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

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A decade after its original launch, today the Volkswagen Phaeton 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 not just building, but also improving the car.

The Phaeton's decade-old platform needs more than a tweak to be a success

In 2008 VW installed its latest-generation 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine, and in 2011 the Phaeton was tweaked again, to receive some significant styling changes (that now all-too familiar VW nose) and updates to its interior.

Only a V6 diesel in short or long wheelbase is now offered in the UK, though in other markets Volkswagen also offers the oddball W12 petrol engine in long wheelbase form only.

The larger one puts an extra 120mm of length between the wheels. This 444bhp 6.0-litre engine is essentially two V6 engines put together and is supposed to rival the V8s on offer in other luxury cars.



Volkswagen Phaeton 18in alloy wheels

The exterior of the Volkswagen Phaeton has stayed relatively unaltered during its life to date; the 2011 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 chrome nose.

Phaeton design language is a close match for the current Passat, characterised by strong horizontal lines

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.

The bumper, bonnet and front wings are all new panels, the Phaeton design language being a close match for the current Passat, characterised by strong horizontal lines.

At the back, smoked LED tail-lamps are supposed to reference the rear lights of the Passat and Eos. Like the front bumper, the rear one has been refreshed — although you have to look quite closely to tell the difference.

If you ever see what looks like a Phaeton Allroad, that’ll be a car running in the higher of the air suspension’s two ride height settings. This raises the car up by 20mm simply by increasing the air pressure in the suspension cylinders.


Volkswgen Phaeton dashboard

If you’re familiar with other modern luxury car cabins (and if you’re in the market for a Volkswagen 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 have 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.

Dash-centre clock has a neat, clear design. A few manufacturers could show that sort of restraint

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.


Volkswagen Phaeton rear quarter

A sub-8.0sec 0-60mph time is quite acceptable for a car of the Volkswagen 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.

Mechanical linkage to gearshift, rather than electronic controller, now feels a bit old school

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 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.


Volkswagen Phaeton cornering

Of course, ride quality is all-important when it comes to any limousine like the Volkswagen Phaeton, 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. 

Phaeton’s ride is pliant at motorway speeds but well short of class best

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. 

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. 


Volkswagen Phaeton

With either of the wheelbases, a Volkswagen 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.

The Phaeton will remain a rare sight on Britain's roads

On the other, their suitability for an airport run does little for their prestige and causes a quick drop in residuals directly after registration. Either way, a quick browse of the used car classifieds shows the Phaeton to be sensational value as a used car, easily topping the ‘lot of metal for the money’ category.

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 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.


2 star Volkswagen Phaeton

Even when it was new, the Volkswagen Phaeton was an oddball that made an unusual luxury car choice — and that is a situation that has not been improved by the progress of time, especially when the VW’s own CC looks more like an executive car.

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. 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 something of a beard.

The Phaeton is getting long-in-the-tooth now

And that sums up the Phaeton nicely. 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.

The interior wasn’t really up to par when it was launched. Ten years on, it’s even less acceptable. Sure, there’s plenty of room to stretch out inside, especially in the long wheelbase model, but the style and plastics are rather too retro.

The Phaeton 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.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Volkswagen Phaeton 2003-2015 First drives