely-unchanged cabin is still a knockout even after all these years, with creamy leather on most surfaces, shiny wood and chrome trim, and first-class aircraft-style seats – all four of them. The front seats were fancy enough, with electric adjustments for everything, including the headrests, thigh-support extensions and built-in ventilation fans. But the rear seats were similarly adjustable, with a slight reclining feature and a soft massage system too, effectively making them the best seats in the plane.
The car is very wide, and this is reflected in the interior dimensions. There is an insane amount of elbow room, as is legroom and headroom, but this causes some minor ergonomics issues. The door-mounted armrest ends up being a little too far for comfort, while the power-window controls on the door armrest are mounted way to low and forward. The boot is absolutely humongous, so the lack of folding rear seats won’t be an issue for most owners. But inside, the covered storage cubbies are a bit limited thanks to other gadgets taking up space.
The only change we noticed in the interior was the upgraded multimedia touchscreen. The Phaeton now uses the computer found in every VW, so it was easy to get familiar with. It integrates the CD/MP3 stereo controls, navigation and some Bluetooth phone controls in one screen. Other niceties include an ear-splitting stereo system with a CD changer in the glove box, an actual wireless phone handset inside one of the front armrests that connects via Bluetooth, circles in the centre console that can be pushed down to become cup-holders, a smart keyless entry and start system, eight airbags ready to cocoon the cabin in a crash, storage pockets that retract into the door, two rear DVD screens on the headrests with remote control, individual digital a/c controls for both the front and the rear, a power boot lid, turning HID headlights, manual pull-up sunshades for the rear-side windows, and motorised covers that automatically roll down to hide the vents when the a/c or the car is turned off. The usual luxury stuff, including cruise control, power windows, electric mirrors and buttons on the steering wheel, were all there. The auto a/c system worked fine, although the February weather wasn’t particularly a challenge. Interestingly, there is an optional feature where the fan can run even when the engine is off, with power provided by solar panels in the sunroof. That, and the adaptive cruise feature were the only options missing from our pricey test car, aside from the W12 engine.
Our car was powered by a 4.2-litre V8 instead. This engine, good for 335 hp at 6500 rpm and 430 Nm of torque at 3500 rpm, is aging but it still moves the Phaeton with fair authority. Stand on the accelerator and the smooth engine efficiently dumps all that power onto the wide tyres with no wheelspin whatsoever, no doubt due to all-wheel-drive, but the 0-100 kph sprint took 7.5 seconds, with credit due to the 2201-kilo curb weight for not letting it be quicker. The V8 is mated to a smooth 6-speed automatic, with paddle shifters for some manual recreation, though the response to inputs is slightly delayed. Driving around town, power and torque always felt plentiful however, and we registered better fuel consumption numbers than the old model, at 13.8 litres/100 km.
Parking is not much of an issue thanks to the rear camera and sensors. The steering, whose firmness is welcome at high speeds, remains slightly stiff even at parking speeds. Hitting the highway, we found the car to be in its element as a quiet luxury cruiser. High-speed stability is a given, and the tomb-like silence was only broken with slight wind hush at 130 kph. The Phaeton rides on adjustable air suspension, and feels slightly firm over some imperfections, but is largely very smooth. It initially feels slightly lumpy over larger dips, but that is smoothened out as the computerised suspension compensates. Our car had 18-inch wheels, which is probably the right choice to keep the ride smooth, though 19-inchers are optional. The ride height can even be raised or lowered by an inch anytime, which is useful considering this region’s unpredictable road quality.
It is a little-trumpeted fact that the Phaeton shares a platform with the insanely-expensive Bentley Continental GT. After a few hard rounds whipping the car around curves though, it became obvious that the Phaeton prefers straight lines. The air suspension has settings for comfort and sport, as well as everything in between, though we couldn’t exactly feel that much of a difference. The car leans noticeably in hard corners, and feeling a bit floaty when straightening out, even while the huge chunks of 255/45 rubber grip the tarmac with the tenacity of a tiger on a deer. The grip is almost too stubborn, because after we turned the stability control off to further explore its limits, the car just squealed and went wider, understeering brutally. The all-wheel-drive system doesn’t seem to aid sporty driving, and is probably meant more for all-weather traction more than anything else. Phaeton owners can also be proud of the massive ABS-assisted disc brakes which linearly bring the speed down as capably as any sports car. But this car is designed for sedate cruising, as even the throttle pedal is damped for smoother take-off from idle.
As we concluded in our review of the previous version, the Volkswagen Phaeton is a wonderful car to drive to the office and back without attracting any unwanted attention. It represents better value than similar German rivals, but in the end, it is still very expensive and sacrifices an involving drive to all-out coddling. There are, of course, hardly any people who prefer sporty driving to cosy comfort in this class of cars, so the Phaeton fits the bill perfectly.
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