From the outside, the new Volkswagen Phaeton looks like a giant slab of a car. It's a nondescript, rather faceless slab that seems to blend in with other vehicles on the road; a luxury car that doesn't scream luxury, something that, on the surface, seems rather pointless. However, the rather anonymous exterior is part of the Phaeton's sneaky appeal. It is hard to get worked up about the design when it routinely rubs fenders with Lamborghinis, Maseratis and Ferraris on the roads of the UAE. But once you're inside the Phaeton, it is another world.
"Wow," sums it up, as uttered repeatedly by the photographer when she entered the Phaeton's leather-lined inner sanctum. It is clear to see why the Phaeton should be seriously considered if you are in the market for a car in which you will be driven around town. And if you want luxury and comfort as you do deals on the phone in the back, but you don't feel the need to make a big, flashy show of yourself every time you arrive anywhere, then it's your type of car.
There are only two back seats in the Phaeton, but they are like two leather, business-class aeroplane seats, complete with enough leg room to stretch out in. A TV screen is placed on the back of each front headrest, storage between the two seats, ports to plug in laptops and other electronic devices and a smart dual control system for the a/c. Further anonymity and a cooler ride in the summer heat are guaranteed with semi-transparent black blinds that roll over the windows of the rear doors. They are perforated so the driver - and passengers - still have a view outside.
In the front, the similarly comfortable seats have more buttons than a military dress uniform, all devoted to getting each seat in the perfect position. After you've finally set everything to your satisfaction, up to three different settings can be saved. The typical Volkswagen practicality has come into play on the centre console. Thankfully, even with this, their most high-end model, VW has had the wisdom to retain the simple satellite navigation, climate and stereo controls on their less pricey models. The cost of a car should not be in inverse proportion to the simplicity of operation.
And this user friendliness extends to the Phaeton's driveability. It is smooth, quiet and blessed with comfortable suspension, The smooth-shifting, six-speed automatic transmission is one of Volkswagen's finest achievements. It is so smooth and refined, you actually don't have much connection with the road. But that's not why you buy a Phaeton. Volkswagen has more sporty, driver-orientated models that would offer more fun, but they wouldn't offer the level of luxury and composure the Phaeton can.
The powerful and stunningly quiet 4.2L V8 engine was the other great selling point of the Phaeton. You could get the base model with a comparatively puny 3.2L V6 but if you can splash more than Dh400,000 on a car, you may as well go big with the engine with the 4.2L, or the 6.0L W12 behemoth if you're really flush with funds. In any case, it is a big, thumping, heavy hunk of a car but the 4.2L made short work of the tedious Dubai-Abu Dhabi haul. The Phaeton surprised many an SUV as I sailed by in the overtaking lane, sneaking past like a near-silent shark.
My only real issue with the Phaeton is an uncharacteristic failure in ergonomics with the indicator stalk and the paddle shifters. The indicator stalk is short and positioned low - it is not a natural position if you are driving along with your hands at the "10-to-two" position on the steering wheel. Instead, when I extended my finger to indicate, I tended to hit the enormous paddle shifter instead. I accidentally changed gears with the paddle shifter on one occasion when hunting for the lowdown indicator.
Seriously, these paddle shifters are big enough to hang an overcoat. The design is reminiscent of the equally cloakroom appropriate paddle shifters on Maseratis and, frankly, I don't care for them. In general, I prefer to take advantage of the manual shift option using the gear selector rather than paddles - it just feels a bit more like proper driving. Like any odd quirk on any car, I got used to the indicator and got on with driving. The comfort and refinement of the interior and the silky ride are this car's main selling points.
As I drove around Dubai and Abu Dhabi, my passengers commented on how the car was as comfortable as a favourite sofa. And that's the whole point. This is not intended to be an engaging driver's car, it is a car in which one will be driven. It is more affordable than pretty much any other big, luxurious cruiser. Indeed, having sat in a Maybach as well as a Phaeton, there's no massive comfort deficit between the two very differently priced cars.
The anonymous exterior combined with a plush interior of the Phaeton is perfect for the executive who wants to be efficiently driven places while working in the back seat with the laptop remaining as stable as the suspension.