► Farewell drive in VW's luxury limo
► Taken off sale in the UK in 2015
► Replacement on the way in 2017
You may be wondering how this idea ever got off the ground. A luxury limousine… with a Volkswagen badge? The People’s Limousine? A Prime Ministerial ride for Jeremy Corbyn? Back in 1999, who would dare pitch that doozie to truly terrifying VW boss Ferdinand Piëch? Answer: no-one, but they didn’t have to. It was Ferdy’s idea.
The Phaeton is dead – axed in the UK this summer after 13 years, ostensibly because its engine no longer cuts the Euro emissions mustard. But there’s another reason: nobody buys them. They sold just 31 in the UK last year (we probably bought more aircraft carriers than that!) and the decks need to be cleared for a new model on its way in 2017.
Let’s take the old girl for a final spin.
Surely only the chauffeur has to drive it?
If you’re this unostentatious you don’t have a chauffeur. Which is a pity because it means you’re stuck up front, leaving offspring and friends to enjoy the best bit: the ridiculous amount of space in the rear. Not only are you stuck up front, you seem also to be stuck in 1982, to judge by use of wood veneer so abundant a whole forest of caramel-coloured trees were surely harmed in the making.
This is odd, as the Phaeton dates back only as far as 2002, but you quickly realise that it’s really only the veneer (and an analogue clock sourced from a giant bucket just near the checkouts at Ikea) that makes it feel old. Oh, and the automatic gear selector (there’s veneer on that too!) which finally yields some royalties for the bloke who designed it back in 1971, if he’s still alive.
Otherwise it’s stock, modern VW fare – big infotainment screen, classic dials with large colour screen between them, and beautifully made leather seats which look flat but are actually pretty comfy, if stingy on lateral support.
Do you need lateral support – surely it’s not a car to fling round corners?
Perhaps not, but it’s a really nice surprise to drive. Let’s not forget the platform underneath you also does service in the Bentley Continental, and it shows. The 2315kg kerbweight vanishes from your mind when you attack a corner and encounter bags of grip supported by surprisingly little understeer. The nose tucks in, and with a tiny bit of throttle to keep the rear (far distant in this long-wheelbase version) interested, you can hustle.
Except that you won’t feel like hustling, for two reasons. First the four-stage variable dampers are set up for maximum refinement, even in Sport mode, and the air springs have a tendency to thump a bit if you press too hard, even over moderate lumpy bits; and second, the engine/gearbox combo doesn’t reward unregal behaviour. The engine is a 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel armed with a modest 242bhp, and is suited to demure wafting. Crank it up, however, and its dignity drops like trousers in a West End farce. Cue whiny, revvy noises, ably exacerbated by the previously competent six-speed tiptronic’s sudden confusion over which cog is which.
Brief pause while we yearn for the days when Phaeton buyers had access to a 6.0-litre W12 power unit.
If the basic idea of a VW limo is so flawed, why are they doing another one?
Two main answers. The first is the stock answer to any seemingly baffling automotive decision taken in 2015: China. Growth may be slowing in the world’s flagship emerging market, but the Chinese middle class is still expanding like a balloon on a gas tap (perhaps with the same inevitable outcome). And those people want cars that befit their newly acquired status. They also LOVE saloons. In a further delicious twist that plays into VW’s hands, these same Chinese Alan Sugars don’t want to attract too much government attention, so also crave a bit of discretion. Bingo.
The other answer is that VW wants a flagship, at the very least to showcase its credentials and demonstrate its technology, and when the new car comes we can expect it to be very proper indeed. Good enough perhaps to have another crack at America, from which the Phaeton was ignominiously withdrawn in 2006.
So, what will be written on the Phaeton’s tombstone?
Born 2002, died 2015. Did for the people’s car what X Factor did for crummy singers – gave permission to dream. RIP.