I recently had the opportunity to drive a 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton W12, which was loaned to me by a viewer here in Pennsylvania, not far from where I live in Philadelphia. I was extremely excited to take this opportunity, because the Phaeton W12 is, quite simply, one of the most absurd automobiles ever manufactured. See the 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton models for sale near you
Here’s a little overview. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, Volkswagen didn’t want to build normal cars for normal people; instead, they wanted to go upmarket — an inexplicable decision, since Audi was already in that space. But they wanted to do it, so they came out with some luxurious Volkswagen models — specifically, the Touareg in 2003 and the Phaeton in 2004.
The Touareg was odd enough: an expensive luxury SUV from a company that was also bringing us the compact Golf. But the Phaeton was truly bizarre, as it was a full-size, long-wheelbase luxury sedan designed to compete with the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. And compete it did: The starting price of the V8 model was $65,600, while the 12-cylinder version was an almost unbelievable $95,600 — about $120,000 in 2017 dollars.
Over one-hundred grand. For a Volkswagen.
But what a Volkswagen it was. The equipment was absolutely mind-blowing, and it wasn’t just a nice navigation system and some ventilated seats. The Phaeton had hidden climate control vents that were placed behind luxurious wood trim until you actually needed them, at which time the trim whirred upwards, automatically, to reveal the vents. The cupholders, too, were just part of the wood trim until you needed to push them downwards to reveal the actual cupholders. The rear headrest automatically whirred upwards when a rear passenger entered the vehicle. The seatbelt height could be adjusted automatically. The climate control vents didn’t have cheap plastic wheels that allowed you to adjust air flow, but rather buttons with lights that showed how much air was coming out.
Truly, it was quite possibly the most impressive luxury vehicle on the market back in 2004. And the W12 version was especially impressive: While the standard V8 had "only" 335 horsepower, the W12 version mated together two different V6 engines to create a "W" configuration, and put out 420 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. Although this was short of the S600 of the period, with 493 horsepower, the Phaeton wasn’t trying for performance: The goal was pure, undisturbed luxury — and, oh wow, did it ever achieve the goal.
I spent the day with the Phaeton I drove, and I was tremendously impressed with its driving experience: It was so quiet, luxurious and comfortable, with supportive seats and virtually no noise entering the cabin under any circumstances. It was hardly a sports car in the corners, and power didn’t come on quickly, but rather it snuck up on you, likely a function of the car’s removal from the road. But the performance isn’t the point: The point is you’re basically driving a Bentley Continental Flying Spur minus two turbochargers, and that’s exactly what it felt like. Except, honestly, I think the Phaeton may have had more equipment.
In the end, the Phaeton is a total anomaly — one of the most unusual vehicles; a car developed at a time when Volkswagen was truly going through an identity crisis. Fortunately, Phaeton sales helped Volkswagen see the light: the car was such a flop that Volkswagen withdrew it from the U.S. market only three years after it launched (following the 2006 model year) and started building "peoples’ cars" once again.
But while the Phaeton may not have a prized place in Volkswagen’s history, it’s certainly one of the most interesting cars I’ve ever filmed — loaded with crazy features, truly one of the most luxurious vehicles on the road in its day and now worth something like $11,000. Assuming you can find one. And assuming you can keep one running. Find a 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.
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