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Volkswagen Phaeton, Engineering Marvel

Jim Yu March 29, 2012 Cars You Should Know 85 Comments

The poor-selling, anonymous-looking, and under-appreciated VW Phaeton contains two miles of wiring.  Two miles.  The top of the line W12 version has 140 buttons and knobs.  The giant sedan has a mind-boggling volume of features and after five months of ownership of a low mileage 2005 V8 model, I am still learning something new on a regular basis.  Here are just a few examples of the car’s standard equipment.

1. Two batteries, one explosive.  The sedan is equipped with two batteries in the trunk.  One is for starting, the other is for the accessories.  If the starter battery is dead, the accessories battery will take over to start the car.  At temperatures below 50 degrees F, the batteries will work in tandem to start the car.  And finally, if the car is in a crash and one or more airbags are deployed, an explosive charge will detonate and disconnect the starter battery.

2. Anti-glare instrument cluster glass.  While driving, a person processes on average eight sensations per second.  We sometimes spend an extra fraction of a second looking at the instrument cluster due to glare from the cluster’s glass.  You see, the average instrument cluster glass reflects light at 8%.  But the Phaeton’s Conturan glass reflects only 0.5% of the light.  Normal glass is etched to reduce reflection, but the trade-off is a drop in transparency.  Conturan glass instead has three thin (1/100,000,000th of a millimeter) metal oxide coatings on each side to reduce glare.

3. Tailored air for four.  25 servomotors help create four distinct microclimates of between 64 and 82 degrees F inside the car.

4. Deafening silence.  To keep the interior quiet, the windows are double paned and the exterior panel gaps are three millimeters wide to reduce wind noise.

5. Wipers, wipers, and nozzles.  First, when in wash mode, the wipers will sweep three times, pause for a few seconds, and sweep one last time to pick up any leftover fluids.  Second, when the wipers come to rest, they adjust their resting angle every other time to prevent premature blade wear.  Finally, when the headlight washers are activated, the nozzles operate one side at a time so as to not compromise visibility.

6. Engine vibration dampeners.  From a book that came with my Phaeton: “Two hydraulically dampened engine mounts reduce the transmission of engine vibration to the passenger compartment.  At idle, a pneumatically actuated solenoid allows engine vacuum to pull a positioning spring in the engine mount down, allowing the easier transfer of a glycol mixture through the mount, which softens the mount and reduces the transmission of engine vibration.  At a speed of about 3 mph, the engine-control unit cuts off current to the solenoid valve, closing the hydraulic connecting channel between the two chambers.  Now, the exchange of hydraulic fluid is through a smaller spiral-shaped channel, thus making the engine mounts firmer.”

Images source: Copyright 2012 Hooniverse/Jim Yu

Currently there are 85 comments on this article:

  1. dukeisduke says:

    I've always thought the Phaeton was cool, but its complexity, and VW's quality reputation, horrify me. The Phaeton is a glaring example of Ferdinand Piech's enormous ego and hubris.

    • tonyola says:

      Yeah, I've always wondered about VW's rationale for making the Phaeton, especially when they already owned four "premium" brands in Bentley, Audi, Bugatti, and Lamborghini.

      • JayP2112 says:

        VW was trying to go blow for blow vs Mercedes and Piech being the megalomaniac wanted to rule the world. Since MB was getting into the small hatch market, VW had to counter with an S-class.

        Audi vs BMW
        Bentley vs Rolls
        Lambo vs Ferrari
        Seat vs Alfa
        Skoda and Bugatti… not sure.

        Soon Ducati vs BMW Bikes maybe?

        • Number_Six says:

          If Audi can do for Ducati what it's done for Lamborghini, sign me up. Five valves per cylinder 1200cc inline five please, Audicati!

    • C³-Cool Cadillac Cat says:

      I searched for a W12 about a year ago, as depreciation was Jaaaaag XJ level. I could not pull the trigger, however, because of the reasons you give.

      Great car? Damned straight.

      Reliable DD? Probably not.

      My employer would freak after the 15th call in for a "personal day" because my ride died.

  2. dukeisduke says:

    Don't forget the little doors that hide the a/c vents in the dash.

    • seat safety switch says:

      Or the in-door radiators(?) that defrost the side windows; no having to pivot your dashboard vents around to hit them.

  3. RegalRegalia says:

    I love this car. With its complexity and VW's reliability record I see it as an alternative to a Citroen C6, not in-brand competition with the A8. I'm dead wrong and the sales figures confirm it.

  4. OA5599 says:

    I bet motor mount fluid costs even more than blinker fluid.

    I hope you got a good warranty for the car. Cool features are fun; aging cool features, not so much.

    • Maxichamp says:

      I get my blinker fluid for the Phaeton in bulk at Costco.

      I've got an extended warranty/service contract that expires in June 2013. Fingers crossed. The previous owner maintained it meticulously and only put about 37,000 miles on it.

  5. Hatchtopia says:

    My Ford Ranger did the wiper wait trick. Hated it. The first three wipes did a fine job. The last one just smudged the dry glass. Features like this make me crazy. I can determine how many wipes my damn windshield needs.

  6. mdharrell says:

    I've had battery cables disconnect themselves, too, but I'm not sure I'd call that a "feature."

  7. Mad_Science says:

    Even as a guy who loves simple cars, for me the Phaeton is so complicated it wraps back around from "too complicated" to "so complicated it's awesome".

    …awesome for Jim to own, not me, that is.

  8. IronBallsMcG says:

    Concept Jeeps and Phaetons. I haven't felt like this since I was a young man discovering the underwear ads.

  9. muthalovin says:

    The best part is this is only a sampling. I am sure there is a Phaeton tumblr out there that lists every feature with a hilarious picture. If not, there should be.

    • Maxichamp says:

      There is like a 3 page DIY thread (with photos) on how to change the Phaeton's tires on VW Vortex. I sh&t you not. If I get a flat, I'm just gonna call AAA. I am NOT going to end up being pinned to the bottom of a 5,200 pound "Jetta".

  10. P161911 says:

    We have a couple of piece of equipment here in the lab at work that cost about $50,000, a dimension 3D printer and a new Faro 3D measurement arm. We pay a yearly maintenance contract that covers everything to keep them running except for a few consumables. These maintenance contracts run somewhere around $2k-3k/year. If the printer breaks down, they send a guy out to repair it. I could see where a contract like that would be worth it for a car like this. It could cover everything except the tires, brakes, and wear on the seats. Pay us X amount per year and we will take care of everything. I talking about something much more extensive than a extended warranty. Something along the lines of what BMW offers for the first 2 years, covers the oil changes etc.

    • Maxichamp says:

      Right now, if you want to buy a service contract for a 2004-06 Phaeton, it'll run you at least $8,000, if you can find a company that will write the contract.

      • P161911 says:

        So in other words if something big breaks it is time to get out the gas can and matches.

        • Maxichamp says:

          The 2004 MY was the most scary. The air suspension costs $2,500 per corner. But the 2004 model requires replacement of all four corners even if just one goes out. That's why I got the 2005. I'm sensible.

          • Zoltan Shapiro says:

            VW of A has a program where they'll pay parts and labor for the other three corners and the controller, because it ends up being nearly $12,000 to do the whole job otherwise. Source: I own a 2004.

  11. Age_of_Aerostar says:

    I wish it wasn't *your* car, so I don't feel like a dick making the following comment, but…..

    I wonder how many of these features add value, and how many are there just to impress the impressionable.

    EDIT: I still sound like a jerk, and I'm not trying to. Don't get me wrong, I love the engineering that is done on this vehicle to make things better, those things really are cool, but maybe for a concept car or some other application, because I, and maybe it's just me, have a hard time understanding a world where we need spend resources to cut the instrument cover glass glare. As I said, maybe it's me, but when I need to improve the readability of the instruments…. it's time for me to clean the car.

    • Maxichamp says:

      A little bit of both. And no offense was taken.

      I can definitely say that I was impressed with it when it first came out, but was definitely not willing (or able) to pay MSRP for it. Depreciation, for buyers, was an ally.

      • M44Power says:

        Also, the battery safety cable (exploding battery cable) is a fairly common safety feature. If you caused the airbag to go off, it is usually a good idea to kill vehicle power.

        • Age_of_Aerostar says:

          actually, on GM vehicles at least, the power to the battery has to remain intact, so the vehicle can make the OnStar call.

          • Maxichamp says:

            But with the Phaeton, there is a separate accessories battery for the OnStar.


            • Age_of_Aerostar says:

              I read about that….. I was paying attention! (I just making a counterpoint to M44Power who stated it's a good idea to kill vehicle power, and because I don't think it's that common, but I'm frequently wrong, so…..)

              …..and as I kept thinking about it, there's a VW commercial showing how it's Jetta unlocks the doors, and turns on the hazard flashers after an accident… implying that the vehicle power stays connected)

              • P161911 says:

                I know that twenty years ago cars had a switch or circuit breaker that would trip to disconnect the fuel pump if there was any kind of hit or inversion. Ford usually had a reset in the trunk. Lots of cars got towed away after minor accidents because they wouldn't start for a while.

              • M44Power says:

                Systems like OnStar should have a separate limited power source. OnStar does this with a backup battery mounted on the OnStar unit.

                • Age_of_Aerostar says:

                  not all vehicles that have OnStar have a backup battery. Use of an additional battery for OnStar is avoided due to extra costs, and used only if testing determines it is necessary.

                  • M44Power says:

                    I'd imagine that some implementations, such as the aftermarket installs, lack a backup battery. But, nevertheless, the point is that a battery disconnect shouldn't kill a post-collision notification system.

          • mdharrell says:

            In my vehicles I'd be less concerned about the battery connection and more concerned about figuring out who installed an airbag when I wasn't looking.

  12. Irishzombieman says:

    I am conflicted by this car and always have been. I love it, but I fear the thing. Insane luxury, complexity, attention to detail and immense engineering investment, understated looks covering a velveteen monster, a blacksmith hammer made out of solid gold, but with Volkswagen's reputation for niggly little problemos. 2 miles of wire is a lot to chase when the car won't start the engine because it thinks the passenger rear door is trying to dump fuel into the engine while the trunk is open and the speedometer says the car is going 143 miles per hour.

  13. Fester812 says:

    A wise man once told me that Volkswagens are a modern day Benjamin Franklin's garden.

    Benjamin Franklin apparently postulated a formula for calculating the optimum size of a man's garden. The optimum size was that which a man could begin weeding at one end, and by the time he made it to the other end, the first end was ready to be weeded again. Thus it consumes that man's free time and keeps him working, but not too hard.

    Volkswagen, he contended, spent much effort developing this paradigm in their cars. It should be made of a quality sufficient that an owner would start at the front bumper and fix every problem he encountered and work his way towards be back bumper at a reasonable pace. Once he got the taillights working properly again, the headlights would be ready for attention.

    There's something zen about that.

    • Alff says:

      Zen would include an interval of trouble-free time between finishing and starting over just sufficiently long enough to remember why you liked the car in the first place.

    • Savant_Idiot says:

      I once knew the owner of a late '60's muscle car (a GTX IIRC) that was kept under a cover in his garage. He was the original owner and was a MOPAR guy long before it became fashionable. Every weekend he would take it on a short drive, wash it and wax one quarter of the car. At the beginning of each month he would begin again.

      When I asked why he didn't just wax it completely once per month, he told me that the time spent maintaining his prized possession was an enjoyable journey; the equal to driving it without the wear and tear of putting miles on it.

      Years later as a new driver with my first car, I remembered his words and understood the meaning of "car zen".

    • AlexiusG55 says:

      The Forth Bridge in Scotland used to be like that- it's almost 2 miles long, and when they finished painting it they'd have to start again from the other end. Then last year they finished repainting it with some new paint that should last 25 years.

  14. Irishzombieman says:

    Looking forward to future updates, and to being wrong, amigo. May you love every second you spend in this car.

    • Maxichamp says:

      Thanks. This week, I've put maybe 350 miles on it. It is so solid and comfortable and confidence-inspiring.

      So in 5 months, I've spent less than $500 to repair a few rock chips on my windshield, an oil change, and alignment (with unfreezing frozen tie rod).

  15. M44Power says:

    I am looking forward to that! The Phaeton is one of the most bewildering vehicles manufactured in the modern era. I am jealous of you and saddened for your new burden simultaneously!

  16. Rust-MyEnemy says:

    I love these. I have an AutoArt 1:18 W12, and every brochure published for the UK market for it.

    It's just such a shame that I could never own one for the simple fact that I could no more wrench on a W12 than I could a Lear Jet; which I can equally afford.

    • Maxichamp says:

      See, I think I'm sane because I did not opt for the W12.

      The W12, by the way, has 18 way power seats. My V8 only has 12 way. :(

      • Rust-MyEnemy says:

        I'm trying to imagine what the other 6 ways might be, assuming you rule out time travel and matter transportation.

      • Joe Dunlap says:

        The W12 also has 8 way power REAR seats. Dont ask :-)

      • Devin says:

        Power seat tangent!

        I knew a girl with a Pontiac Bonneville, which had something like 18 way power seats. Because the controls were in the center armrest, the game was to distract the driver by contorting their seat all around. It was a fun game because it had an element of danger.

      • Erik says:

        Yes – I only figured that out today! I was playing with the seat buttons, and was astounded at how many changes I could make!!!

        Anyway, I too was impressed at debut for this vehicle, and was also unable / unwilling to pay MSRP, and now that I have my W12, life is good.

        My last car was a V8 X5, and to be honest, the Phaeton is miles better quality all around.

        I can also exceed speed limits without raising too many eyebrows, as happened when I had my 400hp Impreza, which was a police magnet. It is nice being discreet… And I don't think the W12 is much worse-off in terms of fuel consumption either.

        You can't imagine the quiet ride in this until you try it.

  17. Savant_Idiot says:

    Once you get past the potential for homelessness due to maintenance costs, there is something about the Phaeton that is irresistible. Maybe it's the sumptuous interior, the electronic gee-gaws, or the knowledge that only you and the valet understand the luxury wrapped in the plebeian exterior reminiscent of an over fed Jetta.

    Whatever that "something" is, I want one really bad.

  18. Age_of_Aerostar says:

    Don't wait 12 months before giving us an update!

    Make YouTube videos to show off the cool features for us, I want to see those dash vents open and close!

  19. F1Outsider says:

    I almost got hit by a Phaeton while exiting a parking garage… The driver was overcompensating the turn.

  20. creidvw says:

    I test drove a W12 in '04. Crazy car. Not sure I'd buy used and my dad's a VW mechanic….I know better.

  21. Maymar says:

    I'm hoping VW's secret criteria for the Phaeton will one day be made public (like, some point within the next 50 years) – I want to know just how precisely megalomaniacal Piech went.

    I do also find the Phaeton fascinating – I think the Jag XJ is the only big luxury sedan I'd take over it.

  22. Joe Dunlap says:

    There are also 225 fuse slots in several fuse boxes around the vehicle. Not all used of course, but available for "future assignments." For comparison, thats about 219 more thank my old air-cooled beetle.

  23. tristanp says:

    i seem to remember something about nightmare service costs associated with vw's W engine family, is more W= more $ ?

  24. hedgedigger says:

    When this goes horribly wrong, can you actually pull all of the wiring out of the car and show us the giant ball of wire?

  25. Kingsley says:

    bought a 2008 Luna Blue pearlescent V8 secondhand one year ago. Before that I had a VW Passat estate for 12 years. What's all this BS about 'VW service' or reliability? This is by far the best most satisfying car I have ever driven, fabulous for long journeys, quiet and luxurious in the extreme. Everything works well and I expect it to continue. People who do not understand this car are victims of fashion and stupid car writers who have completely lost the plot. Let them drive their fashion victim Mercs and ugly BMWs. We are the lucky few who know the truth. Enjoy enjoy enjoy, my friend. There is no other car that inspires such well deserved affection, that gives such real joy of ownership, that you will always look back at after parking, that you will always settle into the driver's seat with such anticipation and satisfaction. Mr Piëch is the God of cars.

  26. VW 611 says:

    I have one and it's by far the best vehicle I've ever owned and I've owned many. Thoroughly satifying! I doubt it's replacement will ever have the soul of the original. I like the fact that the car was created with purpose, one man's quest, whatever his motives, and not butchered by the bean counters. Does the Veyron make any sense to anyone? To me, it car nirvana.

  27. Big Jobby says:

    That's because it's IE, and it's a pain to develop for. He doesn't need to know it doesn't work in IE because 9 times out of 10 it doesn't anyway!

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