Wednesday, August 7, 2013

2004 VW Phaeton Review, Living With It

Phaeton Photo Shoot - Mukilteo Lighthouse at Dawn

Phaeton; according to Greek mythology he was the mortal son of Apollo the sun-god. In the midst of disbelief and criticisms from others about his claim to being the child of the god, his father granted him one wish. For this, Phaeton desired to drive the chariot of the sun. Apollo pleaded with him to choose anything else in the world, for he knew that the horses were much too strong, and the creatures in the sky were far too dangerous. But Phaeton wanted nothing else and would not change his mind no matter what warnings were heeded to him. Reluctantly, Apollo granted his wish. He anointed Phaetons head so that the heat from the chariot would not burn him, and instructed him as much as he could before it was time for the sun to rise that day. Off he went with the chariot rising high in the sky as Phaeton failed to restrain the horses. At such heights he became disorientated and dropped the reigns. The horses, now out of control, charted a course straight for the earth. They crossed the sky so close to earth that the heat from the chariot scorched the ground and dried up the rivers. Seeing this, Zeus was forced to take action in order to save man on earth. He launched one of his mighty lightening bolts at the chariot, instantly bringing Phaeton to his death. And so ended Phaetons story, a boy who demanded his wish fulfilled no matter the consequences, and went down in flames.

The Volkswagen Phaeton could not have been more appropriately named. Ferdinand Piech, head of the VW group at the time, set very high expectations for the design/engineering team of the Phaeton. It was to be a top tier luxury car, competing with the BMW 7-series and MB S-class. It's rumored that when Piech introduced his design requirements, that half of the engineering team walked out, stating it couldn't be done. All of his demands were eventually met, and the Phaeton was released. But, it never sold in huge numbers, especially in the States. As it was only available here from 2004-2006, around 2200 units total were delivered. My opinion, and that of many others, is that the majority of people who can afford an $80,000+ luxury car would rather have the status symbol on the grille to go along with it. So people bought lesser equipped Audi, BMW, and Mercedes models, usually for slightly more. And while the VW had better reception in Europe and is still being sold today in virtually the exact same trim, it still wasn't a huge success. I'm glad it did so poorly in the states. That caused it to depreciate almost 70% in just eight years, which made it a steal to me.

It's been just about a year since I purchased my Phaeton after losing the BMW to a football sized rock in the middle of WA Route 203. Just weeks before that I was contemplating going after a W8 Passat. After researching a bit, I got the VW bug and decided my next car would definitely be from the VW/Audi Group. Coincidentally, a few day's later my car was totaled and the search began. I started off looking at a couple A6's and Passats. I even considered test driving an RS6, but my better sense told me not to. What trouble that would get me in to. I found a 2.0T Passat wagon that I was interested in at the local VW dealer, Pignataros. I decided to browse the rest of their inventory on-line before making the trip, and that's when I saw it. A 2004 VW Phaeton V8. I hadn't even realized that these were sold in the states. Well I'd have to check this out now, wouldn't I.

A quick phone call and trip to the dealer, and I was standing in awe of the magnificence of this car. It was very seductive. The test drive revealed many surprises in the cabin. The performance shocked me for a car of it's stature. I loved it. Somehow though, I managed to walk off the lot and continue my search, just to make sure that out of all the cars out there in my price range, that this was the one. Nothing else compared. I went back, and made the deal. This was easily the most exciting car purchase that I've ever made. And I'm happy to say that I've been enjoying every moment with this car since.

Phaeton Photo Shoot - Mukilteo Lighthouse at Dawn


The Phaeton is timelessly beautiful. I've never had so many people compliment a car, and most don't even know what it is. That, I think, is part of the allure. It's a very subtle and mysterious beauty, that draws you in, but you're not exactly sure why. There's no one thing that really stands out, aside from maybe the giant VW emblem on the grille, which actually makes it that much more understated. It's just so well balanced. There's a sense of proper charm, and zero vulgarity.

This car does have a very large body, but it never seems like it's accidentally going to put half of it's rear end in to your seat, or lane depending on the context. You know it's there, but not in an intrusive way. It definitely carries a certain presence on the road. I'd imagine that seeing a Phaeton close in on you from the rear view mirror could be very intimidating if you were driving 5mph under the speed limit in the far left hand lane of the freeway. Since I'm on the topic of the front end, I'll start there.

It's a relatively simple design, but it pulls it off fantastically. Very calm and subdued, but there's also this subtle aggressiveness. Every piece is very well proportioned and flows well together. The Phaeton has a nice face. Though my favorite detail up front is the hood lines. I love the way they continue on from the grille upwards to the inside of the A-pillar, it makes the separation of hood and fender almost unnoticeable. It also makes the fenders have this smooth shape that rolls up above the wheel arches. It's a beautiful design.

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The one area of the body that I could see some room for styling improvement would be the rear. It just seems a bit soft to me, or maybe even a little unfinished. I kind of imagine the design group starting up front and spending a lot of time perfecting every line and every transition. And then they move those curves down the side creating this long and sleek shape that's made to slip through the dead air that resides above the pavement. Then everyone of those beautiful lines come to their end, and the designers just couldn't figure out what to do with them. I actually think they did an okay job, but it reminds me a lot of my fourth gen Nissan Maxima. Something could have been done to make it just a little more exciting. Just a pinch. Maybe a very subtle lip spoiler on the trunk lid would be all it really takes to give the rear a little more definition. I'm not sure, but either way, it's still a nice thing to look at.

I found mine in Luna Blue, and don't think I would have wanted this car in any other color. It's a very deep and dark blue. A lot of people have actually mistaken it for being black due to it being so dark. But once the light hits it, oh baby, you see that magnificent blue with a slight purplish undertone, and just enough metallic flake to make it glimmer in the sun. The only unfortunate thing about dark paint is that it shows dirt very easily. But, once it's washed and waxed, I just can't imagine too many other colors looking better. I appreciate that because it makes giving the Phaeton a hand wash job that much more satisfying.

Phaeton Photo Shoot - Mukilteo Lighthouse at Dawn


This is where the Phaeton has the most 'wow' factor. I think the first thing most people notice when they enter is just how much room there is. Especially for the rear passengers, it's incredible. I doubt anyone's every going to ask someone sitting in front of them to move their seat forward in one of these. Downside to this, it's difficult to reach your two-year old who's sitting in the back. Upside to this, it's difficult for your two-year old who's sitting in the back to reach the front seat with his feet. Aside from the leg room, there's also ample head room, even with the sunroof taking up a couple inches on it's own.

Phaeton Photo Shoot - Mukilteo Lighthouse at Dawn

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The seats are like that favorite comfy living room chair, when it was new and still supported you. They're not very bolstery, but then this isn't meant to be a sports car. It's made to make your journey as comfortable as possible. You know how it does that? Eighteen-way adjustability including lumbar support, heated and cooled lower section, and massaging lower back function. Yes, these seats will give you a slow sensual rub down while you cruise along the highway at undisclosed speeds. And the rear passengers aren't left out. They have their own controls for lumbar adjustment, heating and cooling, as well as the same massage function. There's also a four-seater option that has a center console between the rear seats which gives them even more adjustability. My only complaint about all of this is that the massage feature could be better if it actually worked the upper back as well, but the fact that it does it at all is more than enough to make me happy.

Phaeton Photo Shoot - Mukilteo Lighthouse at Dawn

The dash has a simple and smooth shape to it. About halfway down the interior is a line of beautiful real wood trim that accents the dash and door panels. In the middle of the dash this wood trim surrounds an analog clock in a chrome accent ring. The center console houses a seven inch color information display that includes the navigation system, audio, climate control, as well as various other vehicle settings. Around the screen is an assortment of buttons and knobs to fiddle with. With all of this, it's not really confusing to use. Everything is very straight forward. I spent the first three weeks of ownership without an owners manual and managed to figure out just about everything in a few days. However, there were some buttons that only revealed themselves weeks later. One was a button next to the front map light that had a picture of a car with the door wide open. Ejector seat? I wasn't going to touch it until I knew for sure. Turns out it was the button to toggle the dome lights on/off when a door is opened. Not quite as useful, but good to know. I also found two tiny round buttons on the back side of the steering wheel, way out of sight. Feeling a little more daring I gave one a press. Oh, dims the lit buttons on the steering wheel. Well that's not so bad, what about this other one? Heated steering wheel?! Awesome!

Phaeton Photo Shoot - Mukilteo Lighthouse at Dawn

Phaeton Photo Shoot - Mukilteo Lighthouse at Dawn

Let's get back to the dash. Remember that wood trim? Well it does a neat little trick of it's own. Whenever the climate control is switched to the dash vents.....wait, where are the dash vents? This is where it gets good. They're hidden behind the wood trim. The trim pieces are motorized and slip up into the dash to expose the vents. Incredible. I can only think of two reasons why they would have designed this. One, so that dust doesn't accumulate in the vents when they're not in use. Two, and more likely, just because it makes you go "whoooah" and nothing more. Speaking of climate control, this is the only car I've ever been in that can actually do a decent job in the full auto mode. Since the second week of ownership, I've had it set on auto and 69 degrees, and haven't had to touch it once. If a passenger is uncomfortable, they can adjust their own temp and vents to their liking, and mine stays put. This applies to all passengers by the way, because it has four climate zones, and that's more than my house. Once everyone gets out and I decide to equalize the cabin temps, with the push of one button it sets all zones to the drivers zone preference. It's like having an awesome, tiny little butler that lives in the dash, and constantly runs around making sure your comfortable.

The ceiling has a few little tricks of it's own. Between the sun visors sits a mini-control area. Included are the typical map and dome light controls, and sunroof dial. The dial lets you choose how far open, either retracted or popped up, you want the panel to be. But let's say you want the glass closed and just the shade opened up. In the typical car you just slide it back, right? No such luck here. That would involve you having to work. Remember that tiny little butler? Well just push the button and he runs up there and retracts it for you. Now that's all a bit unnecessary, but still kind of cool. The other neat thing up top, and the thing that made my wife approve of the car, is that the vanity mirrors in the sun visors actually have two sets of mirrors. Slide the first one open, and you get your standard mirror. Slide that one over and you get a magnified mirror, for those times that you really need to get in there to eradicate that black pepper you have stuck in your teeth. Appearances must be kept.

The audio system in this car is absolutely incredible. Standard equipment was a ten speaker setup. Throw a little more cash down and you get the full blown 270 watt, twelve speaker system with Digital Signal Processing. The sound quality is just fantastic. It is honestly the best factory audio system I have ever heard. Everything is so full and sounds exceptionally clear. It hit's every note and tone with perfection. From highs to lows, it's all there. And then there's the DSP menu which gives you all kinds of other sound options. I personally like the Studio setting for most of the music I listen too. This gives slightly richer lows and crisper highs. The Driver Optimized setting is pretty neat as well. It tunes and times every speaker to be just right for the driver seat, and never mind what it sounds like to everyone else. The most impressive however, is the Surround setting. It actually makes it sound like a home surround sound theater setup. It's nuts. If only it had a built in Blu-ray player. With the sound, and the comfort of the seats, I'd never watch another movie from my couch in the living room again.

Phaeton Photo Shoot - Mukilteo Lighthouse at Dawn

The downfall of the interior has got to be the cargo space. I mean, this thing's huge, but there's not a lot of room to haul large items. The trunk seems like it would be massively deep from the outside, but because the rear seats are shoved so far back to give you all that leg room, it's actually not that deep. And it's not that wide either, thanks to a full size battery on each side. Sure this helps with the balance of the car, but I still have to turn my golf clubs diagonally. And forget about packing a snowboard up. The rear seats do not lay down at all. There's a ski pass, but its just big enough for skis. So why not just get a roof rack you say? Well, the long wheel-base version, the only version available in North America, doesn't have any attach points. I still can't make sense of that. I know these are very petty complaints.

The original owner of my car chose the Kristall Grey Sensitive leather with Eucalyptus wood trim. Normally, I hate grey leather. I always find it very dull and lifeless. But this one has grown on me as I've found that it still has it's own personality. It's not that of a warm, comfy and nurturing beige that will make you feel all fuzzy inside when you're having a bad day. Nor a sexy seductive black that touches you in an exciting way and gives you that tingly sensation. Grey is more of a serious and confident tone. It won't give you false ideals of a world filled with rainbows and gummy drops. It's real and neutral in every sense. It may not be the most exciting color in the world, but it's reliable. I appreciate that.

Phaeton Photo Shoot - Mukilteo Lighthouse at Dawn


Two options were available to the North American Region. The top tier engine pick is the 6.0 liter W12 that produces 414 bhp and 406 lbf-ft. The W12 will whisk the heavy Phaeton from 0-62 mph in a claimed 6.1 seconds. Step down from there to what I bought, and you get a 4.2 liter V8 producing 330 bhp and 317 lbf-ft. That's significantly less power, but it still manages to pull the two and a half ton cruiser to 62 mph in 6.9 seconds. Now that's pretty impressive. Truly, it's not the fastest car I've owned, or not even the second fastest car. But for it's size, it does a stand up job.

Most people that know me are probably wondering why I didn't go for the W12. As anyone will tell you, my motto has always been to go for the top of the line in whatever car I buy. Well, there's three good reasons. One, the V8 seems to be a bit more......reliable. It has it's issues, sure, but not to the scale of some of the things I've read about pertaining to the W12. Especially when you start looking at the transmission. I had the exact same five speed ZF 5HP24 trans in my old 540i, and I hated it. It was plagued with problems and I didn't want any part of that. Second, I don't have the need for that small extra bit of speed. I'm not racing from light to light or flooring it every chance I get, that's just not my driving style anymore. The V8 honestly has all the speed I need right now. Third, there were no W12's for sale in my general area at the time. So it was an easy choice. Additional options available to the rest of the world are a 3.0 liter V6 TDI, 3.2 liter VR6, and 5.0 liter V10 TDI.

Phaeton Photo Shoot - Mukilteo Lighthouse at Dawn

I'm very happy with this engine. It produces a great tone, especially when you lay in to the pedal a bit. It also has a vacuum actuated dual stage intake manifold. What this does is open up shorter intake runners at about 4,000rpm to optimize the flow for more power in that higher range. It's a beautifully simple design, and you really feel it when it kicks in. Aside from that the V8 is very smooth all the way through the power band. It's a very pleasant engine.

Mated to it is a six speed ZF transmission and Quattro all-wheel drive system. Although I'm not a big fan of ZF transmissions from a maintenance and longevity standpoint, it is a very smooth shifting gearbox. This one does an excellent job picking the right gears, and in regular Drive mode it keeps you in the highest gear possible when cruising to keep the revs down in an effort to maximize mpg's (chuckle). In Sport mode it will hold the revs a lot longer to keep more of that power on tap, and it will downshift a lot earlier on deceleration. There's also a manual shift mode which does seem a little out of place in such a luxo-cruiser, but it's nice to know it's an option in case you want to see what two and a half tons feels like around a few tight switchbacks.

The Quattro AWD system borrowed from Audi works magnificently. No matter what road conditions your facing, this thing will hook up and go. I was in six inches of fresh snow on summer tires and had zero problems getting out of the parking lot. I've never felt more confident on winter roads. This car does not let down.

Phaeton Photo Shoot - Mukilteo Lighthouse at Dawn


The suspension and ride characteristics of this car are like a dream. A large part of that is probably because it’s riding on air at all four corners. With this setup, you can actually choose your ride comfort level with the push of a button and turn of a knob. From the standard setting, which I find perfect for everyday driving, you can choose to go one click to the left for a softer setting that makes those old highways feel like clouds. Too the right, you get two levels of stiffer ride setting. Click it all the way to the right, and you definitely notice a difference. All of a sudden you feel everything in the road. It can be quite jarring at times, but then you take it around a bend, and man does it hold on. This car does a great job managing its body roll as it is, but in the stiffest setting, it’s like riding on rails.

The other thing that the air suspension can do is manage the cars ride height. Load up the back with a bunch of…..cargo, and it automatically loads more air into the rear system to raise the back end. And just like the comfort levels, a touch of another button allows you to raise the car 25mm for a smidge of extra clearance. This can actually come in handy in the right situation. The last upside to this setup, is that with the right tools and software, you can actually lower or raise the cars normal running height to just about any level you want without changing a single part. This is good. For the North American Region, the Phaeton came 10mm higher than the rest of the world. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it makes a huge difference aesthetically when you look at the fender gap. I actually have mine lowered 20mm in the front and 15mm in the rear, compared to the European height. I found that’s about as low as I can or would want to go without sacrificing some drive-ability, or park-ability maybe.

So all this power and weight, and a suspension setup to make the best of it. But what about stopping power? Well it's there, for sure. The V8 comes with beefy 360mm brake discs with two-piston calipers up front, and a 310mm package in back. That's what it takes to get this massive cruiser to zero safely. Though it doesn't slow down quite as quickly as most sports cars, it's no freight train either.

The only shortcoming I've found in the handling, is that being a heavy AWD beast of a car, it does tend to plow the corners if you go in a little hot. The stiffest suspension setting and good tires help a little, but it’s just not enough to overcome the force of two and a half tons. However, on the long sweeping turns, as long as you’re not heavy on the accelerator it handles itself beautifully. Not as nimble as my old bimmer, but still very impressive.

The Pill to Swallow

As with just about any European car on North American roads, maintenance can be expensive. This is especially true when it comes to flagship models. Going in, I knew of potential transmission problems, and that the car has as many controllers as a NASA rover, so I did the thing I never do and opted for an extended warranty. Usually I just fix everything myself, because it's often the labor that costs the most. Transmissions and controllers are not cheap however. In a year of ownership I've recouped the warranty cost twice. That may lead you to believe that this car's had a lot of problems already. Well, yes and no. I've had it in for repair three times. However, a majority of that has been for things that most people wouldn't even notice. Things that don't affect the drive-ability of the car at all, so it's yet to leave me stranded anywhere. The Phaeton has a lot of systems, so the things that could go are wrong are easily three or four times that of a typical car. These are things you have to understand and be prepared for when choosing a vehicle of this sort.

Final Thoughts

I love this car. And it's not because I own it. I just love the car for what it is. With every other car I've owned, there was always that thought of 'what will be my next car?' Not with this. If anything, I might want to upgrade to the next generation once that comes out. Even then, ideal conditions would allow me to keep my '04. I really do not want to part ways with this one.


  1. After reading the Phaeton forum on, for about 10 years, I am fairly sure only once has it been reported that a Phaeton left someone stranded somewhere by the side of the road.

    And I think it was a diesel model in Europe.

  2. "With every other car I've owned, there was always that thought of 'what will be my next car?' Not with this. If anything, I might want to upgrade to the next generation once that comes out. Even then, ideal conditions would allow me to keep my '04. I really do not want to part ways with this one."

    My thoughts exactly. Every time I get into this car I love the experience. I bought a used 04 v8 nearly a year ago and love it. I feel the Bentley beneath and the incredible quality in the chassis that makes it so solid, silent, and renders the driver confident in any but the most extreme situations.

  3. Remember though, the Phaeton came first, and the Bentley after. I'm not sure where they were in the design process of the two at the time, but it would stand to reason that the Bentley was actually built on the Phaeton chassis and on a lot of those same ideas. I notice the Bentley also uses a lot of the same control parts, though they're gussied up a bit.

    So I think the Bentley owners are feeling the Phaeton beneath!

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