hardware: VW Phaeton

In William Gibson's new book, Spook Country, he namechecks quite a few products. The iPod has a small role to play, the Brabus Maybach gets a derisory mention (check our review of the "ordinary" Maybach here) and the VW Phaeton has a strong supporting role ... which prompted us to go have a look at one.

The Phaeton is VW's top of the line model and there's even a long wheelbase model you can plonk a chauffeur into. This is not a show-off car though and for people who love it, this is one of the reasons. Think early Lexus here, which was boring enough looking to get favoured by a legion of Microsoft executives.

A lot of people will mistake the Phaeton for a Passat. Closer examination reveals that it is somewhat bigger and the paint job more than a little deeper. Looking through the window into the interior definitely suggests this isn't a Passat - leather, wood grains and some nice detailing suggest something more. If you opted for the most boring grey on grey interior, people might not even notice anything when they look in. This pleases some people immensely and is less appealing to others.

There is a selection of engines available. At the top is a W12 which will scoot the thing along in a highly impressive manner. Fuel consumption is not as bad as you'd expect but is high. We'd opt for the TDI diesel and as this is written, there's another, more efficient, diesel about to be released. Our test car had a 3 litre V6 gasoline engine and it performed more than adequately.

In addition to the few engine options there is a long list of paint and trim options- if it's your aim, you can achieve a very luxe looking interior and a more distinguished exterior with your choises. There is a lot of money in the options. The base model starts in the mid 60,000 Euros and tops out at over 100,000.

Two nice things to do if you're getting one of these, is to make two trips to the glass-walled factory in Dresden, Germany. In the first trip you can specify all your options with the aid of computerised help, and in the second, some four months later, you can watch part of the build process of your car, tighten a bolt or two yourself, and drive it away.

Driving it is pleasant and comfy. It's not as quiet as a Maybach but it's a quarter the price so comparisons aren't fair. There are, we're told, fifty-six computers on board, which control everything from cruise control to the multi zone airconditioning. There are lots and lots of detail tasks that are performed that gadget geeks will be pleased with - ordinary people as well.

For instance: You can set the cruise control so that you stay a certain distance behind cars in front. If you approach a red light, the car will brake itself and stop without you doing anything with the pedals; another thing is a little black panel on the inside of the door mirrors - if some vehicle is in your blind spot, lights flash in the little panel!

There is an impressive looking central console where you can watch TV if you care to, or DVD's or arrange some sound. There is built in Bluetooth as well and the car will find any Bluetooth phones in the car and connect. Microphones in the car can then be used to do the handsfree thing, even if you're in the backseat. This could all be less than joyful for anyone else in the car. There is an option for screens for movie watching and the like for the rear passengers and you can have a 17 litre fridge in back as well. The list goes on. And on.

The locking system is keyless and once you get into the car with the keys, you just press an ignition button on the console and off you go. Once moving, you can dial up the suspension setting you want, from super smooth to harsher for more press-on driving... in the car we drove. There's also a pre-heat system in the remote key (an option we think) for cold climates that heats the seats, warms the engine, and demists the windows - quite nifty.

Then maybe you might open and adjust the power sunroof and set the entertainment system going. Or just get in and go.

There are three choices of suspension system: 4WD with a Torsen diff (race car people will know about this); standard air susension with electronic control, which alters ride height and damping, and the third, an automatic self-levelling suspension. The Phaeton also has the choice of 5 or 6 speed Tiptronic auto gearboxes. The W12 gets the 5 speed. Both learn your driving habits and adjust your shiftpoints accordingly. We didn't have enough experience with it to find if this would be annoying.

There's an enormous amount of engineering detailing in this car and cars like it. What we've talked about here could be added to quite substantially - just talking about how 2 year service intervals can be achieved would be an article in itself. Service costs, by the way, are not nearly as horrifying as you might think - although some countries will be better than others.

It's all very fuss-free. It's unexciting and meant to be exactly as it is.

One last note is that it might have occurred to you that stablemate Audi have something in this line. In fact, they do and it's basically the same guts with Audi grille and panels and different interiors. Strangely, the Phaeton seems to offer a greater range of interiors. The Audi models are the A8 and the S8, which is the big-engined and sports-modded model.

The USA (or its dealers) didn't "get" this car and sales were discontinued in 2006. Latest reports say the model will be reintroduced.
The W12 with the electronic governor switched off will do 201mph.
The Pope is chauffeur driven in a Phaeton.
Germany is currently the biggest market for Phaetons. (German)
UK site
The Glass Factory (multi-language)

headlights turn with wheels

smooth but no wows

big trunk/boot has option to be opened remotely

snazzier steering wheels can be ordered.

black panel on inside of mirror flashes to show anyone in blind spot

a variety of finishes can be specified

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