The time a man in Wolfsburg had his wildest idea.
Everyone has a Volkswagen story. To some, they're effortless people's cars, cheap and cheerful transportation with a bit of German flair. To others, they're a lifestyle choice, something that sticks out from the mundanity of your normal Toyotas and Hondas. To Camilo, they're a disaster. But nevertheless, they've ingrained themselves into society by the tag that their name literally implies: the people's car, which makes it all the more strange when they set out to build the complete opposite in the early-2000s.
Back around 2001-2002, VW boss Ferdinand Piech was having a bit of a midlife crisis in CEO terms. He had just finished ironing out the purchasing of heralded brands such as Bentley and Lamborghini, and was about to push the motion to build the world's fastest production car, a fire-breathing V16-powered machine we would soon know as the Bugatti Veyron. However, he also got it in his head to start building something special at the ground level, for the brand that started it all, Volkswagen. Instead of building something sensible, like a new super-powered Golf or a new Microbus, they decided the best course of action was, of all things, an S-Class competitor.
One slew of business meetings and a lot of concepts later, what Volkswagen created almost managed to topple the biggest rivals from Stuttgart and Munich, and even stared its cousins from Ingolstadt and Crewe right in the face, at least on paper. The reality of the situation was not so kind, as the car in question could never quite shed the "people's car" image. In my opinion, though, it was the best thing Volkswagen ever built.
It is, of course, the amazing Phaeton.
The story goes that when Piech set out to create the Phaeton, he wanted the build the best car in the world. That's a term that gets passed around a lot, especially when referring to these full-size ultra luxury sedans; hell, it seems almost cliche that every review of the latest S-Class has to refer to the car as such. Regardless, Piech demanded the finest quality, technology, and over-engineering to make the Phaeton reality.
Every Phaeton was built inside a space-age Gläserne Manufaktur (Transparent Factory) in Dresden, which manufactured all of the components to the car in-house. The platform was built from the ground up, and at the time, shared only with the D3 Audi A8, but with suspension components tuned for a softer, more luxurious ride (versus the A8's harsher, sports sedan attitude). Every Phaeton left the factory with a 4MOTION AWD system and 5-speed automatic transmission system (the car gained an additional speed later on in its production run.
Piech had a list of extensive demands for the Phaeton's driveline, including the request of being able to drive 200 mph continuously in temperatures of upwards of 120 degrees farenheit, whilst maintaining an interior temperature of around 70 degrees. Volkswagen achieved this feat with a variety of engines, ranging from a modest V6 TDI diesel motor, a mid-level V8, and even the famous TDI V10 that made waves in the Touareg SUV. But, the best powerplant for this massive sedan has to be the venerable W12, producing 309 kW (420 PS; 414 bhp) and 550 N⋅m (406 lbf⋅ft) of torque.
The massive W12 powerplant would easily hoist the heavy Phaeton to 60 mph around 6 seconds flat, and easily cruised to a limited top speed of 155 mph (but speeds close to 200 were an easy feat) without breaking a single sweat. Coupled with the effortlessly smooth and quiet feeling, the Phaeton made for an executive express that could nearly leave the comparable Mercedes in the dust.
The top-quality finish of the Phaeton extended inside, with a cabin finished in the finest German leathers and wood veneers throughout. Satellite navigation was standard, as well as a trick 4-zone climate control with a selection of wood panels that would hide the vents when not in use (or when in use, to create what Jeremy Clarkson called "central heating"). The Phaeton was also the first Volkswagen available with radar-guided cruise control, and all of the technologies throughout created for over one-hundred individual patents to be filed by Volkswagen.
Amenities continued in the back, where the W12 could be specced with a four-seat configuration with a climate control and console system that mimicked the one up front. The seats reclined, were heated/cooled, and even featured massage functions on certain models.
So, some of you at this point and time might be asking why the Phaeton hasn't solidified itself further in the annals of automotive history, and why there isn't a new generation of the car still being sold today. If you're American like me, you may be flocking to your local marketplace in the search of one, and have quickly found yourself scratching your head in wonderment as to why we only got the Phaeton for two measly production years. Well, allow me to explain why the Phaeton also stands as one of Volkswagen's biggest fumbles in their vast history.
Frankly, the Phaeton was doomed from the start, as it couldn't shake the image set by the badge placed upon the grille. In America, as well as various other parts of the globe, Volkswagen is a cheap car company that produces cheap commuter hatchbacks and sedans for small prices. It was a massive culture shock to see a brand that produced the adorable and cheap Beetle from many years ago suddenly thrust upon us a car with the quality of a Bentley. Couple that with the fact that many Volkswagen dealership networks didn't exactly know how to advertise and sell the car, let alone service the car when issues would arise. This led to many finding themselves lost at the notion of owning a car of such style from a brand such as this, especially when the price of a well-optioned W12 Phaeton was so close to that of a Mercedes-Benz S600 of the same era, and the Mercedes had a proper dealer and service network to boot.
Then, finally we come to the biggest Achille's heel of the Phaeton: its reliability. The problem with a car of this ilk and all of its new technology at the time is that certain systems and features tend to break down over time, leading it to be a hassle for second, third, and fourth owners, as most Phaetons are now. Many car geeks will tell you to stay away from the Phaeton at all costs, and they aren't exactly wrong for doing so, as repair bills now will easily cost into the thousands for even the simplest of repairs. It's not impossible to journey into Phaeton ownership, and when it's working, I'd say it's worth it...but I recommend setting aside a hefty chunk of change just in case.
Ferdinand Piech wanted the perfect car from Volkswagen, and for what it's worth, he got what he wanted. But looking back, maybe the Phaeton was too advanced for its time, and just a bit misguided from the get-go. Volkswagen eventually eventually ended Phaeton production worldwide in 2016, where it was soon replaced in China (the Phaeton's biggest market) by the Phideon, a car with similar goals, but with less of the pizazz that the Phaeton had (namely, W12 power). The Phaeton itself lives on in the legacy of cars such as the current Audi A8 and Porsche Panamera, both of which host various technologies whose infancies first found their life in the Phaeton, but arguably its biggest successor is the Bentley Continental Flying Spur, who used the Phaeton's platform upon introduction in 2004, and is currently going into its third generation today. Luckily for all of us, the Bentley still uses the W12 too.
I'd like to thank AutoArt for building this amazing Phaeton model back in the day, it's an immaculate representation of the model, and a great addition to the collection of a Phaeton fan like myself. If you are wondering though, I have experienced a Phaeton firsthand thanks to my job, and it's every bit as great as its legend let on. Perhaps one day if I ever hit the lotto, maybe a Phaeton can find its way into my garage. Until then, I can only look back in respect at the time Volkswagen flexed a bit of its muscle in the most oddball way.