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VW pushes upmarket: the new Passat and the Phaeton lesson

Published: 07 July 2014

Logically, it makes perfect sense to push the new 2015 VW Passat upmarket far away from the declining, mass-market D-segment it used to inhabit. After all, how can Volkswagen resist a tasty slice of profit the BMW 3-series or Mercedes C-class dishes out to their makers? Even if it does risk stepping on Audi's toes...

VW Passat and the shadow of the Phaeton

Will it work though? Unfortunately, even for the mighty VW, history is against it.

We’re talking of course about the Volkswagen Phaeton, a car the new Mk8 Passat sub-consciously echoes.

Brainchild of Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piech - the same man who resurrected the French marque Bugatti to give the world the 254mph Veyron - the Phaeton was created to be a halo, but not a loss leader.

From day one it meant business.

Built in a purpose-built £120m plant in Dresdon that included its own tram service, VIP restaurant and 24,000sq m of pine flooring beneath the assembly line, the glass palace that built the Phaeton reflected the car that was made there: over-indulgent and over-engineered.

Devil is in the detail

The Phaeton's attention to detail was stunning. Beneath its flawless finish were door frames cast and skinned in aluminium, while inside the glovebox was finely flock-lined for roaming fingers searching for signs of cost-cutting.

Of course there wasn’t any. Apart from the fact it lacked Audi’s full aluminium underclothes, of course. That’s why when it went on sale in 2002 the cheapest version cost £42,000 in the UK, the most expensive £70,000 for the all-wheel drive W12 version.

History repeating itself?

The parallels today with the Passat are spooky.

No doubt the Passat will be heralded a technological triumph with its plug-in hybrid powertrain, fancy full TFT dash and emergency assist that stops the car when it feels the driver’s not well. No doubt the Passat will have real quality to rival the best Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz can muster, but even with a significant pricing advantage, we’d wager it will struggle to match the 40,000 3-series sold here each year.

Does it have star quality?

Car buyers are a fickle bunch, and the allure of either the blue propeller, four rings or silver star still holds huge currency to executive-car buyers. And that’s exactly what happened last time round, too.

Back in 2002 Volkswagen conservatively predicted it would shift between 250-400 Phaetons a month in its battle against the recently Bangle-fied BMW 7-Series and sober Mercedes S-class.

So how did it do? Today, 12 years later (it’s still on sale, we checked) the grand total of the number of Phaetons sold in the UK stands at a pitiful 2367.

On the global scale, the Phaeton shifted 76,414 units between 2002-13. A rare-groove classic, then, but hardly a commercial hit.

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