It’s been a while, but Rust or Lust is back to determine which late model cars have what it takes to be worthy of either our lustful urges, or resigned to rot on cinderblocks in anonymous suburbia. Today’s contestant hails from Germany, a land usually revered in the auto world for careful and precise engineering. The Volkswagen Phaeton was all that and more: a tour de force of innovation and technology. But will it measure up to our exacting standards?
The Car: VW Phaeton
Image is a problematic thing. People are fickle, and brands carry strong associations. It’s not easy to simply recast the image of something so definite as a car company. But that’s exactly what VW attempted with the Phaeton, a high-end luxobarge simply dripping with tech content and sophistication.
And also a VW badge. Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche and chairman of the VW Group from 1993-2000, is generally credited with conceiving the Phaeton as part of a move to bring the entire VW Group upmarket. It was possibly also to retaliate against Mercedes, who was siphoning low-end car sales in Europe from VW. VW wanted to fire back and hurt Mercedes where they were strong: luxury sedans.
And man, was the Phaeton a good try. Snugged under the hood was one of the greatest engines ever created, the W12. It’s been described at great length by others, but essentially it was two VR6s joined at the crankshaft to create a masterpiece that put out 444 horsepower from an incredibly small package. Jeremy Clarkson claimed that it was enough to push the big VW to 201 MPH if one removed the speed governor, and we believe it, even for a car approaching two-and-a-half tons. It wafted to 62 MPH in 6.1 seconds, all while coddling the occupants with an amazing four-zone climate control system. And despite the inherent futility of attempting to subvert the laws of physics, Piëch directed his minions to install the 4Motion permanent all-wheel-drive system and an adjustable suspension, which gave this massive sedan reasonable handling and traction credentials. Make no mistake – it’s no Lotus Elise, and none of the road tests of the car make any extravagant claims about record-breaking Nurburgring times. However, it’s our take that the Phaeton could haul people in style and comfort as well as nearly any car on the road. Plus, all the techno goodies were just plain COOL.
Of course, in the end, none of it mattered; they might as well have been selling the things out of leper colonies. The exterior was far too bland to appeal to the conspicuous consumption set, who wouldn’t be caught dead in a VW anyhow. Depreciation, never too kind to the Wolfsburg offerings, was insane, and there are a lot of great low-mileage Phaetons currently cruising around at fire-sale prices. You can even get one with a standard V6 or V8, so save an additional buck or two but losing the bragging rights that only a 12-cylinder can give you.
The Verdict: LUST
The point is simple: it’s a hell of a lot of German engineering, and it’s designed to cruise effortlessly at triple-digit speeds, all the while keeping the occupants perfectly comfortable. Think of the VW badge as limo-tint, giving you Q-ship anonymity but backing you up with 6 liters of awesome. And at the prices these things trade for, it would almost be a crime not to consider this … if, of course, you’re one of the roughly 26 people worldwide in the market for a cut-rate S-Class competitor. And just imagine strapping a Thule rack to the thing and heading up to the pass! Gotta put that AWD to good use.