The project launched by former Volkswagen Chair of the Board of Management Ferdinand Piëch at the end of the nineties was ambitious right from the start.
5.06 metres long, 1.90 metres wide, 1.45 metres high – these dimensions alone meant a place for the Phaeton among its competitors in the luxury segment. However, in spite of its size, its visual appearance was understated. Its flowing design with slightly domed roof lines created a timeless and unostentatious appearance. The only stand-out features were the round tail light clusters at the rear installed under rectangular cover glass elements.
It was a car for connoisseurs, individualists and enthusiasts: Volkswagen launched the Phaeton on the market 20 years ago. From 2002 onwards, the luxury saloon fascinated with its confident, calm and collected character, excellent comfort, high-tech features and impressive manufacturing quality. Volkswagen took its first steps into the luxury car segment with the Phaeton and immediately proved that it was at home in this premium market. The Phaeton acted as a shining star that benefited the whole brand and paved the way for other premium products such as the Touareg and Arteon. Its farewell came in 2016 when the Brand Board of Management decided to discontinue the saloon in favour of a systematic re-alignment with a focus on electric mobility – although the successor with the project name “Phaeton D2”2 was already waiting in the wings.
The project launched by former Volkswagen Chair of the Board of Management Ferdinand Piëch at the end of the nineties was ambitious right from the start. He wanted to open up a new market segment for Volkswagen with a luxury saloon and at the same time take the whole brand to a new level.
The calm contours of the body accommodated an interior that exuded stylish elegance. Chrome, wood veneer comprising up to 30 material layers and leather – this trio came together on the selector lever of the automatic gearbox, which seemed as solid and powerful as the thrust lever on a motor yacht. Wooden panels covered the vents, which opened electrically and silently when required depending on the setting of the automatic air conditioner and solar radiation. The ventilation operated almost without draughts even at the highest setting.
The interior of the Phaeton was a mobile lounge, in which uncompromising quality and premium materials were combined with lovingly arranged technical details. The vehicle occupants were isolated from the outside world by doors that closed with a satisfying thud and thick glass panes, while the gaps between components were extremely narrow and strictly parallel. The optional Dynaudio sound system also satisfied the ears of discerning hi-fi enthusiasts.
The Phaeton really came into its own on long journeys. Its standard pneumatic suspension with adaptive damping allowed it to glide smoothly and softly on the motorway. Thanks to its extremely high torsional rigidity, the body did not rattle or creak at all. The bonnet, doors and boot lid were made of aluminium. A Phaeton version lengthened by 120 millimetres with opulent space at the rear of the passenger compartment was also available as a chauffeur model. Individual seats with massage and ventilation were optionally available – like in the standard version. The name Phaeton also symbolised the exclusive status of the large saloon. This was not just a reference to Greek mythology, but also represented a link to classic models from Horch and Ŝkoda with the same name.
The engine range rounded off the exclusive character of the saloon. Early Phaeton customers were able to choose between two naturally-aspirated petrol engines and a TDI. The entry-level engine was the compact 3.2 V6, whose cylinder banks were arranged at a narrow angle of 15 degrees to each other; it had an output of 177 kW (241 PS). The second petrol engine, the W12, was also unusually short – it was built in the form of a “W” using two V6 engines. This engine developed 309 kW (420 PS) from a capacity of six litres.
The most unusual engine was the V10 TDI. With a capacity of five litres, two turbochargers with variable turbine geometry, an output of 230 kW (313 PS) and a torque of 750 Nm, this engine made the Phaeton the most powerful diesel saloon in the world at the time. Like with the W12, the drive power was transmitted to all four wheels via an automatic gearbox and the 4MOTION all-wheel drive system; the 3.2 V6 came with front-wheel drive as standard.
The engine range was repeatedly enhanced over the course of the 15 years of production. In 2003, a 4.2-litre V8 engine was introduced for the luxury saloon. This was followed one year later by the 3.0 V6 TDI. This quickly became the most popular engine variant, and it had an output of 180 kW (245 PS) in the last version. The ten-cylinder diesel engine was discontinued in 2006, and the W12 five years later. And the 3.2 V6 was replaced by a 3.6-litre engine and a 3.0-litre version.