From our Top 20 Dumbest Cars of All Time list, I’d found examples of nine during my junkyard travels (Ford Pinto, Pontiac Aztek, Cadillac Cimarron, Ford Mustang II, 1990 Chrysler Imperial, Smart ForTwo, Chevrolet Vega, Mercedes-Benz R-Class and Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible) prior to now. Since it’s very unlikely that I’ll fun across a Fuller Dymaxion or Horsey Horseless in a Ewe Pullet, I knew I’d have to keep my eyes open for #8 on the list: the Volkswagen Phaeton. Just over 2,200 Phaetons were sold in the United States, but I’ve found similarly rare machines just by being persistent. Sure enough, I found this ’05 in a Northern California yard recently, a few rows over from a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.
Since the name Volkswagen means People’s Car, you’d think that the idea of a showy luxury sedan bearing the badges of such a proletarian brand wouldn’t make much sense in North America. After all, Toyota, Nissan and Honda each grasped that American vehicle shoppers associated their brands with sensible but affordable machinery (such is not the case back in Japan) and created separate snootified marques to sell their luxury wheels over here.
Anyway, Ferdinand Piëch decreed that there would be a big VW luxury sedan based on the same platform as the Bentley Continental GT, stuffed with running gear borrowed from the Audi A8. This happened, and the Phaeton was the result. Phaetons were built from the 2003 through 2016 model years, but only the 2004 to 2006 models were sold in the United States and Canada. This car is one of 820 Phaetons sold in the USA for the 2005 model year.
A bewildering variety of engines, both gasoline and diesel, were available in Phaetons sold elsewhere, but just two made it to North American VW dealers: a 4.2-liter V8 and a 6.0-liter W12. This car has the V8, which was rated at 335 horsepower and 317 pound-feet (the W12 had 420 horsepower and 406 pound-feet).
You’ll be pleased to know that this engine made nearly 14 times as many horses as the first Volkswagens imported to the United States (and that’s before factoring in the gross-versus-net ratings switcheroo that happened here in the early 1970s).
How much was all this luxury? The MSRP on this car was $66,950, or around $105,967 in 2023 American dollars. Meanwhile, the cheapest possible 2005 Volkswagen Golf listed at $15,830… and the penny-pinching aura hovering around every one of those cheap VWs migrated over to every Phaeton (in the eyes of those who judge others by the snazziness of their possessions, at any rate). By the way, the 1949 Beetle cost $16,098 in 2023 dollars, which was a pretty good deal at the time, despite the scary cable-operated brakes.
All that said, this thing was an engineering masterpiece. Just take a glance at these trunk hinges, which look like something from an intergalactic space probe.
By all accounts, the US-market Phaetons were extremely comfortable and drove well. The problem for Volkswagen of America was that few fat-walleted car shoppers wanted to pay for one instead of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Lexus LS (another problem was that American vehicle buyers had been shunning sedans of all sizes for quite a few years by the middle 2000s). I thought about buying these clever cupholders for a car-parts boombox project, but they were held in by exquisitely German proprietary fasteners that resisted my crude mainstream tools.
This car doesn’t seem to have been wrecked, though parts shoppers have extracted all the valuable front lighting and trim components (probably for resale on eBay). My guess is that it got into the hands of a third or fourth owner who didn’t understand the maintenance costs of a high-end European luxury vehicle, and the first five-figure repair estimate doomed it.
How perfectly do you leap when you have leapt 1,000,000 times? As perfectly as you build a car when you have built 100,000,000 cars.
It was a good thing for the Volkswagen Group that the Phaeton sold well in China.
In fact, a Phaeton successor is available in the Middle Kingdom right now!