DRESDEN, Germany – Cruising the Autobahn from here to Berlin in the new, long-wheelbase ’04 Volkwagen Phaeton engineered for North America, the electronically governed speed inhibitors kick in at 155 mph (250 km/h), and you are surprised – for a number of reasons.

VW Phaeton is for those who want luxury without flaunting it.

There is a subtlety to how quickly and easily the first ultra-luxury sedan to wear a Volkswagen badge, reaches top speed. And, once there, it doesn’t feel like twice the normal driving speed – by North American standards. This sedan, 5-ins. (13-cm) longer than the Phaeton already on sale in Europe, is as solid and steady as it is quiet.

There are no titillating surges along the way, no snap-you-back-into-the-seat feats of acceleration.

But the North American version, both with the 6.0L W-12 engine (420 hp and 406 lb.-ft. [550 Nm] of torque at 6,000 rpm), and the 4.2L DOHC V-8 (335 hp and 317 lb.-ft. [430 Nm] of torque at 3,500 rpm) that was added with the U.S. market in mind, get the job done and then some.

Passing other cars on this road of no posted speed limits, the Phaeton is admired and ignored in equal numbers.

Therein lies the contradiction that characterizes this luxury sedan as it prepares for its year-end sales debut in the U.S. (See related story: VW Phaeton’s Road to North America)

This is a calculated-risk vehicle for the German auto maker in taking the mainsteam VW brand into Audi territory. Its elegant but conservative styling, from tapered front end to bright round taillights, will be marketed to those who have wealth and want a befitting ride – but don’t want to flaunt it.

It is assembled in a glass palace here, where buyers are encouraged to take a pre-delivery tour to appreciate the handcraftsmanship that went into its assembly. (See related story: VW’s Transparent Factory Testament to Luxury)

Impressive is the soft Italian leather and walnut or eucalyptus wood that goes into the interior. Not so are the plastic portion of the center console and some poor fit-and-finish issues where materials meet along the instrument panel.

More admirable is the trunk that holds four sets of golf clubs and the three impressive aluminum hinges for the power-closing decklid.

The navigation system within the integrated infotainment center could be more intuitive – but in the end it had no problem directing the car to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

Most buyers are expected to opt for the 5-seat model, but customization makes available a 4-seat layout with a wood-trimmed console running the length of the vehicle, dividing heated and ventilated seats in both rows.

The W-12 comes with an incredibly comfortable 18-way adjustable front seat complete with massage and 4-way power lumbar support. Add to that an indirect-air, 4-zone climate-control system with humidity sensors, heated washer nozzles for the front windshield, oversized sunroof and privacy shades for the back and side windows. A coating of infrared foil on the windows makes them heat-reflective and shatter-resistant.

The shorter-wheelbase Phaeton (only available in Europe, with a V-6, W-12 or diesel engine) has seen disappointing sales after one year on the market. Waiting for the bigger and more powerful model for sale in North America is considered crucial to its sales success.

The new length, almost 204 ins. (518 cm) long, with a 118-in. (300-cm) wheelbase, also takes it from being mistaken for an oversized Passat, to a pseudo-limousine of pleasing proportions. All additional space is in the rear seats, including extended doors for easier entry.

The W-12 consists of two small V-6 modules laid out on a 72-degree angle, plus a shared 7-bearing crankshaft, fitting together in a compact design to create the “W” that is its namesake. The W-12 is mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission, but the V-8 gets a 6-speed automatic. Both come with VW’s 4MOTION permanent all-wheel-drive system with a Torsen center differential that automatically regulates the 50/50 power distribution to front and rear axles.

Continuous Damping Control adapts the 4-corner air-suspension system to driving conditions. It has two driver-adjustable heights and four shock-absorber settings. Less body roll is produced in the advanced sport setting than in the comfort mode. In all settings, the driver stays reassuringly in touch with the road.

Steering and braking are precise on Eastern German roads, which can give way to cobblestone and single lanes where large trucks are not always inclined to give up the right of way. No noticeable understeer results from power-assisted front-vented disc brakes that are much bigger up front (14 ins. by 1.3 ins. [360 mm by 34 mm]) than at the rear (12.2 ins. by 0.87 [310 by 22]).

Safety features include side curtain protection, eight airbags and advanced electronic stability control. A dual-battery system ensures startup in all weather.

The next challenge will be to kick-start sales. Pricing starts at $64,600 for the 4.2L V-8, while the top-of-the-line W-12-powered model will base at $79,900.

VW hopes to sell 2,500 and 3,000 Phaetons in the U.S. in 2004 and build to 4,000-5,000 North American sales annually.

The auto maker insists the North American luxury Phaeton will be in this market for the long haul. If so, the journey will be a pleasant one.