The Volkswagen Phaeton W12 and the Audi A8L 6.0 share the same engine, but they have little else in common.
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.