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 Under-performance in the US market saw it withdrawn, while overt criticism of the model from within VW more often than not resulted in the Dark Lord having critics fed to the swine, as the likes of Bernd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.
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: Left-Lane.com