2004 Volkswagen Phaeton Four Seasons Test

Tim Andrew Julian Mackie

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.

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