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.