Irreparable. A good word for a bad condition, one that seemingly applies both to the electrical system of our Four Seasons Volkswagen Phaeton and to the reputation of Ferdinand Pich, who brought this magnificently irrelevant (rich) People’s Car into existence.
Megalomania caused the original KdF Volkswagen to be created, but it is a dangerous quality in the modern automotive world. Volkswagen’s bread-and-butter cars were neglected and underfunded for years to finance the Phaeton, leading to Volkswagen’s crisis situation today. On one hand, its mechanical organs provided a splendid source of components for the and the brilliant Bentley Continental GT coupe and Flying Spur sedan; on the other, it now seems quite likely that Bentley and Audi, not VW, will be the high-volume users of those expensively developed “cheap” parts.
Volkswagen has not been able to flog many Phaetons anywhere in the world, despite the cars’ intrinsic worth and lavish incentives. The hundreds of millions of euros spent on the spectacular glass-walled factory in Dresden will be justified, if they ever are, by the Bentleys made there to satisfy demand that creaky old Crewe cannot satisfy, even working at full capacity. Forget that nearly Microbus-size badge on the grille for a moment and just take the Phaeton for what it is: a worthy rival to the Mercedes-Benz S-class at which it was, however foolishly, initially aimed.
When everything worked as intended, our Phaeton was an excellent automobile with a beautifully outfitted and extremely comfortable interior. In Europe, VW offers it with both gasoline and diesel engines, in V-6, V-8, V-10, and W-12 configurations, but we get only the Hungarian-built 4.2-liter V-8-the best choice for America-and the W-12.
Our Four Seasons V-8-engined Phaeton covered great distances with relaxing ease and surprising economy-better than 21 mpg at 80 mph. Its ride was all that we Americans expect from plenty of “road-hugging weight,” which this VW, at 4971 pounds empty, has in spades. Bad weather meant little to the all-wheel-drive Phaeton, which is graced with excellent traction.
All of this is positive, but we found that a really big, really expensive sedan with sober, unremarkable ber-Passat styling and complex systems of shaky reliability is totally out of place in ordinary Volkswagen dealerships, where buyers prepared to pay more than $70,000 for a luxury car are neither likely drop-in customers nor particularly well-treated if they do make their way to a down-market sales outlet. The dealer we used in California had sold only two Phaetons, one of them to another dealer who wanted a specific color. Presumably it was something more exciting than the “coucou gray” of our car.
The window sticker told us that there was no extra charge for the gray paint, but there was a $2900 premium for the Comfort and Cold Weather package, $1000 for a sound- system upgrade, and of course the ever-popular gas guzzler tax at $1300. We have no quarrel with maintenance costs; they are completely covered for the first four years or 50,000 miles of ownership. We do object to reporting the same problems again and again and receiving no resolution from the dealerships. Every time one of the electrical glitches was mentioned to a dealer, it was rapidly pronounced “fixed,” although it would recur not long after leaving the dealer’s parking lot.
An example: the car was taken to the local Ann Arbor dealer because we could not reset the frequently erroneous tire-pressure sensors for the rear wheels, even when carefully following directions in the comprehensive manual. The dealer managed it but then tried to charge us $38 for labor. A lively discussion ensued. In the end, the reluctant service manager finally agreed to waive the labor charge, even though we were informed that, “Volkswagen will not reimburse us.” Our unspoken response, and we suspect that of other disgruntled, mistreated owners, was, “Who cares?” The keys were relinquished, and we were left to search the parking lot for the unwashed “luxury car.” At least the Carlsbad, California, dealer who failed to fix our problems during visits two weeks apart was gracious enough to wash the car both times.
From the car’s earliest days with us, the trunk was unwilling to open enough to allow a hand to slip in to lift the lid-and those were the occasions when the remote latch control on the driver’s door actually worked. Usually it was necessary to open the lid with the key fob, but that, too, was intermittent in function. Or we thought it was. A friendly doctor in Texas, whom we encountered at a gas station, informed us that we should not expect instant gratification but patiently hold the button down for a while.
Contributor Ronald Ahrens, who brought the car back to Michigan from the Left Coast, wondered “why did Pich have to go out and reinvent the wheel? Nearly every single control and function is unlike that from any other car.” He concluded that at night with everything on the console lit up, he felt “like Homer Simpson in the nuclear power plant.”
Optical qualities of both the windshield and the backlight were questioned from our first contact with the car, but neither piece of glass was replaced because, according to the dealers, it was “a supplier problem” affecting all Phaetons and Touaregs, and there was no point in exchanging one set of distortions for another. (Why VW didn’t solve this before production is beyond us.)
On the plus side, the car never failed to start and never failed to deliver its driver and passengers to their destination. But along with comments such as “I do love this car as a cruiser and the V-8 sounds fabulous,” or “to me, this is the most desirable long-distance cruiser in the fleet,” or “one of the best cross-country cruisers I have ever driven,” there were multiple notes on the work of the gremlins. “Four times on the two-hour drive, the stereo/climate control shut down completely, only to come back on five seconds later, having reverted to the settings when the car was first started,” reported managing editor Amy Skogstrom, who went on to note that a rear headrest moved itself up and down at random intervals in city driving, and the lumbar support in the driver’s seat “decided to go into massage mode, rolling up and down the seatback” during her Christmas weekend.
That sort of thing continued during our time with the car in California. “From time to time the nav system turns itself on and announces in dulcet tones that one should turn right. Why right? Who knows?” The navigation system is good only for major divided highways, its database holding only a few street names per city. Or none: Laguna Beach, California, had no streets at all, only the Pacific Coast Highway. Quite often the center screen would show a field of black with an arrow moving like fish in the sea, no road references whatsoever. We could put up with some of its obstructive quirks if it were at least easy to program. It is not. In fact, it is one of the worst in production today, far behind the best Japanese systems.
Altogether, we found the Phaeton not just irreparable, but also inexplicable. Who was it for, apart from Herr Pich? Why attack Audi‘s market with a car sharing so much of its architecture and content? When trim and finish are class leading, why not insist on quality glass and electronics before putting the car on sale? Why not label it a Horch, the top model in the old Auto Union hierarchy where Audi was in the middle, and set up a separate dealer network to Lexus or Infiniti standards? Horch sounds no worse than Phaeton or Touareg.
We don’t know. But one thing we can say for sure: Phaetons coming off lease will be among the best used-car bargains on the road. Especially for electronics geeks who can chase gremlins themselves.