The Volkswagen Phaeton W12 and the Audi A8L 6.0 might seem like twins that were separated at birth, but in reality, the two cars are very different. Sure, they share the same corporate twelve-cylinder engine. The specification sheets, however, show a striking 1000-pound weight advantage for the aluminum-spaceframe Audi over the steel-bodied Volkswagen. The Audi also has a wheelbase that’s 2.9 inches longer and different front-suspension geometry. Although the intracorporate pipeline made the A8’s superior chassis available to VW, management decided against it because the Phaeton project was already late and over budget.
Together with the optional twenty-inch wheels and tires and tauter air-suspension settings, this lighter chassis puts the Audi in a league above the Volkswagen. The new A8 is impressive, with sensational grip, reassuring all-weather traction, remarkable light-footedness, and amazing precision. Although the long-wheelbase Audi is a big car-even by American standards-its quick, communicative, and linear steering makes it feel small where it matters, namely, on winding country roads.
The Phaeton is a totally different animal that wants to be driven in a totally different fashion. As long as you can settle for a rhythm that is more fox-trot than mambo, the 5400-pound Volkswagen will dance through the corners with surprising verve. The Audi’s well-balanced chassis invites you to press on until the 4400-pounder enters a commendably neutral four-wheel drift. In the Phaeton, you’re better off setting the pace at seven-tenths, choosing your steering angle carefully, and then sitting back and relaxing. The VW doesn’t reward late braking and late apexes but covers ground in a stylish, poised, and composed manner.
This considerable difference in character is exemplified in the way the controls are calibrated. The Phaeton’s steering is so light that it could be described as lifeless, yet it firms up as soon as you dial in a busy left-right-left sequence. The initial throttle response is more like a limousine’s than a sport sedan’s, but once you have pushed the pedal two-thirds of the way toward the firewall, the twelve-ender suddenly erupts. The standard suspension setting is normally compliant and comfortable, but it doesn’t like expansion joints and manhole covers. The grabby brakes are difficult to modulate, but they slow the heavyweight with aplomb, time after time.
The Audi’s controls are much more sporty. The steering initially feels light and somewhat artificial but loads up meatily with lateral g’s. Especially in Sport mode, the engine lip-reads the throttle like a simultaneous interpreter. The chassis is clearly more interested in lateral grip than in a pillowy ride. And the brakes are no-nonsense, instantly responsive devices with plenty of stamina and strength.
These two supersedans do have one dynamic virtue in common: stability. Both the Audi and the Volkswagen can be driven flat out on the most challenging stretch of autobahn you can find, and they are unperturbed. This sure-footedness is enhanced by the standard Quattro and 4Motion four-wheel-drive systems, which differ in name only.
The Phaeton’s true stomping ground is the freeway. Effortless, quiet, and cocoonlike, this is an excellent intercity express that would easily beat taking the plane on distances up to 300 miles. The VW has everything a busy businessperson needs when hitting the road: a phone that actually works, a decent navigation system, a stereo system that sounds better than most home entertainment systems, heated and ventilated multiadjustable seats, and what VW says is the world’s first and only draft-free air-conditioning, developed especially for former chairman Ferdinand Pich, who was prone to catching colds. The VW also feels at home around town, where you appreciate the tinted dual-paned windows, the supersmooth transmission, and the cushy low-speed ride.
The A8L is a better all-arounder than the Phaeton. It likes straights and bends, and it doesn’t mind stop-and-go traffic. Especially in W-12 guise, the A8 radiates cool perfection. The test car cemented this impression with space-age features such as bixenon headlights, Big Brother-style radar-governed cruise control, soft-close doors and lids, and a self-releasing parking brake.
Although these two luxury liners are very close in price, performance, and dimensions, their interiors further demonstrate their dramatically different philosophies. The Phaeton is an Old World flagship par excellence: its timber content is similar to that of a mid-size furniture store, and the amount of leather trim displayed in its interior would appall any PETA activist. The multibutton cockpit is sufficiently complex to confuse even the most tech-savvy driver. There are nine buttons on the steering wheel and nearly fifty knobs, switches, and levers on the center console. On the credit side, the patrician’s Volkswagen scores with ample head- and legroom, four very cozy power-operated seats, and more courtesy lights than a Broadway theater.
With the exception of its expressive, in-your-face, single-frame grille, the Audi’s look is much more subtle. Its cockpit is classy instead of busy, its ergonomics are intuitive rather than intimidating, and its mix of interior materials is more contemporary. The A8 can boast even better fit and finish than the Phaeton. The Multi Media Interface (MMI) works beautifully, and you don’t need to be a computer whiz kid to understand this system.
Both of these long-wheelbase sedans are equipped with the Volkswagen Group’s 6.0-liter W-12 engine, which is also found in the Bentley Continental GT. While the Phaeton’s version delivers 420 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 406 pound-feet at 3250 rpm, the more aggressively tuned A8’s engine is good for 450 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 428 pound-feet at 4000 rpm. Handicapped by its greater weight and one fewer gear ratio, the less powerful Volkswagen requires 6.1 seconds to move from 0 to 62 mph, whereas the Audi gets the job done in a sprightly 5.1 seconds. The Audi, which has a six-speed Tiptronic transmission, is almost six seconds quicker from 0 to 125 mph. The top speed in both vehicles, however, is electronically limited to 130 mph in their U.S.-spec versions. The fuel economy, of course, depends on driving style and conditions. We recorded an average of 9 mpg for the Volkswagen and a bit more than 10 mpg for the Audi-or roughly one-third more than the V-8-engined versions would consume.
While the new A8 is doing exceptionally well in most markets, the Phaeton’s sales continue to be disappointing. Instead of the planned 20,000 units, VW built fewer than 6000 last year-and most of them were reportedly registered as dealer demonstrators and company cars. In North America, the $115,000 A8L 6.0 is expected to find 150 takers in 2004, or just two percent of the total A8 allocation. VW hopes that every tenth Phaeton-300 annually-will be a top-of-the-line version priced at $94,600. Even the big-name twelve-enders from BMW and Mercedes-the 760Li and the S600, which are even more expensive-typically attract fewer than 1000 customers per year.
Of the VW and the Audi, the Phaeton is narrowly the more comfortable and complete chauffeur’s car, but owner-drivers are much better off with the A8L. It is crisper, quicker, and more modern-a clear case of stylish elegance beating classic opulence. But the question is whether you really need, or want, the W-12 over the V-8. We’re inclined to believe that you won’t. The twelve is a lot thirstier, more nose-heavy, and much more expensive. What you get in exchange are marginally smoother running, a substantial boost of midrange torque, more speed off the line, and a more prestigious badge on the trunk lid. That’s not the stuff with which a sound business case is made.