In the (not to) distant future, when cars of the fossil fuel era are marvelled at for their shameless profligacy, there will be many, many contenders for the title of worst offender. Given that it’s designed to carry more than two people and isn’t shaped like a chiselled breeze block, the Phaeton might not actually feature high among them. But no citizen of tomorrow’s world is going to understand why a comparatively humble saloon car needed ten, diesel-fuelled cylinders to do its job. Even now, just 20 years down the line, it seems scarcely believable.
The answer, of course, is that one vainglorious man essentially willed it into existence. It wasn’t strictly necessary for Volkswagen to launch itself at the high-end luxury car market just after the millennium, just as it wasn’t strictly necessary to engineer the Phaeton like a moon rocket or power it with colossal engines. But to Ferdinand Piëch necessity was always much less interesting than a challenge; the car that resulted was a comprehensive answer to a question no one was asking. Little wonder they were hard to shift.
Of course, as is the way with relics of their time, that does make the Phaeton an object of some fascination. Piëch’s technical stipulations to his engineers have gone down in automotive lore. Requiring a constant cabin temperature of 22 degrees in 50-degree heat at 186mph is often quoted as the pick of the bunch, but the other parameters handed down from on high were evidently deemed no less fanciful. That this technological marvel was then wrapped in the anonymous skin of super-sized Passat only magnifies the sense of incredulity. Like housing a supercomputer in a lorry container.
It didn’t help the Phaeton’s case that many if not most of its trailblazing metrics had precious little to do with driving. Or at least not in the way that most people would tend to notice. Unless they wanted to stay cool on a salt flat while going 30mph beyond the limiter. Even the V10, staggeringly proportioned even for its day, was definitely not about shock and awe. It was about making a 2,566kg kerbweight feel effortless, and with 553lb ft of torque at its disposal it was more than capable. But the car was no all-singing super-saloon; it was comfy and extremely capacious, but it did not rival the lighter Audi A8 for dynamism.
The wider problem was that it didn’t rival the Mercedes S-Class on the aspirational front either. The Phaeton was meant to defy the workaday appeal of the VW badge with technical might. But because the car was made in VW’s image - particularly inside, where a lack of imagination seemed to be worn like a badge of honour - the result seemed staid compared to the luxury cars that had ruled the roost for decades. Buyers generally voted for finer style with their feet.
So why might you want one now? Well, by not finding favour with customers, the Phaeton famously entered a period of depreciation that was painful even by luxury car standards. Accordingly, while it may have been implacably dull, it also registered as a secondhand bargain. This example, even with 150k on the clock, is still a lot of car for less than £5k. Plus there is now the itch-scratched prospect of being able to say you’ve owned and run one of the great engineering follies of the last 20 years. Just don’t expect people to notice.
SPECIFICATION | VOLKSWAGEN PHAETON V10 TDI
Engine: 4,921cc V10, turbodiesel
Transmission: six-speed automatic l, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 313@3,750rpm
Torque (lb ft): 553@2,000rpm
Year registered: 2005
Recorded mileage: 150,000
Price new: £60,375
Yours for: £4,495
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