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Requiem for a heavyweight

Volkswagen pulls its fine-tuned Phaeton from the U.S., where performance is important but badge image is everything. Really, it never had a chance.

April 26, 2006|DAN NEIL

THE sun-scrubbed desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas scrolls by with an empty whisper, a high-def silent movie panning past double-thick acoustic windows. East of Barstow, the Volkswagen Phaeton W12 is running at speeds best reserved for those with diplomatic immunity, and yet the big dreadnaught -- with a 12-cylinder, 444-hp butter churn under the hood -- is eerily unstrained, purring along in top gear, levitated on the four-corner air suspension. Scheherazade only wishes she knew such flying carpets.

What a machine. Born of a fever dream in 2002, the Phaeton was meant to be, in the words of then-VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech, "the best car in the world." And four years later, the Phaeton still commends itself to the title. Built in VW's "transparent factory" -- a glass-walled industrial Oz in Dresden, Germany -- the Phaeton is as grand a piece of engineering decadence as you'll find anywhere. Much of the Phaeton's bone and sinew -- such as the optional 6.0-liter W-configured 12-banger, four-way adjustable pneumatic suspension, steering, brakes and electronic systems -- are shared with its VW Group cousins the Bentley Continental GT and Flying Spur and the Audi A8L W12, supercars all.

But it's not the heavy hardware that makes the Phaeton so beguiling. It's the grace notes: The ghostly smooth motorized action of the walnut panels that open and close over the dashboard climate vents; the corporate jet interior, with chrome pin-striping and Italian leather upholstery; the sunroof spoiler that adjusts to prevent high-speed buffeting and wind noise; the dual-magnification vanity mirrors; the 18-way power adjustable driver seat with heating and air-conditioning, massage function, power lumbar support and headrests. This car does everything but make waffles.

Not since the analog days of the late '80s Italian cars have so many switches been gathered in one cabin; altogether there are nearly 200 buttons and controls mastering everything from four-zone climate control to power rear sunshade.

And now the Phaeton is a phantom. Last year, VW announced it was discontinuing sales of the Phaeton in the North American market (the car is faring reasonably well in other global markets). Initially projected to sell in the range of 10,000 units in the U.S. annually, the Phaeton found only 820 customers in all of 2005. The last few units are making their way to reluctant dealers about now.

Success has many fathers; failure has many coroners. And since VW's announcement, car cognoscenti have sagely autopsied the Phaeton. Well, of course it was a flop, goes the conventional wisdom. Who ever heard of a six-figure Volkswagen? Plainly, the American conception of the VW brand -- formed in the postwar decades by such lovable, low-rent models as the original Beetle, Rabbit and GTI -- could not be stretched to include a premium saloon competing with the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi.

Speaking of Audi: One of their executives was fired for criticizing the Phaeton (and by extension, Piech) after he said the biggest problem with the car is that you have to go to grotty VW dealerships to buy one. (Note also that the Phaeton was a direct competitor to Audi's own A8L. Talk about friendly fire.)

The Phaeton has been derided as "Piech's folly," the worst example of overreach during his tenure, which -- the consensus view holds -- saw the company blow billions of euros on exotic brand acquisitions (Lamborghini, Bentley, Bugatti) while the core product lines grew stale and quality and reliability spiraled down.

Piech, a brilliant engineer and heir of the Porsche fortune, stepped down as chairman of the management board in 2002, turning over the reins to Bernd Pischetsrieder. Meanwhile, Volkswagen sales in the U.S. have declined by about one-third since 2001 and are only now recovering.

And so the Phaeton stands convicted on many counts: the wrong car, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, from the wrong company.

Yet as the car hurtles splendidly across the desert and into history, the only fault I find is with consumers.

The worst thing anyone ever said about the Phaeton is that it was a VW, and if you could have somehow pried the badge from the slatted grille the car would have been a hit. But buyers didn't want a VW starting at $66,700 (the base price of a V8 model) because it didn't reward people with the caffeinated buzz of envy and prestige. So it was purely badge snobbery that sank the car. I am amazed when people cite this as if this were an altogether predictable, even commendable feature of American consumerism.

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