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Volkswagen Phaeton 3.0 TDI review
A perennial luxury oddball, Volkswagen’s Phaeton saloon owed its creation to VW Group boss Ferdinand Piech, who insisted that the company undertake building a luxury car fit to compete with Europe’s finest executive motors.
Nine years after its launch, it owes its continuing existence to the Chinese market, which takes more than half of the 4000 units that roll annually from the Phaeton’s bespoke glass-walled Dresden factory. The Phaeton sells in tiny numbers in most European markets and has been cancelled altogether in the US. But thanks to its success in China, there’s sufficient demand for Volkswagen to continue developing the car.
In 2008 VW installed its latest-generation 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine, and the Phaeton has now been tweaked again, to receive some significant styling changes and updates to its interior.
The question is whether these are enough for the Phaeton to keep pace with a luxury car sector that looks markedly different from the one the Phaeton entered in 2002.
The exterior of the Phaeton has stayed relatively unaltered during its nine-year life to date, although the current round of changes are the first to significantly alter any metalwork.
They’re still modest changes, but they manage to bring the big VW’s face more into line with the rest of the Volkswagen range, and not unsuccessfully, either. What has always been an inoffensive car to look at now has a dose of elegance and purpose to its new chrome nose.
See old and new Phaetons side by side (an unlikely occurrence outside an ambitious Volkswagen dealership, we’ll admit) and you can easily spot the other detail changes, to the bumpers and lights – alterations that add presence at either end. However, this remains a car that, casually glimpsed on a motorway, could just be a big Passat. Which is just the way some owners like it.
When it was first launched, the cliché ‘technological tour de force’ could have been invented for the Phaeton. It sits on a platform that was not only good enough for this Volkswagen, but also formed the basis for Bentley’s Continental range (see ‘Under the skin’, p53). But when you see Volkswagen prolonging the Phaeton’s life cycle beyond even that of the equivalent Bentley, you know you’re dealing with a car whose monocoque platform is growing a bit of a beard.
Not so the engine, which is the latest 237bhp variant of Volkswagen’s V6 turbodiesel, mated only to a six-speed automatic gearbox. It drives through a Torsen differential to all four wheels, and has air springs all round (with adjustable ride height to make it easier to get in and out).
Even in the short-wheelbase form tested here, the Phaeton is a big car; at 5059mm long it’s comfortably within the boundaries of the class, being 37mm shorter than a Mercedes-Benz S-class. The optional long-wheelbase variant adds 120mm to that, all within the rear cabin area.
A sub-8.0sec 0-60mph time is very acceptable for a car of the Phaeton’s type, even if it is lagging behind the performance on offer elsewhere in the class. With 236bhp and 369lb ft of torque, the 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine is perfectly suited to the relaxed, unhurried progress encouraged by the sheer size and weight of the Phaeton.
It’s mated to a six-speed torque converter automatic transmission, which provides slightly ponderous gearshifts that are nonetheless well blurred and generally arrive at the right time to allow you to make the most of the spread of torque. But while the ’box does the job effectively, it also feels old in terms of the speed of its response and number of ratios compared with others in the class.
Even so, the Phaeton has good overtaking potential and feels well endowed with poke even at higher cruising speeds. A progressive step-off and well judged throttle response also make the Phaeton an easy car to drive in town, even if its size can be limiting in tight city confines.
Refinement is very good, bettering the Jaguar XJ diesel both at idle and when on the move, and economy is also very comparable at 30.1mpg (averaged over our varied test route), which works with the VW’s huge 90-litre tank to give it an impressive real-world range of more than 660 miles. Emissions of 224g/km are way short of the class norm, but the Phaeton’s performance is not far off the more modern and expensive machinery it competes against.
Of course, ride quality is all-important when it comes to any limousine, whether it’s at the budget end of the market or not. And in most respects the Phaeton is a comfortable car. Its self-levelling air suspension lowers at high speeds for better stability, and on motorways the car’s hefty weight is kept restrained and passengers remain well isolated from the road’s surface. But anything that involves more challenging forces than a motorway schlep can highlight the one-dimensional character of the Phaeton.
Yes, this is a car that will do big miles effortlessly, but with cornering forces involved as well it can result in some unsettling suspension thump as the springs try to control the body and absorb the disturbance. And this is the case in whichever of the Phaeton’s four damper settings you choose.
The degree of difference between the settings is quite slight in comparison with many similar systems, but put simply you must choose between softer springs and very noticeable body roll at one end, and marginally better body control with a slightly lumpier ride at the other end.
Which isn’t to say that the Phaeton rides poorly. It easily soaks up many of the bigger bumps and undulations in the majority of situations, but it falls short of the well resolved ride that some rivals offer. The finer points of the Phaeton’s handling characteristics are likely to be irrelevant to any prospective buyers, but essentially, as with the ride quality, it is adequate rather than exceptional.
The main benefits of the four-wheel drive are excellent traction off the line and a neater cornering response at well judged speeds, but push too hard and the Phaeton will understeer. You are always aware of how heavy the car is, a sensation emphasised by the slightly ponderous (if consistent) steering. Like entering a camel for the Grand National, driving the Phaeton vigorously can be entertaining, if only for the sheer absurdity of the situation.
Essentially, it is the saloon’s weight that dictates both its ride and its handling. Balancing the hefty body on the soft springs is key if any sort of tidy line is to be maintained. Even so, the Phaeton never feels like anything other than a big, endearingly soggy limo. Sadly, it has none of the multi-faceted ability that some rivals can offer.
If you’re familiar with other modern luxury car cabins (and if you’re in the market for a Phaeton it’s not unreasonable to think you would be), your first impression of the VW will be a disappointing one.
Metallic-effect grey plastics barely made the grade in luxury cars almost a decade ago when the Phaeton was launched, and they fall well short now. Since then, every one of the Phaeton’s rivals has been refreshed with a new interior that betters the Volkswagen’s perceived quality by a significant margin. And even though we’ve no doubt the Phaeton is stitched, screwed and glued together as well as any of its peers, it fails to feel it.
Ergonomically, the class has moved on, too. The Phaeton’s seats were set too high for most of our testers to get truly comfortable, the window switches are placed too far from the driver, and even the latest software in the touchscreen navigation system cannot match the best of today’s rivals. The heated seat switches are fiddly and the cupholders come from a time when they were precisely that: somewhere to place a drink container, rather than also being designed as cubbies for telephones, MP3 players and the rest.
These are small details, but on a car like this they make a large difference to the feeling of relative luxury. The same goes for the equipment count. It gets all the basics – electric seats and the like – but cast a glance down the standard and optional kit lists for a Phaeton and a couple of its rivals and it’s hard not to feel that the VW is at less than the cutting edge.
There is, at least, four-zone climate control, while rear-seat passengers – who also get heated seats – will find things more palatable. There’s plenty of legroom and headroom and less plastic to look at. The boot is big, too, at 500 litres.
There’s only one engine to specify if you’re at all serious about retaining something approaching a sensible amount of the Phaeton’s original value, and that’s this 3.0-litre diesel V6. With either of the wheelbases, a Phaeton TDI makes tidy executive transport.
On one hand, that means there’s a limited but steady demand for used examples, making them worth something after a few years. On the other, their suitability for an airport run does little for their prestige and causes a quick drop in residuals directly after registration.
Other running and servicing costs are reasonable for a car in this class, save for the impressive economy. On our touring route, which replicates the 70mph motorway cruise we suspect will be the main diet of this car, we returned a very creditable 39.6mpg.
The Phaeton was an oddball that made an unusual luxury car choice even when it was new to market — a situation that has not been improved by the progress of time, especially when the Passat CC looks more like an executive car.
While every one of the Phaeton’s major competitors has been replaced by an all-new model, the Volkswagen’s modest model tweaks mean that it can no longer compete. It’s an anachronism that represents little more than Ferdinand Piech’s decade-old obsession with creating a luxury VW.
It has arguably been at its most successful as an engineering benchmark for other Volkswagen (and, indeed, VW Group) vehicles. As enthusiasts, we find that makes the Phaeton a damnably hard car to dislike. But it’s a nigh on impossible one to recommend against a wealth of rivals.