Georgia Lewis test drives Volkswagen's luxury saloon, the Phaeton.
Volkswagen Phaeton 2008
Having driven pretty much every Volkswagen on the market in the Middle East, I was curious as to where the Phaeton fits into the VW family. After all, the Volkswagen Passat, Touareg and even the mighty Golf GTI are all rather plush, yet the Phaeton is touted as the German manufacturer's luxury car.
At first glance, the Phaeton looks like a larger version of the highly successful Passat. In black, it reminds me of a gangster's car - big, sleek and with a large, sweeping boot that would be good for hiding the bodies. Perfect for a quick getaway. A very quick getaway. In fact, the 4.2-litre V8 engine ensures that you can escape trouble rather efficiently indeed. But perhaps the styling is a bit too anonymous, a touch too nondescript. Maybe luxury car buyers in the Gulf want something a bit flashier and obvious, something that screams to the world: "Hey, everyone, I have a lot of money and I can afford a very expensive car." Then again, Infiniti and Lexus, the luxury brands of Nissan and Toyota respectively, are both reporting sales increases despite neither doing anything particularly thrilling in the design department. Or perhaps it's all about the marketing and Nissan and Toyota have just done a better job of making car buyers aware of Infiniti and Lexus as affordable luxury cars. After all, when I told people I would be driving a Phaeton, most people said "a what?". The top-of-the-range Passats, especially the wonderful V6, the mad-in-a-good-way turbo and the sleek CC, are all excellently well-appointed cars that are much cheaper than the Dh320,000 Phaeton. In a top spec Passat, you can expect leather seats, wood panelling, an excellent engine, silky smooth transmission, the option of F1-style paddle shift gear changes and climate-controlled seats for about Dh170,000. So why would you buy a Phaeton then? I pondered this question as I was led to my borrowed Phaeton. I was presented with a white Phaeton. The few I had seen on the road were American Gangster black, but in white it has the look of a limousine. It'd be the kind of limousine a celebrity such as Meryl Streep might take to the Oscars, as opposed to the wheels P Diddy - or whatever he is calling himself this week - might choose. This is definitely a car for someone who prefers to be driven around, rather than do the driving themselves. It inspires visions of important men and women sitting in the back surrounded by important papers, making important phone calls. There is even enough leg room in the front and back to keep a gaggle of supermodels happy. Before I slipped into the driver's seat, I was shown the little touches that make this car a little bit nicer than the average big, four-door saloon. You won't see doors on a Ford Crown Victoria that shut with the gentlest of touches. As someone who has slammed more than a few car doors in her time, this may be a useful anger management tool. Likewise, the boot opens and closes with the lightest touch of the VW badge on the back. Once inside, the quietness continues. There's a push-button start and the car doesn't so much roar into life as softly purrs like a cat waking up from a particularly pleasant dream. Without a sound, the oak-panelled dash rolls out to reveal the clock and the air-conditioning vents and it's time to hit the road. Everything about the car is smoother than sliding down a bowling alley after bathing in olive oil. Even if you plant your foot to the floor, it's not going to bellow at you. The 4.2-litre V8 isn't that much smaller than the 4.6-litre V8 of the Ford Mustang, but this car is not aimed at muscle car fans. It is, however, aimed at lovers of comfort and refinement and this is where the Phaeton does well. On the outside, the styling is not especially eye-catching but inside, it's incredibly comfortable and elegant. The front seats - adjustable in 12 different ways - are as lovely on the behind as those of the Jaguar XF and offer that satisfying 'puffffff' sound as you sit down. The air conditioning - something of an issue in some Volkswagens - is excellent. There are four climate control zones so if the diva in the back is shivering, the driver in the front does not have to sweat it out. On the drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, the Phaeton's overtaking powers were very impressive. It's a car that loves to go fast but it does not feel the need to make a song and dance about it. Indeed, I noticed looks of surprise as I breezed past other drivers. I was driving the V8 and I had no trouble overtaking stuttering slow coaches, so I can only imagine what a blast I would have driving the 6.0-litre V12. In keeping with the car's quietness, gear changes were seamless. There's a tiptronic option, but I suspect this car will be driven by those who would rather not be troubled by such trifles. The air suspension is lovely too - not that the many of the roads of the UAE are terribly bothersome, but on the two large speed humps on Abu Dhabi's 15th Street, this made all the difference when the Phaeton traversed them. It's a superbly finished car that looks big but not overly clever on the outside. But on the inside, you are well aware that you are in a luxurious machine with performance to match. If only more people knew about it. firstname.lastname@example.org