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Grand Prix - Volkswagen Phaeton W12

And speaking of cost, we've known people with acres of VWs which are worth less than this 12-cylinder luxo-bahnrenner: $105,705 for VW's rolling apartment, though if you keep the options down, you'd keep the price below six figures. You just know you'd be the only one on your block with one...

Much has been opined about the wisdom of Volkswagen's move upmarket. That discussion should forever be put behind us, because the Phaeton is deserving of its place alongside the world's finest luxury performance sedans--and even if it weren't, VW has few other directions in which to expand. Criticisms of the big sedan's dynamic qualities were few during our test, but each one, fairly or not, was tainted by the Phaeton's price. The 12-cylinder-powered version we used for the Grand Prix competition stickered for $105,705, but those six figures do include more than $11,000 in extra charges. Even if you do some subtraction--exclude $4,000 for the Apassionata blue paint, $1,750 for the air conditioned/massaging seats, $500 each for electronic parking assist and eucalyptus(!) interior wood, and $700 for keyless access (there's nothing to be done about the $3,000 gas guzzler tax), the $94,600 MSRP is still breathtaking for a company whose roots, though left behind long ago, are still an influence on its growth. The last aircooled Beetle finally emerged from the factory in Mexico, so let's agree it's time for the world to join VW in focusing on what really counts--the need to break out of its restrictive reputation as the "people's" car company.

One way to assume an air of exclusivity is to build a car that very few people can own. Those very few buyers, however, are extremely demanding and have great cars to choose from, so merely becoming a player is no guarantee the ball will ever get passed to you. With experience from the Audi division's current reach into the luxury arena, VW isn't exactly a neophyte, but its badge is definitely more appealing to the nouveau riche, who show more flexibility in the brands they buy than the older, more traditional buyer of such vehicles.

Lack of wonderful content is not this car's problem. For the Phaeton to have won our Grand Prix, it would need tweaks to the running gear and suspension, which still doesn't quite match the combination of ride and handling of the competition. This isn't a tough job to pull off, so we expect subsequent generations of VW's luxury lines to challenge for best in the world.

The Buzz...
"Deceptively fast. Very stable at speed, but suspension could be tightened a notch. Feels like you're piloting a Donzi offshore boat."

"I look like a valet in it."

"Put 20s on it and lower it an inch or two."

"Eerie lack of road noise and light steering at speed compromises driver confidence."

"Excessive brake dive, but overall traction is spectacular. Fast as hell."

"I dig the cabin layout, but a few switches look a bit cheap in a car of this stature. And the steering wheel has all the style of a mailbox...come on, guys, you can do better."

"A wonderful first attempt at the luxury market. Forget the badges on the car; it belongs in the same class as the big boys from Munich, Stuttgart and Tokyo."

The Contenders

Audi S4

Audi TT 3.2 DSG

BMW 545i

BMW 645Ci

Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Convertible

Mercedes-Benz E500 Wagon

Volkswagen Phaeton

Volkswagen R32

Volvo S40

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