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89,500 Miles In The World's Best Car [Op-Ed]

"You are the man who owns two Phaetons in America... and takes them to the racetracks," remarked the VW factory manager. He was correct on both counts.

Four years ago, I stood in "Die Glaserne Manufaktur," Volkswagen's stupendous "glass factory" in Dresden, and shook the hand of the plant manager. He squinted at me and said in clipped, correct English, "You are the man who owns two Phaetons in America. And... you are the man who takes them to the racetracks."

"Correct on both counts," I replied.

Strictly speaking, there were three men who owned or leased two Phaetons in the United States, but both of the other guys were sixty-something plutocrats who enjoyed having the same type of car at their summer and winter homes. I was just a vaguely-employed club racer who had yet to turn thirty-five. Also, I didn't really own the cars. I leased them both, putting 44,900 miles on my fully-equipped grey 2005 V8 sedan and 44,600 miles on my no-options black 2006 V8 sedan. I considered my total monthly lease payment of $1,680 to be a hell of a deal; leasing one Mercedes S500 under the same conditions would have run me nearly $1200 a month. Keep in mind, too, that the S500 of the era was the miserable and cheap-feeling W220 model. Three-valve engines, scuzzy interior, and no all-wheel-drive.

By contrast, the Phaeton was designed without compromise to be the world's finest sedan, and possibly the world's finest car, period. At its introduction, the stories surrounding the Phaeton seemed like hyperbole. The "draftless" ventilation system, the ability to run at 300 km/h in the Arabian desert with all four seats set to different climates, the full air suspension which could raise and lower each wheel at a whim, and the wood-floored assembly facility where cars hung suspended over a giant steel ball while the "marriage" of unibody and drivetrain was accomplished by a massive robot. All of it was true, but it also all paled next to the experience of actually driving the cars.

When I took delivery of my first Phaeton, I'd already driven the Bentley Continental GT and the second-generation Audi A8. Related to both, the Phaeton surpassed them in the deathly quiet of its interior and the cold efficiency of each control. The rear seats included footrests and could both cool and massage their occupants. I liked to play a game with passengers, particularly ones who were not auto enthusiasts. I'd stick them in the rear seats for a freeway trip and gently nudge the speed up until we were cruising at 130 mph or more. Most of them never noticed, particularly if they were enjoying the outstanding stereo or fiddling with their individual climate controls.

I'm not the type of person who is content to just, you know, do what you're supposed to do in this world, so I spent the three and a half years of my Phaeton stewardship coming up with interesting ways to misuse the cars. I took the black car to Nelson Ledges Road Course (as seen here) and spent the day playing tag with Improved Touring racers and random Bimmers. The grey car went to Grattan where it successfully jumped the "hump" and landed on its air suspension at over a hundred miles per hour before cycling the ABS at max duty into the next right-hander. I went to VIR for two rainy trackdays and absolutely hammered a group of Porsches and Nissan Zs; in the "Climbing Esses," the Phaeton was unstoppable. Last but not least, I ran the black car at several SCCA autocrosses in the "F Stock" class and never took DFL, an achievement of which I am unjustifiably proud.

Equipped with Dunlop WinterSports, there was seemingly no poor-weather situation too difficult for the Phaeton to handle. It could rise on its air springs and cheerfully roll along through six or eight inches of snow, finding grip where SUVs slid off the roads. It could easily maintain triple-digit speeds in slush or rain, and was perfectly stable in the most vicious of open-plains crosswinds. The windows never fogged -- another mysterious little Phaeton ability was its automatic compensation for interior humidity. The worst Michigan roads didn't upset its composure, and the infamous "Tail Of The Dragon" showed that it was capable of sucking up sportbikes in corner combinations. The forty-valve V8 didn't have the majestic power of the optional W12, but it could growl like a Corvette under full-throttle and it was much nicer to steer on-track than any W12 Phaeton (or Bentley Flying Spur). Most of the color magazines didn't agree, but I felt that the Phaeton was the best luxury car on the market in 2005.

I also feel that Volkswagen dealers are probably the worst possible places to purchase a luxury car. Both of the dealerships from which I obtained Phaetons delivered damaged cars to me. The Ohio dealer made it right, but the Virginia dealer never did, explaining that curbed wheels and a hood with scratches down to the primer are "acceptable" in their book. I had the two cars in service for a combined sixty-five days. Not once did a dealer fix the problem right the first time. I eventually was forced to buy a VAG-COM scantool, do my own diagnosis, consult with the owners group, and present fixes to the dealer on double-spaced white pages. Doing this insured that I never took the Phaetons to the dealer more than twice for the same problem in the last eighteen months I had the cars. In one rather annoying series of episodes, my black car repeatedly "overheated" and came to a halt. A month in the shop didn't fix the issue, but I eventually demanded that a particular sensor be replaced, which solved the issue.

Worse than the miserable service experience (nearly universal among Phaeton owners, as far as I can tell) was the absolute and complete lack of prestige attached to Phaetons ownership. For my particular line of business, it's useful to not be obviously driving an $84,000 car, but I can see how the social climbers of the world would get tired of being asked about their "Passat". One acquaintance of mine, a thirty-something woman, took no fewer than twenty trips in the car, believing until the end that the polished wood trim, vibrating seats, and massive infotainment center were just par for the course in a Jetta. The charade ended when she went to buy a Jetta of her own and was shocked that the dealership's floor model didn't have the pop-up cupholders. This was what really killed the Phaeton. It's no good to make the best luxury car out there if nobody knows it's a luxury car. Toyota did it right; shine up your cars and give 'em a different name. In VW's case, the Phaeton came in two boutique versions already: the A8 and the Flying Spur. If you bought one of them, however, you got ripped off. The best luxury car in the world came in a generic wrapper.


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