Wolfsburg to Dresden by Phaeton

David E. Davis, Jr.
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02 David E Davis Jr

We drove to Dresden from Wolfsburg—a distance of 190 miles—in the new Volkswagen Phaeton luxury sedan. The Phaeton is swift, silent, and surefooted, and no one can quite figure out why Volkswagen felt compelled to build it. One of my colleagues called it "the imitation Mercedes" with a note of condescension. Another said that it looked like a Lexus LS430 and drove like last year's BMW 7-series.

An old friend, with years of business experience in the German automobile industry, said, "Meetings are a large part of an executive's life in Germany. Not just the usual corporate stuff, but great trans-industry congresses attended by representatives of every car company, where they discuss enormous cosmic issues. When the heavies from Mercedes-Benz and BMW roll up to the entrance in S600s and 760s, the Volkswagen guy in a Passat—even a Passat powered by the W8 engine—feels a little untermensch. He wishes that he, too, could be seen disembarking from a large, imposing autobahn cruiser. Now he has one."

The Phaeton is certainly good enough to succeed in the crowded luxury-car market. Is the Volkswagen marketing organization good enough to make that happen? Probably. Who would have believed they could sell more than 100,000 Passats in the United States? Who would have believed that Toyota could introduce the Lexus and see 90 percent of Lexus dealers profitable at the end of the first year? Product is the key to success, and Volkswagen will come to market with a fully competitive product, just as it did with the Passat.

One reason for our drive to Dresden was the presence there of VW's new "transparent manufactory," where Phaetons go through final assembly. This is a huge glass mausoleum with parquet floors, which seems to have been built as a memorial to Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche and the architect of Volkswagen's revival. "Piëch World," you might call it. One imagines Dr. Piëch, eccentric and insatiable even in death, lying Lenin-like in full view on a crystal catafalque in his great glass palace. Piëch World! Bring the children!

The "transparent manufactory" is strangely quiet. As one peers down from the lofty galleries, it's difficult to tell if anything's going on. No dirt. No smoke. No steam. No noise. No activity. There are people working down there, but they seem to be in a dreamlike state—moving around underwater, working at tasks that are never completed. I was glad to escape. Later, our tour guide, a professor of German language and history from the local university, said, "It is a wonderful addition to our city's industrial landscape, and if it doesn't work, it will make a nice aquarium."

The drive to Dresden was fascinating. We drove these very fast sedans, often at very high speeds. The car I drove was very close to a top-of-the-line U.S. model—W12 engine, long wheelbase, a full and somewhat confusing array of electronic gizmos controlled by a maze of buttons and knobs surrounding the multi-function satellite-navigation screen in center dash. BMW's iDrive may be difficult to master, but it is a reasonable attempt to simplify this crowd of small controls and help keep the driver's attention on the road.

Driving across the former East Germany on autobahns new and old, plus a series of narrow country roads, brought us face to face with the differences between East and West. Eastern Germany's towns and villages still look like, well, East Germany. Unemployment is at eighteen percent, and far too many Gen-Xers are fleeing to the economic opportunity of the west. The countryside is beautiful—more beautiful than that of western Germany—because there is so little development, so little growth.

Dresden made a powerful impression. On the night of February 13, 1945, the city, which was not considered to be a strategic target by either side, was firebombed by waves of British and American heavy bombers. The results of the bombing were horrendous, in that 80 percent of the city's infrastructure was flattened and burned, and 35,000 Dresdeners died in a single night. This number did not include crowds of American, British, and Commonwealth prisoners of war, Wehrmacht stragglers, or refugees from the east fleeing the Russian's advance. To appreciate what it was like to be an American POW in Dresden that night, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is a must read.

There is just enough of the 1945 destruction left to provide a contrast to the astonishing work of restoration that has taken place in the years since. Contemporary architects complain that Dresden is becoming a theme park, but dozens, hundreds, of important old buildings have been re-created exactly as they were. Any car enthusiast who has marveled at the re-creation of some lovely historic car, with only its serial number and contemporary photographs as a starting point, will marvel at Dresden. Several friends and former colleagues were with me on this trip, and I must confess that we were strangely ambivalent toward the destruction wrought by our fathers and uncles, yet sincerely uplifted by the city's rebirth.

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