Marketing, history, and public perception have led to an automotive caste system that frowns both on moves downmarket and on rapid moves upmarket. Buying brands of a higher caste can elevate a carmaker but not necessarily a brand. So, despite owning and developing Bentley, Volkswagen will find it difficult to sell luxury products under its own name. That is a shame for the Phaeton, because this is a luxury sedan that, with different styling, could comfortably wear a Bentley badge.
U.S.-market Phaetons come only in long-wheelbase form and with all-wheel drive. Engine choices are a 335-horsepower V-8 and a 414-horsepower, normally aspirated version of the W-12 found in the $150,000 Bentley Continental GT. Both engines move the more-than-5000-pound Phaeton smartly, but if you bend the Phaeton into a corner, you'll be reminded of its mass by the squealing tires. The Phaeton is by no means a sport sedan, but, as in a Bentley, its massiveness adds to the feeling of luxury instead of detracting from it. Aside from a slightly stiff-legged ride and numb steering, the Phaeton comports itself with regal confidence. Inside, luxury touches abound; from the auto-closing draft-free vents to the wood- and leather-swathed interior that betters a Jaguar XJ8's.
The Phaeton is a traditional luxury car from an untraditional brand. As such, it may have a difficult time establishing a beachhead in our market. Still, VW believes that there are 2500 to 3000 buyers who want a luxury sedan and are confident enough to look past the badge.