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A Brief History of the Volkswagen Phaeton, the Rich People's Car

"The world's best totally unnecessary car," is how we described our year with one.

Who the hell is going to pay $100,000 for a Volkswagen when you can get a Mercedes-Benz S-Class for less? It was a bold move by VW, but the timing wasn't right. I remember seeing one for the first time at an event on Park Avenue in NYC in 2004. It was painted black and looked stately for a four-door sedan that resembles a well-fed Passat with a massive badge on its grille.

The Volkswagen Phaeton was mostly hand-built in Dresden, Germany and was in production from 2002 to 2016. However, it was only sold in North America between 2004 and 2006 and that could explain why you never saw one here. The Phaeton was based on the D1 concept, a hatchback that made its debut at the Frankfurt auto show in 1999.

VW's Phaeton shared its platform with the Bentley Continental GT and Flying Spur and several engines with the Audi A8 abroad. Under the hood, U.S. owners had a choice of a Hungarian-built 4.2-liter V-8 with 335 horsepower and 317 lb-ft of torque or a massive 6.0-liter W-12 that packed 420 horses and 406 lb-ft of torque. Both had all-wheel-drive and the V-8 was mated to a six-speed automatic transmission and the 12 made do with a five-speed. Speed for both was limited to 130 mph, but the car was designed to run smoothly at 186 mph.

Way back in 2004, Automobile had a Coucou Gray Volkswagen Phaeton in our Four Seasons fleet when our HQ was based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Here's how Robert Cumberford described it:

"Irreparable. A good word for a bad condition, one that seemingly applies both to the electrical system of our Four Seasons and to the reputation of Ferdinand Piëch, who brought this magnificently irrelevant (rich) People's Car into existence," is the best he could say about it, adding, "On the plus side, the car never failed to start and never failed to deliver its driver and passengers to their destination."

But our year with the Phaeton was filled with a few ups and a lot of downs that let us believe in the end it would make a great used car for folks who could fix its electrical gremlins themselves and avoid the dealership at all costs. But wait, there's more.

"Altogether, we found the Phaeton not just irreparable, but also inexplicable. Who was it for, apart from Herr Piëch? 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."

Ouch.

Today we have the impressive and more affordable VW Arteon sedan on our shores and a fully loaded one costs less than the Phaeton. Still the Volkswagen Phaeton may live again in an electrified guise someday and I wouldn't mind giving it another go for a year in our fleet.