The Knowledge: Roll the dice and grab yourself a slice of Volkswagen Phaeton
Alex has been a road tester and motoring writer for more than 10 years, and has written on new, used and classic cars for What Car?, Autocar, The Daily Telegraph and PistonHeads, among many others.
As potentially terrifying ownership prospects go, the Volkswagen Phaeton is up there. The brainchild of the late Dr Ferdinand Piech, the man to whom much of Volkswagen’s modern success is credited, it was conceived to prove that Volkswagen could do much more than just churn out Golfs and Passats – and to test whether luxury car buyers would really take to the idea of one with a Volkswagen badge.
In the event, they didn’t. The Phaeton was something of a flop, and its lofty aims of establishing a Volkswagen-badged rival to cars like the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S-Class came to naught. But that didn’t make the car a duffer. In fact, the many millions that Volkswagen poured into the Phaeton’s development resulted in a car that surpassed anyone’s expectations.
The Volkswagen Phaeton is also available in tasteful interior finishes (not shown here)
It was, for starters, beautifully put together. Inside, fit and finish was exemplary, and there were top-quality plastics, vast swathes of expensive leather and acres of wood trim throughout.
You could have your Phaeton with Volkswagen’s flagship W12 engine – the like of which you’d also find in the Bentley Continental GT – or a host of other options, including a V10 turbodiesel, a V8 petrol and both petrol and diesel V6s. Whichever you chose, you got enviable levels of refinement and comfort, and a host of toys.
For example, air suspension was standard, as were satellite navigation, those plush leather seats and climate control. The options list, meanwhile, was replete with high-tech gadgetry, some of which is still considered advanced today.
Underneath that tailgate lies the most beautifully crafted boot hinges you'll have ever seen
These days, of course, those toys can cause trouble. While Phaeton owners say it’s generally pretty reliable, it’s also massively complex and therefore costly to repair when it does go wrong. That having been said, it should be no more so in the grand scheme of things than the Mercs and BMWs it rivalled in its day.
Why you should buy one now?
If you’re prepared to put up with the costs involved in running one, a Phaeton currently looks like an extraordinary amount of car for the money. Prices, somewhat unbelievably, start at less than £2,000, though we’d steer clear of any car going for this sort of cash as it’ll likely have done big miles and be more than a little bit daggy.
The Volkswagen Phaeton gets the palatial legroom expected of a large executive saloon
£3,000 should be enough to put you behind the wheel of a reasonable example with average miles, but expect to pay £4,000 to get a tidy, low-mileage car with evidence of sympathetic maintenance. A facelifted car dating from 2013 or thereabouts could cost you upwards of £10,000, though even at these higher prices, the Phaeton feels like a bit of a bargain compared with its luxury car rivals – look at how much you’d pay for a six-year-old S-Class, by comparison, and you’ll see what we mean.
What to look out for
As we’ve mentioned, the Phaeton has a good reputation for reliability, though it is expensive to fix, so if you’re serious about buying, we’d advise talking to a specialist first. Here are a few of the obvious things to watch out for, though:
V6 TDI cars have intake swirl flaps which can stop working, throwing up an engine management light; new manifolds are pricey from Volkswagen, but a much cheaper repair kit is now available.
Even the basic V6 diesel offers surging performance along with the best fuel economy in the range
The air suspension can throw up several issues, including sensor faults and punctured bags. Check the car sits level before you start the engine, and doesn’t sink when you turn the engine off.
Random electrical faults could point to a dodgy battery; Phaetons are heavy on their batteries so check the car starts fine, but also leave it in accessory mode for a bit first to see whether it asks you to ‘start engine’ – this could be a sign of a low battery, too.
The Phaeton's blown-up Passat body couldn't generate the cachet of the Mercedes S-Class it competed with
The wiring harness for the boot lid can become dislodged, frayed and even trapped between the lid and the rear screen, causing the screen to crack when you shut it, so check it looks intact and isn't about to fall apart.
V8-engined cars are the only Phaetons that require a cambelt change, and as you might expect, it doesn’t come cheap – you won’t get much change from £1,000.
Buy a good Phaeton with a comprehensive history, though, and it might be more reliable than you think. And if you set aside a bit of cash to deal with unexpected expenses, the joys of Phaeton ownership may well end up outweighing the costs.
Bring the freshness back
What new (to you) Phaeton is complete without a new-car scented Magic Tree air freshener to to remove the residue odours of whoever owned it previously.