Alexei Sayle: Great car - but you'd never guess it

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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's a funny old thing, the Volkswagen Phaeton; I don't think I'd ever seen one until it was delivered to my door.

It's a funny old thing, the Volkswagen Phaeton; I don't think I'd ever seen one until it was delivered to my door. On the other hand maybe I had, because walking home late one night a few days after acquiring it and making out a black VW on the other side of my street, I thought to myself, "I don't remember parking over the road", before I saw the Phaeton outside my house and realised the other car was in fact a much cheaper Passat.

In external appearance, the big limousine suffers from what I'd call the "Peugeot problem". Over the years, that manufacturer has produced several top-of-the-range executive models which shared too many styling cues with their C sector relatives, so that they simply resembled mid-market cars that had inflated themselves by drinking those strange muscle bulk-up drinks that smell of strawberries and steroids. Only the French government bought the big Peugeots and the Phaeton doesn't even seem to sell in those tiny numbers.

It is only occasionally when parked alone in a large, empty place that the Volkswagen's crouching, tense elegance becomes apparent and you are aware that you are looking at a car that seems like it might be worth £70,000.

The Volkswagen group already has an understated, technically accomplished, slow-selling luxury car in its portfolio - that car being the Audi A8 - and you find it hard at first to understand why they want another one. Until, that is, you recall the German conglomerate's platform-sharing policy. Just as the new Golf is also the Audi A3, Skoda Octavia, new Audi TT, Seat Altea, Express Dairies milk float and Morrisons shopping trolley, so the Phaeton will likewise be several other cars.

A friend perceptively referred to the Phaeton as "the Volkswagen Maybach", and with a different body it will indeed form the basis of the new big four-door Bentley limousine. When he put it like that, the price of 70 grand for the car didn't seem as steep as it had a few seconds before.

While, to look at, the Phaeton might be a mixed bag of beans, to drive it is, straightforwardly, simply wonderful. I have been using the big VW on a three-week, back-to-back, nationwide book-reading tour, driving myself up and down the country in some truly terrible weather, and if I'd tried to do the same distances in my Alfa I think I would have died of exhaustion.

The Lexus LS 430 which I once had on long-term test was perhaps as quiet and insulated as the Phaeton but wallowed around corners, so demanded much more work to drive than the Volkswagen. The latter handles and steers with the agility of a car much smaller and more sportily-focused than is normal in the executive sector. In the VW it seems like you sit yourself down in the fabulously comfortable driver's seat, turn the key and then six hours later you appear in Carlisle with no feelings of fatigue whatsoever. That big W12, six litre engine (also doing time as a Bentley and Audi unit) appears to pick you up like the hand of a friendly giant and drop you gently down at your destination feeling like you've had a little nap.

It doesn't, mind you, quite have the bomb-proof reliability of the Lexus of which I complained a few weeks ago. The map display on the infuriatingly slow-witted, eccentric and cheap-looking sat nav system has a tendency to go blank for no reason when you try to zoom in or out, and several times the automatic boot lid has unlocked itself but refused to raise any further so I have had to wrench it open to get at my luggage.

Having said that, once you get the rear open you are in for a treat; certainly the load space is huge but that's not what I'm talking about. Whereas the boot lid support struts of the BMW 7 and 6 series which I tested a while back were two thick, ugly-looking curved pieces of painted pipe, the alloy and chrome mechanisms that raise the trunk lid of the Phaeton are possibly the most elegant bit of engineering I've seen on a car: two lovely-looking skeins of metal that resemble the arm joints of a Cyberdyne Systems Terminator.

It's a pity the rest of the car's appearance doesn't match them.

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