2004 Volkswagen Phaeton Four Seasons Test

Tim Andrew Julian Mackie

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 Audi A8 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.

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