DRESDEN – Our much ballyhooed, super-lux Volkswagen Phaeton awaits at Dresden's small airport. There is no traditional folded map to follow. Instead, there is satellite navigation.

Time is short. The dashboard-mounted key is turned. Nothing. Only after looking at the rev counter, needle fixed at a constant 640 rpm, does it become apparent the engine is alive – so hushed, the car’s 414-hp W-12 engine can’t be heard when the cabin doors and double-glazed windows are closed.

Volkswagen Phaeton

VW's engineers, aware that first-time buyers likely will make the same mistake and believe the car has stalled, have developed a system that prevents the electronics from engaging the starter motor when the engine is running. Only Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus LS 430, among the Phaeton's rivals, has an engine approaching this level of quiet.

Right foot pressed toward the floor, the engine emits a distant burble. At an 80-mph (129-km), 2,500-rpm cruise, it is unheard over the hum of the 255/45 R18 Bridgestone Potenzas. At 100 mph (161 km), wind noise from the exterior mirrors begins to intrude. The engine only truly can be heard when the pace is stepped up, and then as a remote purr. Clearly, VW's new Phaeton passes the first crucial measure of any luxury car.

Looking under the aluminum hood, with the attached grille rising in unison, explains how VW achieves this extraordinary level of refinement. The W-12, its magnesium intake manifold virtually filling the small space, sits in a near-closed compartment.

One-piece rubber seals, such as those from a VW door, surround the engine opening to match up with others on the hood, which itself wears a lining of soundproofing material, plus two pollen filters.

VW's version of the 6L W-12 – two VW V-6s mated to a common crankshaft and block at an angle of 72 degrees (introduced for the Audi A8 more than a year ago) – produces the same 414 hp and 406 lb.-ft. (550 Nm) of torque, but there are differences.

The most important: Where Audi uses a dry-sump to package the engine in the available space, VW prefers wet-sump lubrication. As with the Audi, the W12 Phaeton drives all four wheels via a ZF 5-speed automatic.

The W12 is the pinnacle of the Phaeton range. VW's S-Class-sized limousine, launched with a 3.2L front-wheel-drive V-6, later will offer a 5L V-10 turbodiesel (with 6-speed automatic); a V-6 turbodiesel and a thoroughly redeveloped version of Audi's existing V-8. (Passat's 3.8L W-8 was not considered sufficiently powerful to bridge the gap between the V-6 and W-12).

What's immediately obvious, after appreciating the silence of the engine, is that the W12 Phaeton is more hedonistic than sporting. Plutocratic buyers know what to expect from the Mercedes S-Class. And even though the BMW 7-Series sends mixed messages, it's more driver-oriented.

But Phaeton’s sheer dimensions exude authority, placing it closer to the S-Class and Lexus and, given its sibling relationship, the Audi A8.

Smoothness and precision come naturally, the balanced weighting of the major controls contributing to the sense that this is a coordinated car of intrinsic quality.

The electronic accelerator makes pulling away as smooth as possible. The steering is quick – 2.7 turns. The Servotronic assistance means the steering also is light at suburban speeds, isolating the driver almost totally from the action, despite a slight increase of resistance as speeds rise.

The lack of any conventional feedback suits the Phaeton's gracious manners. Not that the VW limo asks to be driven only in moderation. Push hard and the W12 effortlessly gathers momentum. It’s quicker than it feels – 0-to-62 mph (100 km/h) takes just 6.1 seconds.

Yet the perception of a very heavy car never goes away. All the extras (most standard), such as all-wheel drive, numerous measures to achieve the near-silent engine and the largely steel construction, mean the W12, at an immense 5,113 lbs. (2,319 kg), is notably heavier than its rivals.

Even the short-wheelbase Mercedes S600 is 791 lbs. (359 kg) lighter; the A8 lighter by 913 lbs. (414 kg); and the Silver Seraph Rolls-Royce a mere 174 lbs. more. All of which explains the 13 mpg (18L/100 km) and the comparatively short range from the 23.7 gallon (89.7L) fuel tank.

Most Phaeton drivers undoubtedly will leave the automatic in Drive or Sport mode (which eliminates fifth gear), yet the Phaeton delivers two other methods of changing gears. Tap the console selector to the right and it enters Tiptronic mode, swapping ratios by pushing the selector away (downshift) or pulling it back (upshift).

At the insistence of Ferdinand Piech, VW's recently retired chairman, the optional (and Ferrari-like) cast-aluminum paddles are fixed to the steering column. They perform the same Tiptronic function more naturally, though initially, they're easy to confuse with the steering-column stalks.

Not that you can hold the transmission in gear. Once the engine reaches 6,300 rpm, 300 rpm above redline, it slips up a ratio regardless of the gear-changing method employed.

Top speed? Nominally, the Phaeton adheres to the German maker’s self-imposed limit of 155 mph (249 km/h). But the engineers admit dealers are empowered to remove the electronic limiter, lifting maximum to 178 mph (286 km/h), the W-12 spinning at 5,650 rpm, still 350 rpm shy of peak power.

In addition to effortless performance and whisper-quiet behavior, it's critically important that the Phaeton delivers superb ride comfort. With the help of Audi, VW engineers have developed a clever height-adjustable air suspension (think Audi Allroad) that sets out to achieve the contradictory aims of comfort and sportiness.

In most circumstances, the super-cosseting ride is comfortable, the combination of soft springing and great mass working together to banish anything as crude as an irregular road surface intruding on the interior calm.

Even in the default Base setting, level two of four selectable positions from Comfort to Sport 2, the suspension feels remote, separating the occupants from the road. In Comfort, the chassis responses are slow, despite the air suspension's ability to switch to a firmer setting in 0.5 seconds to control body movements.

The magic-carpet sensation disappears on the aged concrete autobahn between Dresden and Berlin. Here, the difference between Base and Sport becomes obvious as the car passes over the road’s frequent expansion joints.

Against this harsh setting, the suspension is taut, jerking over bumps and occasionally causing creaks in the body, despite torsional rigidity that sets a production-car record of 37,000 Nm/degree.

The ride is notably more absorbent, if still noisy, in the default position. Predictably, the basic handling is contained understeer; the mostly flat, straight roads leaving plenty of unanswered questions about the car’s cross-country ability.

To halt Phaeton’s mass, VW employs 8-piston brake calipers and discs made by Brembo. The 14.4-in. (37-cm) front discs use fixed-yoke monobloc technology previously used only for the Lamborghini Murcielago.

Modulation is progressive, but the brakes moan during a powerful high-speed stop. Engineers say that at the first year's model change, the foot-operated parking brake changes to an electronic handbrake.

VW's taken a conservative route in the cabin. It's comfortable and superbly finished. And although it lacks the perception of spaciousness found in an S-Class, two 6-ft. (1.8-m)-tall persons can easily ride in tandem. The back seats match the large front buckets in comfort and, at least on the optional buckets of the test car, the range of adjustability.

A vast central console divides the cabin into four separate zones. The Phaeton is laden with every conceivable GM Powertrain goodie, including vanity mirrors offering two degrees of magnification and the ability to read the entire owner’s handbook on the console screen.

Controlling all this takes 120 buttons and switches, not counting the 14 on the steering wheel or the 48 for the rear passengers, who get individual air conditioning settings.

Despite this proliferation, the "infotainment" system is far more intuitive than in BMW’s 7-Series. VW has dropped its trademark blue instrument hue, preferring white lighting and red pointers.

Sumptuous and silent, swift and serene, the Phaeton immediately establishes the credibility of its luxury DNA. Whether that’s enough to tempt upscale car buyers away from their Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7-Series has yet to be determined.