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Feature: Auto Bonding

Robert Farago

I am en route to dresden on the German autobahn when the rain gradually dissipates in the summer sun, leaving the supersmooth roads bone-dry. The visibility is excellent, the traffic light. With a clear road ahead, I crank up the Beach Boys CD. “If everybody had an ocean.” Sam, my companion, shakes her head, knowing what comes next: I ease the Volkswagen Phaeton into the high-speed lane and floor it.

Initially, the Phaeton is confused. The auto box kicks down a little. A moment later, it gets the message. You want to go faster, ja? Ja. With a muffled roar, we take off. The needle swings quickly and relentlessly across the dinner plate–sized speedometer. Within seconds, I have pushed the Phaeton from our 87-mph cruising speed to 135. Steeling myself, I give the mighty W-12 a bit more fuel, and I glance down to see 143.7 mph on the speedometer.

The Phaeton, Volkswagen’s answer to the BMW 7 Series and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, is completely unruffled. The car sits on the road with supreme confidence, dismissing surface imperfections with aristocratic disdain. Tiny steering inputs and a wary eye ahead are the only requirements to maintain steady progress. Trucks lumbering along in the far lane zip backward as if shot out of a cannon. All is quiet and composed; I have been in houses with more wind noise.

Suddenly, in the rearview mirror I spot a BMW of some sort approaching the Phaeton’s rear end like a heat-seeking missile. I just manage to move over before an M5 streaks by at 180 mph or so. My smug sense of superiority disappears almost as fast as the Big Daddy of German sport sedans.

Chastened, I ease it down to 120 mph, thinking of what Hans-Gerd Bode, Volkswagen’s top marketing man, likes to say. Bode believes that any luxury car that wants to make it in the German market must have überholprestige: brand credibility, engineering integrity, and epic horsepower. “Drivers who see a new car’s nose looming in their rearview mirror must rate the machine highly enough to pull over and let it pass,” Bode says. He believes that the Phaeton, like the vaunted M5 that has barreled by, is just that kind of vehicle.

The autobahn, with its smooth surface, stretches of unlimited speed, and discriminating drivers piloting high-class hardware, is just the kind of road on which to test Bode’s boast. The German motorway network is the second largest in the world, featuring more than 6,000 miles of meticulously maintained roads. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of autobahns have speed limits. But on long, unrestricted stretches, you can drive as fast as you can. Or as fast as you dare.

Thanks to rigid German licensing laws—and the simple but inescapable effects of Darwinism—accidents on the autobahn are rare. But when they happen, they happen big. Earlier that day, as I picked up the Phaeton at the Berlin airport, I recalled a mashed Mitsubishi off-roader heading for Munich on the back of a flatbed truck. An omen? I resolved to take things easy—at first.

At 16.5 feet long and 6 feet wide, Volkwagen’s newest luxury car looks like a Passat on steroids. Volkswagen’s greatest challenge is to convince high-end car drivers that this is no people’s car. “It has a more aggressive stance, a larger face, a closed C-pillar, and horizontal taillights,” says Volkswagen’s design guru Rudiger Folten,  when comparing the Phaeton to the Passat. “The Phaeton is big, but it doesn’t say, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m a luxury car.’ ”

Understated, yes. Underequipped, no.  I am confronted by 45 buttons, a 7-inch TV screen, and a rotary knob. The controls activate the satellite navigation system, onboard computer, built-in and hands-free phones, 12-speaker stereo, cruise control, adjustable suspension, double glazed windows, solar panel sunroof, electric trunk, and seats that heat, cool, and massage. It is a lot to digest, especially for someone fixated on driving like a madman.

To make things interesting, Volkswagen offers five ways to control the Phaeton’s powerplant. You can slot the automatic gearbox into Drive, push it a bit lower for Sport, snick it sideways for Tiptronic, manipulate paddles on either side of the wheel, or press rubber buttons mounted behind the wheel. I choose Drive.

I activate the rain-sensing wipers and peer into the gloom. As I pull away from the massed ranks of Mercedes taxis, my first impression is of power, power, and a bit more power; the beast practically leaps from its parking space. The Phaeton is equipped with Volkswagen’s new W-12, the world’s most compact 12-cylinder engine, consisting of two narrow-angle V-6s (the old VR6 engine) bolted onto a common crankshaft, with 48 valves and variable valve timing.

The Phaeton’s 6.0-liter engine produces 420 hp at 6,000 rpm, and generates 406 ft lbs of torque at 3,000 rpm. The W-12 has enough grunt to propel the four-wheel-drive Phaeton from zero to 60 in a shade over six seconds, and on to an electronically limited 155 mph, allowing me to tick the little box marked “epic horsepower” on Bode’s checklist.

Even before I make it out of the airport, I silently thank Volkswagen’s engineers for remembering to bestow massive brakes upon their über-sedan. A gentle prod on the go pedal means I have to haul the beast back from significant speed.

Sam is not amused by my intimations of speed—at least not until she finds her seat’s massage button. As I gradually learn how to feather the throttle and adjust the fingertip-light steering to avoid objects, she submits the Phaeton to her ultimate God-is-in-the-details luxury car test: the visor mirror. The Phaeton’s mirror has two positions. Slide the first cover across for a normal reflection. Slide the second to magnify your image. Sam nods her approval and begins to fiddle with the Phaeton’s air-con.

The 4-Zone Climatronic air-conditioning system is a major coup for Volkswagen. It is completely draft-free; air diffuses from mesh covers on top of the dash (for the front) and flows out of the pillar between the side windows (for the rear). The system provides variable temperature control for all four corners of the cabin, allowing Sam to relax in her native African veld, while I can enjoy a crisp New England autumn afternoon.

Once activated, the Climatronic decides that the Phaeton’s cabin is far too hot. Part of the wooden fascia retracts to expose traditional vents. Thirty seconds later, the cabin is blasted with enough frigid air to approach our chosen temperatures. The fascia slides back, and the Phaeton’s Climatronic resumes indirect cooling. Score one for luxury gizmology, and two for Volkswagen’s engineering integrity.

We head west for Essen, but before resuming my assault on the land speed record I try the Phaeton on a few back roads. Sweeping through the German countryside on twisting tarmac proves one thing: The Phaeton is no sports car. The machine weighs more than 2.5 tons, with most of its mass positioned over the front wheels. That said, the car’s handling is safe and predictable; once it settles into a corner, it remains stable. If you carry too much speed into a bend, traction control and four-wheel drive do their best to prevent an off-road excursion.

Back on the autobahn, a sense of calm is restored to the trip. During the five-hour trek across Germany, though, my average speed keeps creeping upward. On our way back to Berlin, Sam and I are chatting at my former maximum velocity. I have discovered that dropping the Phaeton’s box into Sport eliminates any lag in forward momentum. The Phaeton’s huge prow parts slower traffic like Moses gesturing at the Red Sea, and even a Porsche Carrera moves over to let the Phaeton past.

The deference displayed by fellow autobahnstormers clearly proves the big Volkswagen’s brand credibility. “Pure, 100 percent status-oriented customers will stay with their Mercedes and BMWs,” says Michael Horn, Volkswagen’s head of sales and marketing for luxury vehicles. “We want to capture people with a great sympathy with the VW brand. They will also be customers who are into something I call ‘stealth wealth.’ ”

On the final leg to the airport, I encounter the combination of clear weather, open road, and light traffic needed to improve my personal best. Down goes the pedal. Up goes my speed. As the outside world begins to blur, I receive a shock. At 155 mph, the point at which the speed limiter should kick in, the Phaeton continues accelerating. I later learn that I have been given one of the early unrestricted press cars. I concentrate intently on the road ahead. I glance down, see the needle at 162.5 mph, and declare it good. Sam takes out a camera and snaps a shot of the speedometer. I cannot take the Phaeton home, but the photo will be my trophy.

Volkswagen, www.phaeton.de

Glass Appeal
History buffs will remember Dresden as ground zero in the Allies’ campaign to bring World War II to the German home front. On February 13, 1945, British and American bombers produced a firestorm that killed at least 50,000 people and reduced the city to rubble.

Considering the horrors of Bombennacht, Dresden is a strange place to build a German luxury car aimed at the U.S. elite. Maybe that is why Volkswagen built the Phaeton factory out of glass, as if saying: See? We have nothing to hide. But this is not true. Volkswagen executives should not let other big-ticket car manufacturers anywhere near die Glaserne Manufaktur. Even more than the Phaeton itself, the Phaeton factory represents the future of the luxury car business.

From the moment you enter architect Gunter Henn’s futuristic lobby to design your Phaeton, you encounter an assembly plant that resembles a modern art gallery more than a traditional car factory. The walls are made of glass, chassis slide along mirror-smooth Canadian maple hardwood flooring, and gleaming car bodies glide overhead on enormous cradles. Teams of craftsmen monitor computer workstations, making occasional forays to add pieces of the Phaeton puzzle that are too delicate for the robots to handle. The environment in the Glass Factory is clean, light, and hushed.

You are led to die Kundenturm, or the customer tower. In this supersleek enclave, perched above the rebuilt city and nestled in the lap of luxury, you choose your favorite leather, wood, paint, and roof lining material. A customer representative slides the samples over a large wooden desk. Hidden sensors scan your selections, then project an image of the completed car onto a wide-screen TV. Two seats in the back or a bench? Which wheels do you prefer? Done. You can almost hear the robots whirring into action. Mean- while, Volkswagen’s team of assistants provides some of the best kaffee and kuchen (coffee and cake) in Germany.

Later, when you arrive at the Glass Factory to take delivery of your Phaeton, you are escorted to a special room at the base of the tower. At the appropriate moment, the lights dim. The music swells. An enormous pedestal rises from the factory’s sanitized bowels. Frosted glass doors part to reveal your very own box-fresh Phaeton. “We wanted to inject a bit of drama into the sales process,” says Stefan Schulte, Phaeton’s head of sales and marketing.

Mission accomplished. If Volkswagen had built the factory in America, there would be ticket scalpers outside the door. If the Glass Factory were Stateside, however, you would not have the opportunity to enjoy a special treat when taking delivery: driving your brand-new Phaeton on an unrestricted autobahn.

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