Economists constantly tell us that the world is heading for a financial meltdown – and belt tightening will be the order of the day for everyone, come the big day the balloon goes up. Of course, that flash company director's motor is going to have to go in a new world where discretion is a positive corporate selling point.
That means a more sensible approach will be needed when choosing the new car for the MD's reserved space – but does trading down mean losing all those creature comforts he's come to take for granted? To see for ourselves, we tested two VAG cars which do largely the same job: ferrying businessmen over long distances in comfort and refinement. One costs £20,000; the other nearer £50,000...
In business class, Volkswagen's mightily impressive, if slow-selling Phaeton – a car that represents the pinnacle of a money-no-object VW, engineered to take on the big boys and establish the maker of the "People's Car" as a premium brand to take on the might of BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz.
Facing it down is the pile-'em-high Skoda Superb, a car that in recent years has become the thinking minicab driver's wheels of choice. Based closely on the Chinese version of the VW Passat, and sporting an extended wheelbase, it's a car that offers more inches of legroom per pound than any of its opposition.
It is apt that it is a Skoda that is going for a prize plutocrat car scalp – we're talking about value alternatives here and as recently as 1990, the company's products were readily associated with the cheap and nasty Communist built fodder from the bottom end of the UK price lists. VW's takeover and ultimate turnaround of the Czech company is a lesson of hope, although it's now not possible to buy a genuinely cheap Skoda.
However, lined up alongside the Phaeton, it's a bargain. To put it into context, the Superb 2.0TDI is £2,000 less than the area manager's Golf TDI Sport.
In discreet silver, sitting on 17-inch alloys, with a spacious wood and leather interior, and Xenon headlamps, it ticks all the standard business class credentials, and won't look out of place locked in the outside lane. Under the bonnet, the 138bhp, 236lb/ft TDI allows this amply sized saloon to hustle along at a fair old pace, too.
It respects our downsizing brief, too: 40mpg on the domestic airport run, and nearer 50mpg when heading for the all-important board meeting at the other end of the country. Meetings in the Corporate Head Office in Germany will see the Superb cruise at 120mph, without seriously denting that excellent consumption figure.
However, pampered bosses might feel that their downgrade to economy class is a little too much. Engine refinement on the Skoda isn't the greatest, with the high-pressure, Pumpe Düse injection system creating more noise than expected. However, on the motorway loping along in sixth gear, you'll be hard pressed to hear it – and that's what counts.
Where the Superb really does impress – even compared with the Phaeton – is in the sheer size of its interior. It's huge – the first time you open the massive rear doors and climb in, you'll be struck by how much sprawling room there is, even for the portliest of company directors. Compared with the Phaeton, it's massive...
That lengthy wheelbase also results in a pretty settled ride – it's no class-leader for the keen driver, but with all that interior room and the healthy company purchase ledger you'll get from running a Superb, will you really care?
Although it's not the traditional choice for your average company director, the VW Phaeton is typical of the type of motor he'll be using as part of his business. Roomy, incredibly well built, and with a level of engineering excellence that currently shades the big boys of the class, all it really lacks is badge kudos.
That low-profile image may be just what your company needs in hard times, but this full-fat luxury motor carries a price tag commensurate to match its specification sheet. Sales of the Phaeton have been slow so far, but don't confuse this lack of popularity with a lack of ability.
Our 3.0-litre TDi is powered by a V6 diesel that packs an impressive 225bhp and 332lb/ft, and that means the performance and refinement are up to scratch. However, because the Phaeton weighs in at a preposterous 2,372kg, it rarely feels quicker than the sprightly Superb, despite a promising initial urge.
It doesn't exactly struggle, though, and the excellent six-speed automatic gearbox delivers smooth changes, making the driving experience effortless in a way that someone piloting the Skoda wouldn't readily comprehend.
As a passenger express, the Phaeton is a mixture of good... and not so good. The ride in the rear is predictably excellent, if not that much better than the Skoda. However, leg- and knee-room are actually no improvement at all. There are more toys for the driver to play with, but how many over and above those installed in the Superb (such as the radar-guided cruise control and air conditioned seats) does one actually need?
There's a certain lack of judgement in that beautifully fashioned interior, though. The ginger-coloured wood will leave you exasperated, as will the Raleigh Chopper-style autobox selector. The rest of it, though, is first rate.
But owning the Phaeton isn't just about numbers; it's about how special it makes you feel – and once you've grasped the concept of inverse badge snobbery, you'll really appreciate the ride, as well as the scale of VAG's technical achievement.
So, with hard times lying ahead, could you as a company director show your employees and customers that you're happy to tighten your belt by downsizing your own car allowance? Judging from our time with the Skoda Superb and VW Phaeton, we reckon it's not only feasible to slash your budget without feeling the pinch, but in many ways, going for the Czech-built alternative is could actually be the preferred option.
Fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are usefully lower in the Skoda, and that means not only will you be doing your bit for the company's bank balance, but you'll be seen to be doing your bit for the environment, too.
Yes, it's a bit on the unrefined side at idle, and you'll hardly impress your neighbours with that anonymous looking, Skoda-badged saloon on your drive – but with all that money saved, and vastly cheaper running costs, we reckon you'll have the last laugh. In terms of the jobs these two cars do, the Phaeton is simply not worth the premium if your corporate rear spends most of its time in the back.
Do yourself a favour – go directly to your Skoda dealership, do not pass go, and save yourself £28,000 in the process. A recession could well be in the offing, but there are plenty of reasons to feel cheerful with your budget alternative – and not only because of its lessened impact on the company accounts...
Skoda Superb Elegance 2.0TDI
Engine : 1,968cc, 4 cylinders, 140bhp, 236lb/ft
Performance: 133mph, 0-60mph in 9.6secs
Fuel consumption: 44 mpg
CO2 emissions: 173 g/km
Volkswagen Phaeton 3.0V6 TDI 4Motion
Price : £47,822
Engine: 2,967cc, V6 cylinders, 221bhp,331lb/ft
Performance: 145mph, 0-60mph in 8.5secs
Fuel consumption: 29 mpg
CO2 emissions: 259 g/km