Unexceptional Classics

Volkswagen’s Phaeton got everything wrong – and that’s why we like it

by Giles Chapman
28 October 2021 3 min read
Volkswagen’s Phaeton got everything wrong – and that’s why we like it
Photos: Volkswagen

It seems that for five grand you can get yourself a peach of a Volkswagen Phaeton, probably with enough change to replenish its echoing fuel tank a couple of times. I say that as a casual browser of small ads rather than a committed kicker of a Phaeton’s massive, expensive tyres. Because with a luxury car of this complexity, you’ll be inviting trouble to step into your home and take away your silver candlesticks.

It was intended as a limo for the shy but rich individual and could never be recommended as a secondhand buy for someone with mortgage payments to meet. You will have to make a difficult choice: have it serviced or take the family away on holiday? Only one of these will be popular.

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Having said that, I have encountered Phaetons on suburban cab ranks a few times. The owner-drivers are the ones who chase 4am business trip airport-run work, but the mingled aromas of top-notch leather upholstery and Magic Tree is always incongruous.

Volkswagen Phaeton interior
All the buttons – but failed to press the right buttons with buyers of expensive cars

I also have personal experience of someone who actually bought one new, a flatmate from the early 1980s who made an absurdly large amount of money in the City. Enough dosh to take his Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow to Hong Kong when he was posted out there, and then submit it for a money-no-object restoration after it came home again ravaged by humidity. A man with a fanatical attention to the detail of socks, cufflinks, waistcoats and trouser turn-ups, he was self-conscious and loaded enough to buy his Phaeton in the spirit for which it was intended: a superlux saloon for those who love quality but feel they have nothing to prove to the outside world, and enjoy the peculiar arcana of below-the-radar indulgences.

Piëch’s pet project

The Phaeton itself was the pet project of scary superbrain Ferdinand Piëch, described by veteran motoring journalist Ray Hutton as one of automotive’s ‘great dictators’. Having forced his way to the top of VW through steely will and engineering brilliance – this was Mr Audi Quattro – Piëch decided that the People’s Car in fact deserved to be a Top People’s Car after its decades of raising the bar in popular motoring. Volkswagen would get a flagship every bit as good as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and Jaguar XJ12, and he justified his 12-cylinder behemoth by claiming that Merc had muscled in on the Golf’s patch with its A-Class, so now it was going to feel the fightback at the uppermost echelon.

In fact… the Phaeton could be justified by the accountants shaking under Piëch’s unblinking, Donald Pleasance gaze because it was a platform-sharer, in this case with Bentley’s new Flying Spur, while its eerily refined and powerful 6-litre W12-configuration power unit would similarly come from the Bentley Continental GT.

How the Volkswagen Phaeton failed
Land of the bland

The production Phaeton was launched at the Geneva motor show in 2002 to a reception that was anything but rapturous. The audience there likes its hype and pomp, yet here was an inflated Passat likely to whisper past people and cause not one second glance. The tech, which drew on some 100 new patents, was at the customary Piëch level of fastidiousness, and the standard four-wheel drive and 3-litre V6 diesel option came from the already estimable Audi A8. Two wheelbase lengths and sumptuous and palatial if rather sombre accommodation were provided, and the Phaeton was built in a Dresden factory with glass walls so anyone could see the exacting, clinical methods in progress. If Angela Merkell had designed a luxury car, here’s how it would likely have turned out.

China crisis

The solemn anonymity of power did have its appeal, especially in China where there was steady demand, although US interest drained away after three years and stories of electrical hiccups in a car that, reportedly, was designed to drive all day across 50deg of Nevada desert at 186mph (while being artificially limited to 130) with the air-con on full.

Story of the Volkswagen Phaeton

The transparent plant was set up to build 20,000 Phaetons a year, with scope for even more, yet after a few years annual output was more like 4000, and most of those headed for Beijing. It was clear that, when dropping 80 grand, most buyers wanted mobile bling that reflected that profligate outlay. My smart old friend included: he got rid and started to smile again with a Bentley Continental GT. The keynote W12 engine was quietly axed after a few years, replaced by various Audi petrol motors, and in 2016 the latterly facelifted Phaeton made its aloof exit from the car world. Piëch passed on just three years later. Like the Phaeton, we’ll not see his like again; he pretty much took the fossil-fuel-powered car to its limits of efficient perfection, this one included.

A Phaeton, deluxe minicab or not these days, is a natural for Hagerty’s Festival of the Unexceptional. Few will have seen one of these executive fun-sponges, and not many more will know what it is. If you do buy one, though, and the experience is both costly and strangely dispiriting, then don’t say we advised it.

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  • Nigel Griffiths says:

    I can’t think of many mass market producers that have successfully moved into the top premium spots. Perhaps Toyota did with the Lexus but again I don’t think the Lexus competes with the Rolls Royce, Bentley, or even the big Mercedes. My perception is that Lexus have moved down the premium market but perhaps that’s unfair.

  • Neil Cooper says:

    Very understated car my friend had one from new I personally serviced it every 10k and apart from its love of front tyres it never missed a beat all thr way to almost 300k it was then sold on and replaced with a vw toureg the pheaton was a brilliant car

  • Adrian Clarke says:

    I think our colleague in the US Jack Baruth bought half of them

  • Jonathan says:

    I bought one new (with my own money) – a 2008 UK spec 3 litre diesel. I had a S430 petrol W220 S Class before it and a diesel S320 cdi W221 S Class afterwards.
    Over 40k miles I found the Phaeton to be slightly inferior to drive – handling, steering, ride, but I reckon the Phaeton was better built and, in my experience, as, if not more, reliable. I bought it with a big discount, at significantly less cost than the S Classes, but the depreciation was much heavier, hence I didn’t buy another (I didn’t much like the rather pointless facelift either). Great value second hand though, but they now seem to be getting scarce and most seem to have intergalactic mileages and dubious service history.
    Probably the best way to sample Phaeton delights is to buy a 2006-13 Bentley Flying Spur. Quite a few around – a Phaeton reskin with all the familiar Phaeton knobs and features – and with the W12 engine it was designed for.

  • Ian Entwistle says:

    As someone who has owned 3 of them one being the astonishing 5 litre v10 twin turbo version they are no more fragile nor expensive than a similar spec a8/7 series.

    In over 150k miles the worst bill I had was a 1k kessy unit when it got wet. (stupid place to put sensitive electronics is in a well at the lowest point of the car)

    a decent independent specialist helps keep any others costs down.

    As for driving I loved it, so solid and hewn from rock feeling and sure footed as they get. The v10 was unreal in how it could gather speed for something that weighs what it does.

    Spec wise they vary so much so shop around for the higher spec models.

  • John says:

    Hi just looking to buy one,read your report 🙂, in a nut shell,yes,are no,78k,looks very nice and full service history,someone please reply 🙂.

  • John says:

    Thanks 😊

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