I recently read an article that said Volkswagen – noted distributor of rebates, and, occasionally, automobiles – is planning to bring back the Phaeton. In fact, this article said the Phaeton might come back as soon as the Detroit Auto Show, which happens every January to remind the automotive press why it would be a horrible idea to move to Michigan.
As I read all this, I was stuck by one lingering thought that stayed with me through the entire piece. And that thought was: How the hell do you pronounce Phaeton? Seriously. Do you say the “e,” like “fay-E-tin?” Or do you skip it entirely, like “fay-tin?” Is the last bit “tawn” or “tin?” Or do you just ignore all of this and say “Phantom” like a low-end used car dealer?
Of course, I wasn’t only thinking about pronunciation. I also had another Phaeton-related topic on my mind. And it was: WHY?????????
For the Phaetonly unaware, a little background. The Phaeton is a full-size luxury sedan that, for some reason, wears the Volkswagen badge. Yes, the same Volkswagen badge they put on those Jettas with rear drum brakes. The same Volkswagen badge they put on those rebadged Chrysler minivans. The same Volkswagen badge that … well, I’ll stop there, mostly because you get the idea, but also because I couldn’t think up a clever New Beetle joke.
Volkswagen sold the Phaeton in the US for several years. I don’t remember quite how many years it was, but Volkswagen does, because they had an enormous party at VW headquarters when the last one went out of warranty. It was a grand affair, with balloons and live music and streamers and cake and an all-expense paid trip to Barbados for every person in attendance, which still cost less than the average warranty expense on each vehicle.
It’s a shame the Phaeton ended up being so unreliable, because it was such a cool prospect. In fact, I distinctly remember when it debuted for the 2004 model year. I remember the fanfare. The gushing reviews. The handsome styling. The advertisements. The fact that I didn’t see one on the street until mid-2005.
OK, it wasn’t that bad – but it wasn’t great. That’s because it was a Volkswagen priced at more than $65,000, or – if you wanted a W12 model (and believe me, you didn’t) – more than $95,000. Ninety five thousand dollars. Just to have the privilege of standing in the service drive behind a guy who needs a hubcap for his ’96 Jetta GLS.
Which brings me back to my earlier question: WHY?????????
These days, Volkswagen is all about going mainstream. We know this because they’re constantly announcing new volume targets, all of which appear to be created by a) multiplying previous volume targets together, and b) cutting the target date in half. Really: I wouldn’t be stunned if Volkswagen soon announces they plan to sell 8 billion cars by the middle of next week. And I wouldn’t be stunned if Piech actually makes it happen.
So if mainstream volume is Volkswagen’s goal, why does it need a full-size luxury car?
One reason I’ve considered is: that’s what all the competitors are doing. So I checked on the competitors. Honda? Nope. No luxury car there. Toyota? Nope! They’re perfectly content cornering the “confused elderly” crowd with the large-but-not-$95,000-large Avalon. Ford? Chevrolet? Mitsubishi, even? No luxury cars there. Not even a hint of a luxury car, no matter what the guy at the Chevy dealer says about the Impala.
Of course, I’ve left one out, and that’s Hyundai. Hyundai actually does sell a luxury sedan called the Equus, which confuses everyone until you tell them it’s “the car that came with an iPad.” Then they go to the Mercedes dealer and lease an S-Class anyway.
Indeed, the Equus hasn’t exactly been a rip-roaring sales success in its own right. Last year, Hyundai unloaded around 4,000 units – and even the luxury sedan segment leaders only did about 12,000 sales, which is hardly worth the time of a volume-driven brand like Volkswagen.
In other words, the Phaeton definitely isn’t coming back to compete with other cars. So I thought of a different reason for its revival: Europe. If you go to Europe, and I strongly suggest doing this instead of visiting Detroit, you’ll see dozens of Phaetons, all powered by tiny diesel engines you previously thought could only be used in cars deemed too small for the US market. The Europeans, it seems, love the Phaeton, to the point where Volkswagen still sells the current model there, albeit after two rather handsome facelifts.
But even if they’re redesigning the Phaeton to please European customers, selling it in the States takes work. They have to federalize it, and market it, and, eventually throw large amounts of cash in the trunk so people actually buy it.
So I’m really at a loss here. Why would volume-loving Volkswagen want to revitalize the slow-selling Phaeton? Why distract everyone from the “sell as many cars as possible” core business model? And most importantly: when are they going to come out with a pronunciation guide?
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He operates PlaysWithCars.com and writes for The Truth About Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.