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VW goes for the top end with the Phaeton

March 26, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

Old-school Beetle owners, hold your wallets. Stereotypical mindsets, hold that thought.

If the Phaeton, Volkswagen's first true purpose-built luxury cruiser, doesn't get you thinking differently about this German company, well, consider the climate-control system.

Huh? The climate-control system? There's more than just cool (or hot) technology in the motorized wooden panels that drop down over the vents once the cabin in the Phaeton reaches the desired temperature. Suddenly, it means there's a whole new player in the high-end market.

Motorized panels? Four-zone climate control that allows each passenger to select his or her own settings? A $64,600 base price tag? Herbie the "Lovebug," with the number 53 stenciled on the door, the econo-Beetle that starred in so many 1970s films, would never recognize this sibling, which is exactly the point.

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You see, well-heeled Volkswagen buyers who are finally ready to trade their Passats and Jettas, have something else they can park in their driveways. No, the Phaeton is not a "dream" car in the purest sense of the word, but it will leave few, if any, buyers longing for something else.

From the first blink of the message on the Volkswagen website - "Fresh perspective anyone?" - it's very clear that VW is no longer just delivering small, dependable little cars. Actually, Volkswagens have been steadily growing in size and versatility over the past few years. The Touareg sport-utility vehicle is just one example.

First introduced in Europe last year, the Phaeton (pronounced: Fay-ton) finds its way to North America with a five-inch stretch in wheelbase. It seems as though vehicle length and volume is key with this VW. In fact, it's nearly identical in size to the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 745Li.

Offered with one of two engines - a 335-horsepower 4.2-liter V-8, or a 6.0-liter, 420-horsepower 12-cylinder - the Phaeton isn't shy about going after those European heavy hitters. The V-8 is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift capability, while the unique "W" 12-cylinder (essentially two V-6 engines placed side by side that share a common crankshaft) receives a five-speed automatic that also offers manual shifting.

Also included are full-time all-wheel drive and an air suspension that automatically adapts to the road surface.

Equipment levels vary depending upon which engine is chosen, but all Phaetons come standard with four-zone climate-control system, high-density discharge headlamps, heated windshield-washer nozzles, an oversized sunroof and a 10-speaker premium sound system.

Choose the V-8 and you'll get 17-inch wheels and 12-way, power-heated front seats with memory and power rear-window sunshades. Select the W12 and you'll enjoy 18-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, quad exhaust pipes (versus dual pipes on the V-8 model), a 12-speaker sound system and 18-way power-adjustable front seats that are heated and ventilated.

Gee-whiz gadgets include power cupholders that stay covered until you open them with a button, humidity sensors, an onboard computer that can be operated from the back seat, wood trim ranging from walnut to eucalyptus, Italian leather, and a seven-inch color screen that incorporates controls for the navigation system, trip computer and stereo.

VW also gives you the option of four seats or five, with a wood-trimmed console resting between the rear seats on four-passenger models.

All Phaetons arrive with a tire-pressure-monitoring system and eight air bags, including full-length side-curtain air bags to protect the head and torso in the event of a side impact. Also standard is electronic park assist that warns the driver if objects are getting to close in the front or rear.

Volkswagen marketing executives say they realize it might take time for consumers to cozy up to their new luxury sedan. They're convinced there's a market for Phaeton, especially when VW has never offered a vehicle this big with so many features and so much power.

It's a long way from the original Beetle, or any other vehicle in Volkswagen's lineup for that matter, but the Phaeton gives the VW faithful a way to trade up and stay within the brand.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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