Sunday, December 20, 2009

The VW Phaeton Is the Best Cadillac Fleetwood Cadillac Never Built

Some people say the Toyota Avalon is the best Buick that Buick never built. Well, after driving the Volkswagen Phaeton (an '06 V8 model), I declare that the Phaeton is the best Cadillac Fleetwood that Cadillac never built.

The Fleetwood
Remember the Fleetwood? In the 1980s, these luxo-barges came in white (for successful hair band musicians), charcoal gray (for evil businessmen on The A-Team, Knight Rider, and Miami Vice), and black (for U.S. dignitaries). They were long, luxurious, and very American. Those are the same qualities the Phaeton exudes.

VW exported only the long wheelbased version to the States. It means stretched rear doors, a la the Audi A8L (but the VW is about 700 pounds heavier due to its steel (versus aluminum) platform).* There is just as much legroom in the back as a long wheelbased S class, 7 series, old Fleetwood. Behind the wheel, I felt like I was steering an Australian roadtrain. It literally felt like I was pulling a WIDE LOAD prefab trailer home. This is definitely a car for boomers and retirees who want comfort, not for those who want to have some fun while driving.

18-way adjustable seats. 120 buttons and switches (not counting the 14 on the steering wheel or the 48 for the back seat passengers). When creating the Phaeton, VW head Ferdinand Piech wanted the ultimate car. One of his design requirements was that the W12 version be able to go 186 mph in 122 degree heat with the interior climate control at a constant 72 degrees. Just a look at the Dresden factory where the Phaeton is made confirms that no expense was spared. No wonder it is the luxury car of choice for Sly Stallone, William Shatner, Pope Benedict, and Kim Jung-Il. It is as luxurious as a Cadillac Fleetwood would be today, if GM continued making Fleetwoods and if GM sacrificed as much blood, sweat, and tears on the new Fleetwood as it did on the new CTS.

American? A VW? What is the quintessential quality of a large '80s American car? Vague steering, of course. The Phaeton's steering feedback (or lack thereof) is the complete opposite of every German car in existence. I could steer it with my pinky finger and it took almost 90 degrees of input (I exaggerate) just to change one lane. It was ridiculous. It is a Fleetwood.

Used VW Phaetons for Sale
There are not that many Phaetons here in America. Only 2004, '05, and '06 models are available. Here are the sales figures:
2003: 265 units
2004: 1,939
2005: 820
2006: 233
2007: 17

V8 Phaetons sold new for close to $70,000. If you are a hard bargainer, you can pick up one with around 50,000 miles for $22,000 to $24,000. At first, I thought that was a lot of depreciation and a great deal. In retrospect, that is a lot of depreciation but you can buy a similar A8L for a little bit more.

You should look for two things when buying a Phaeton. Since I'm not a Phaeton expert, these two tips apply to all used car purchases. First, check to see how long the car you're interested in has been for sale for. Many Phaetons tend to sit for months without a single serious offer. The longer the car sits, the more eager the seller is in unloading his White Whale.

The other thing to look for is its service history. Generally, Phaeton owners are pretty good about taking care of their cars. But because it is a VW (and the most complex VW at that), there are going to be electrical issues. See what specifically has been repaired or replaced. Large scale lobotomies within the first 10,000 miles are worrisome, to say the least.

*The VW is even 600 pounds heavier than the S600!
Fleetwood photo credit.

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