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Developing a luxury saloon car is a very expensive business but we can safely say that Volkswagen can afford it. The huge quantities of Polos and Golfs VW is currently selling around the world and the technology it can cherry-pick from its Audi and Bentley brands bring a car like the Phaeton well within its capabilities. You can understand a company with Volkswagen's ambition wanting a flagship model but can the latest version finally convince UK luxury saloon customers that they should actually buy one?
The Volkswagen Phaeton is a first rate luxury saloon that gives comfort top billing in its list of priorities. Great engines, advanced technology, solid build it's all there - but the Volkswagen badge is a big handicap in the prestigious company the Phaeton is trying to keep.
That the Phaeton has its origins with the Audi A8 is no secret but while the A8 has moved on into an all-new generation, this Phaeton is a facelift of the original so the gap is wider than before. The Volkswagen still has the four-wheel-drive system, air-suspension and much of the other advanced technology of an A8 and some people might think this gives it a fighting chance of success as a less expensive alternative to the Audi. The problem, as slow sales of have proved, is that those aren't the people who buy luxury saloon cars in the UK. Premium cars without premium badges have always struggled on these shores with buyers in the market for £50,000 saloons rarely flinching at the prospect of shelling out another five grand to have the right badge on the grille. Bucking this trend continues to be the Phaeton's most difficult task.
Two engines are offered to UK buyers, one sensible with half an eye on keeping costs down, the other with the attitude to excess of Henry VIII. The 3.0-litre TDI option is the mainstay of the Phaeton range with a 237bhp power output. It gives the big saloon an 8.6s time for the 0-62mph sprint and should be perfectly adequate, even for shifting a car of this size and weight. The 6.3-litre W12 range-topping engine is something more than adequate. With 444bhp, it will be the choice of a few buyers who want the ultimate Volkswagen to launch themselves around in. All models get the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system that distributes the engine's power according to the grip available at the wheels. Air suspension is also standard with CDC Continuous Damping Control technology reading the driver's style and the road conditions to adjust the ride accordingly.
There are short and long wheelbase versions of the Phaeton but both measure in at over five meters in length. The long wheelbase model adds 120mm to the wheelbase, has longer rear doors for improved access and improved rear legroom, though it's unlikely that anyone this side of Peter Crouch will find the short-wheelbase models lacking in legroom. Design wise, the Phaeton carries its VW badge with pride on its chrome grille and cuts a suitably imperious dash. The lines are classic luxury saloon with some attractive modern detailing such as the chrone fog light housings at the front and the twin chrome exhausts at the rear. The front lights are Bi-Xenon units with LED cornering lights and indicators. At the rear there are more LEDs for the brake lights which illuminate in a distinctive M. A luxury saloon stands or falls on its cabin and Volkswagen has made every effort to ensure the Phaeton does the former. The switchgear and layout is deliberately different from that in an Audi to maintain the differentiation between the two brands but there should be few complaints on grounds of quality. The finishes are more traditional than in many luxury saloons with wood and chrome dominating the vast range of personalisation options. A large touch screen display is housed in the centre console to provide information and options for the various ancillary functions but the key systems have separate controls and should prove easy to use.
If you like gadgets, check this lot out. The Phaeton can come furnished with a phalanx of technology that could make Apple feel inadequate. The navigation system downloads data from Google directly to the car and can instantly flag up points on interest or store information in the 30Gb hard drive. The 4Zone climate control system in the W12 model is powerful enough to maintain a 22 degree interior temperature when it's 50 degrees outside. There's Dynamic Light Assist which dips the headlights when it detects approaching traffic, ACC active cruise control which automatically maintains a set distance to the car in front and Side Assist which warns of traffic in your blind sport. The Phaeton's problem has always been its status as a Volkswagen. The brand equity that sells Golfs and Polos doesn't cut much ice with BMW and Mercedes buyers. The Phaeton's Audi A8 relative is priced considerably higher but still sells far more briskly and even Volkswagen would admit that the car has been unsuccessful in Europe and America with the majority of sales coming from China and Korea. Set aside the badge snobbery and the Phaeton starts to make a case for itself. The 6.0-litre W12 model that represents the extreme of the model range is an astonishing thing insofar as it remains totally focused on the task of being a luxury car. This may at first sound a little odd, but consider how the sporting pretensions of Audi and BMW models have affected their brief as luxury expresses by reducing comfort levels.
Fuel economy from the Phaeton 3.0 TDI is very good at 29mpg but the 19mpg you can expect from the W12 looks less rosy. Insurance is group 16 on the diesel but rises to a predictable group 20 for the W12. The cost of owning a Phaeton from new will largely be comprised of the big depreciation bill. The car is a phenomenal second-hand buy largely because it sheds so much of its value over the first few years of ownership. A W12 model will be worth 28% of its list price once the warranty has expired, a 3.0-litre TDI 35% so buyer beware.
The quality of the Volkswagen Phaeton isn't in doubt. The issue is whether luxury saloon buyers can see past the fact that by driving one they'll be sharing a badge with half the supermarket car park. Rightly or wrongly, we agonise over what the car says about us. And that, for all the Phaeton's technical achievements, will remain its Achilles heel. The car does so much but says so little and the few buyers who prioritise such qualities find the Phaeton a highly capable and luxurious saloon.