From £52,690
V10 pace, but little grace

Our Verdict

Volkswagen Phaeton

The Volkswagen Phaeton’s decade-old platform needs more than a tweak to be a success in the luxury car market

6 July 2004

If there’s one word that seems to define the VW Phaeton it’s ‘why?’. Why build a luxury limousine with a mainstream badge when – in the Audi A8 – you already build one with a prestige badge?

Is this man’s desire to be different? Well, if you share that desire then this particular Phaeton is the one that best extols that virtue; a V10, 5.0-litre, 309bhp turbodiesel powering all four wheels of a long-wheelbase (extra 120mm) limousine that nobody’s ever heard of. Different indeed.

As in the Touareg SUV, which shares the same engine, the V10 idles with a slightly agricultural chunter that fades to a murmur when wafting along on a light throttle. It’s a dry, soulless sound with the odd hint of a five-cylinder Audi but with the bass control turned up until the slider has snapped off.

For a luxury flagship you hear a little too much of it. Then you depress the accelerator fully and a remarkable thing happens. From somewhere deep behind the bulkhead emanates a mean, hard-edged rumble, and the Phaeton stampedes forward with the effortless momentum you only feel when a real heavyweight defies physics. Make no mistake: 553lb ft makes this Phaeton a fast car in a straight line.

Stampedes is very much the operative word here, however, because at 2566kg the Phaeton TDi is very heavy indeed: 184kg heavier than the V8 Phaeton. Blame the use of a steel structure – unlike the aluminium Audi A8 – and the big-block 10-cylinder engine.

Not that the ride suffers. In fact, on the comfort setting this long-wheelbase Phaeton deals with surface irregularities better than other examples we’ve driven. It’s quiet, and handles large and small cabin intrusions with authority. Up the pace though – something the engine’s performance encourages you to do – and the Phaeton’s weight starts to tell. It understeers early and heavily, the outside front wheel readily squealing even at a moderately swift pace.

Selecting a more sporting damper setting firms things up, but can’t solve the inherent problems of the car’s large weight. And, as we’ve said before of the VW Group’s adjustable damper system (as used on the Bentley Continental GT), having to manually tweak the settings depending on road surface or driving style becomes wearisome rather quickly.

Steering devoid of any feel and brakes that quickly seem overworked colour in a poor dynamic picture. At least the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system ensures excellent traction, despite the vast slabs of torque on offer.

Inside, the Phaeton is a curious mix of exacting build quality and distinctly average plastics; an interior where a lack of any particular style seems to have been a virtue on the design brief. But at least the long-wheelbase car gives you suitably plutocratic amounts of legroom in the back and it’s a comfortable enough cabin in which to consume the miles.

But room to kick back and relax isn’t enough. At £60,375 the LWB V10 is only £1595 less than an Audi A8 V8 TDi LWB; the Audi is lighter, as fast, cleaner, more frugal and to most eyes a lot more desirable. And the Audi should hold its value better. The Phaeton V10 might be something different, but we’re still asking why.

Adam Towler

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