Invincible Defeat: The VW Phaeton

Peak Piëch?

Image via carspecsreview
Image: carspecsreview

Phaeton. As a name it never really struck the right note. A little too puffed-up, ever so slightly grandiose for what really is a rather self effacing car. Perhaps in the absence of a suitably important-sounding wind, VW lacked options, or it was just another of Dr. Piëch’s flights of self-aggrandisement. 

The Phaeton was Ferdinand Piëch’s livid response to Mercedes-Benz’s encroachment into VW’s core market, produced in a specially commissioned glass factory in Dresden, which cost VW over £1bn to develop. Under-performance in the US market saw it withdrawn, while overt criticism of the model from within VW more often than not resulted in the Dark Lord having critics fed to the swine, as the likes of Bernd Pischetsrieder and Axel Mees discovered to their cost.

In the wake of last week’s dramatic climax to the Winterkorn affair, I thought it germane to poke around the Phaeton’s inert corpse, only to find that the patient is quite sentient, thanks for asking. Yes, it’s still possible to purchase a new Phaeton from your VW dealer, assuming you feel sufficiently quixotic in your sensibilities to ignore the crushing superiority (if questionable taste) of the Mercedes S-Class. Doing so would require you to also discount worthy contenders such as the Audi A8, BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XJ and Lexus LS – to say nothing of Porsche’s Panamera. Although, if you are considering a Phaeton, it’s unlikely you’re cross-shopping the Porker.

Difficult to swallow? The Phaeton didn't fly stateside. Image via timbrunelle
Difficult to swallow? The Phaeton proved a tough sell. Image: timbrunelle

Last year, VW shifted 1792* freshly pressed Phaetons in Europe, which understandably doesn’t sound like a lot. But scratch below the surface and you’ll find the big VW has remained a steady if modest seller throughout its 12 year lifespan, the Phaeton placing a surprising 6th overall in the 2014 European luxury saloon sales table. Putting this into perspective is the fact that the 5th placed Jaguar XJ, a car which has relative youth, a more distinctive appearance and a decades of heritage on its side sold only 213 units more. Does this suggest the Phaeton is closer to class norms than the Jaguar or that it represents some manner of plutocratic hairshirt?

Given its resilience, and continued demand from China, perhaps VW’s decision to replace the Phaeton isn’t so wrong-headed after all. Or would be if it wasn’t for the Audi A8, which is doing a far better job of wooing the Global business leader set. With Audi, Porsche and Bentley operating at increasingly rarefied price points within the VW umbrella, the Phaeton’s continued existence is not one built on a strong business case, more one of sheer stubborn refusal.

The World turns and uncle Ferdi has been forced to drink the hemlock prepared by his own hand. But perhaps in the Phaeton above all other VW Group model programmes lies the personification of Piëch, the epitaph to its enigmatic creator.

*Sales data:

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

31 thoughts on “Invincible Defeat: The VW Phaeton”

  1. Is the Phaeton the equivalent of Fiat’s well-engineered and high-quality 130 saloon which was also neglected by the market? It’s important to see the Phaeton as a by-product of Bentley’s Continental car line. As such its development has been paid for by the Bentley. It could also be seen as a cost of doing business. Its existence supports the claims that VW’s are a cut above other middle market cars. Judging by the pressing quality of VAG cars, lessons learned on the Phaeton were used across VAG’s product range.

    1. I like the Phaeton, outmoded as it is, mainly because of its becalmingly clean Hartmut Warkuss design. What appeared competent, but boring to my eyes a decade ago I no consider tasteful and old-fashioned in the best sense of the word.

      Regarding the Phaeton’s European sales, I feel obliged to voice a word of warning: the big VW is a notorious second-hand bargain in Germany, what with most of them worn WOB, DD or H number plates when they were first registered. The Phaeton is also the means of transport at a lot of gala events here in Germany, not to mention its ubiquity as luxury hotel limousine. In a nutshell: VAG is doing its damnest to push Phaeton sales in Germany, which, I guess, is one of the main factors behind its reasonable sales figures.

    1. As I stated above, sales of the Phaeton are pushed in such a way that they make the car appear reasonably successful. Which is quite different to developing a car with the aim of selling it in such numbers that it becomes successful and hence profitable.

      VAG considers the Phaeton a matter of image on too many levels to count, which is it will be neither allowed to die nor to be too obvious a sales flop. I haven’t got any figures at hand, but I’m very certain that the biggest part of all Phaetons on German roads have been demonstrators at some point, with the rest having been lease cars.

      To this day, the Phaeton enjoys the reputation of a “world class second hand bargain“ of a car, which is really saying a lot, given the dreadful residuals of the luxury saloon class in general.

  2. I believe most of the Phaeton “buyers” in Europe are Volkswagen Dealers or Businessmen who have leased a fleet of Passats and Golf Variant for their business fleet and don´t want too drive a Touareg….
    Or they have a well payed job as a major of a german city or as head of a district. Jörg Haider, notorious austrian right-wing politician and head of the austrian district of Kärnten, died in his Phaeton.
    And i remember tat VW offered extremely good conditions for TV-stars and starlets for being an ambassador for Volkswagen´s flagship. Not many of them followed that seduction.

    The Phaeton is giving some people a good job in Dresden, that is the best you can say about him. He is not good for Volkswagen´s earnings and for their reputation. It is a car like the Opel Diplomat – a thirsty but cheap second hand car for people that want to buy a lot of car and cylinders for their money, having soon afterwards a heart-attack by seeing the first repair-bill….

  3. Personally, I’d like a Phaeton if I was in need of such a car. But I’m not. I did once consider getting a secondhand one – the idea of a V10 even made me willing to break my diesel embargo – but even then I realised it was a stupid car for a city dweller.

    Is it clear whether the huge losses to VW on producing the Phaeton take into account the development engineering of Bentleys, or did their accountants split this? There are currently used V6 Phaetons on Autotrader from under £4,000, with a respectable looking W12 for £7,495. Used Flying Spurs start at £29,000.

    1. It is perhaps a sign of market misconceptions that a Phaeton for £7,495 would likely be considered a risky punt, whereas a Flying Spur for £29k appears a bargain.

    2. The Americans hate this car. It has a terrible reputation for poor reliability. Then again, all European cars in America share this characteristic.

  4. It seems we are all – to a point – favourably inclined towards this car, these days at least. I too had thoughts about finding and taking on a V10 diesel at some point. The comments about how most of these cars came to be on the roads of Germany (and the rest of Europe, probably) a very familiar to anyone owning a C6; as I have said before, mine was a 15 month old, ex-Citroen UK car that was sole onto me at around 40% of the retail list price. It’s fun to see them still being used by French government big-wigs when they are pictured on the TV News, and I have always mused upon whether M. Chirac or Sarkozy had a say in the car’s was commercialisation in the first place.

    1. Yes, I was thinking about the C6 when I read that. That’s always seemed to be the case with oddballs. My SM was one of two owned by a pair of brothers who ran a Citroen dealership in Petworth and, in my reasonably limited experience of Citroen dealers, I knew two more where the owners had SMs. I (of course) could say they had them because they were so good, but I do suspect that Citroen offered them at very attractive prices. But I thought Sarkozy was more of a Renault man.

  5. What gives you the impression Sarkozy liked French cars? I think he would prefer a Maserati or Cadillac. The French desperately need at least one decent big car for their heads of state. They can squeeze another few years out of the C6 but something else
    must be produced to replace it, something properly imposing.

    1. Yes, that is right, and it was a deliberate gesture to distance himself from President Bling-Bling – i.e. more man of the people. I think it would have worked better waving through the rolled-back roof of a 2CV. Somehow,the mis-fire of the gesture set the precedent for his Presidency.

    1. The product of a now unfashionably low window-line, which actually provides a very pleasantly light and airy travelling environment.

    2. I was thinking more about standing next to it, compared to a VelSatis. But your point is equally valid.

  6. Ah, the Vel Satis. What an interior that had.
    I now get the Espace: it’s going to be the French car of state.
    Hurry up Citroen with your large car, please.

    1. I think a big DS concept car was shown last year. It didn’t look very Citroenesque though, being aimed at China. Maybe that’ll be the basis for something. I live in hope!

    2. “I now get the Espace: it’s going to be the French car of state.”

      Correct, if only by default. People carriers even in top spec guise where always a step too far for ferrying VVIP’s. Too utilitarian (that’s a question of perception more than anything else) and not comfortable enough (that’s a more tangible criteria on the part of the passengers). The only exception I can remember is Serge Dassault, Chairman of Dassault Aviation, being driven around in a top end Citroen Evasion (or maybe it was a Peugeot 806) back in the late 90’s. Same as this one but in red:

  7. I still love when I see a new model Phaeton, I get that rare car spotted excitement feeling. I will get an even stronger feeling now that I know only 1792 were sold last year in Europe.

    1. Welcome to DTW, Sam. The Phaeton is in that class of rarities including the Avantime, Vel Satis, Thesis and C6. You do tend to notice these when they make their rare appearances. I must find out when the Phaeton was discontinued in RHD form. The big difference is that VAG have supported the car in the way the others didn’t.

  8. I’m ambivalent about the Phaeton. I too love to see a Phaeton and never fail to stop and admire the lines and detailing. But I just wish VW had focused on simple but top quality craft and engineering, instead of loading it with tons of iffy electronics which cost a bomb to fix when they fail (which they invariably do). In that sense it’s no better than the rest of the range below it.

  9. That would have been a novel appproach but Piech wanted it to be a technological tour de force. He would not have undestod simple excellence. It had to have its complications. They didn’t consider the sixth owner; silly really as those old excelllent Mercs are still selling the new ones for MB.

    1. Indeed, that’s how you build a honest reputation, and traditionally that’s never done sales any harm. Whereas in this case they didn’t even consider the first owner and the cost they would be facing if they were the kind who would buy a car and actually intend to keep it for more than three years, which is truly shameful.

    1. Charles: I’m seeing marked similarities to the current generation Mercedes S-Class – in the shoulder line and in the tail treatment. Mind you, the more formal looking DLO is considerably better in this instance. Overall though, and despite being a decent effort, I don’t think we’re missing a lost masterpiece.

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