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Volkswagen Phaeton, Engineering Marvel

Jim Yu March 29, 2012 Cars You Should Know 86 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

  • dukeisduke

    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

      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

        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

          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

      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.

      • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

        That's why I'm entering it in this year's Concours d'LeMons under the Most Depreciated class.

        • Maximo

          You may already have won Most Deprecated Owner.

  • dukeisduke

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

    • seat safety switch

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

  • Impalamino
  • RegalRegalia

    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.

  • OA5599

    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.

    • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

      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.

  • http://hatchtopia.wordpress.com Hatchtopia

    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.

    • smalleyxb122

      For a while, I was driving a company Ford Fusion, and the "auto-streak" function of the wipers infuriated me. If there is residual liquid, I can hit the wipers one last time, but without any left over fluid (100% of the time, in my experience) the wipers just ran dry over the clean windshield leaving streaks.

      Glad I'm not the only one.

      • Age_of_Aerostar

        I had a rental Ford recently, can't remember which one it was, but I remember getting a chuckle out of the Driver Information Center option to turn on or off that last pass of the wipers… I believe it was called the "Courtesy Wipe"

        • http://www.flowerpowerkc.com Alff

          Is the spritz of washer fluid labeled "courtesy flush"?

          • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

            Oh, and the Phaeton's windshield and headlight washer fluid is heated. True story.

            • http://www.flowerpowerkc.com Alff

              I guess that's good, although I do appreciate a pair of chilled headlights.

            • C³-Cool Cadillac Cat

              Oh, and the Phaeton's windshield and headlight washer fluid is heated. True story.

              But this has been around since the 80's on W126s.

          • Age_of_Aerostar

            I think that's called the "courtesy shower"

            Gold is optional.

        • Age_of_Aerostar
          • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

            BTW, I spent my college years driving a LWB blue Aerostar.

  • http://www.washington.edu/news/archive/52703 mdharrell

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

    • dukeisduke

      Not even on the highway in the middle of nowhere, late at night?

      • http://www.washington.edu/news/archive/52703 mdharrell

        Then it depends upon the passenger.

        Still, I suppose if the Phaeton's sound system plays a recording of Slim Pickens saying "Fire the explosive bolts!" just before detonation, it might generally be worthwhile.

        • Metric Wrench

          No fighting in the war room

  • http://www.hooniverse.com Mad_Science

    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.

  • IronBallsMcG

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

  • http://www.proofnpudding.com muthalovin

    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.

    • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

      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".

  • http://www.automobile-catalog.com/ P161911

    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.

    • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

      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.

      • http://www.automobile-catalog.com/ P161911

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

        • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

          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

            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.

  • Age_of_Aerostar

    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.

    • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

      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

        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

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

          • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

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


            • Age_of_Aerostar

              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)

              • http://www.automobile-catalog.com/ P161911

                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

                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

                  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

                    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.

          • http://www.washington.edu/news/archive/52703 mdharrell

            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.

  • Irishzombieman

    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.

  • Fester812

    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.

    • http://www.flowerpowerkc.com Alff

      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

      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

      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.

  • Irishzombieman

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

    • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

      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).

  • M44Power

    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!

    • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

      Thanks? :)

  • http://www.roadworkuk.com Rust-MyEnemy

    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.

    • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

      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. :(

      • http://roadworkuk.com Rust-MyEnemy

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

        • Kogashiwa

          Might be best not to rule those out entirely.

        • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

          I think they're for thigh support and headrest. Also, the W12 comes with massaging seats front and rear.

          For the rear seats, the headrests go up automatically when it senses the seat is occupied.

          • http://roadworkuk.com Rust-MyEnemy

            "For the rear seats, the headrests go up automatically when it senses the seat is occupied."

            Never have I been more proud of human development, self improvement and endeavour.

      • Joe Dunlap

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

      • Devin

        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

        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.

  • Savant_Idiot

    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.

    • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

      Not the valet. Two weeks ago, the restaurant valet parked my Phaeton in the back next to a Sentra. There was an almost identical Bentley Flying Spur out front that he could have parked my car next to.

    • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

      And by nearly identical, I mean this:

      • aastrovan

        Curious what a beauty like that cost new???

        • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

          The Phaetons cost from the high 60s to high 90s when new. I don't know about the Bentley.

    • Erik

      My W12 came with 34 months of warranty remaining… that really swayed the decision for me.

  • Age_of_Aerostar

    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!

  • F1Outsider

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

  • creidvw

    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.

  • Maymar

    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.

  • Joe Dunlap

    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.

  • tristanp

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

  • hedgedigger

    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?

  • Kingsley

    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.

    • http://karakullake.blogspot.com Maxichamp

      Well said, fellow Phaeton owner!

  • VW 611

    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.

  • Big Jobby

    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!

  • Kevin Jackson

    Thanks Jim for putting this information out there.

    I’ve read, in the service manual, that the climate control system has a sensor, a kind of electronic “nose”, that detects some noxious aromas outside the car. Once detected the climate control system automatically enables the re-circulate function so you don’t smell it as much.

    Since the Phaeton has auto leveling suspension and electrically activated shock absorber valve settings, the computer knows (thru suspension position sensors), not only the suspension position but the rate of change of the suspension movement. During normal driving on smooth roads the rate of change of suspension movement is pretty slow. However, when the car hits a bump or pothole the rate of change is very fast. The Phaeton, upon detecting a high rate of upward change (the suspension hitting a bump), can actually soften the shock setting in a couple of milliseconds to allow the suspension to move over the bump without transmitting as much of the impact to the rest of the car. Conversely, when encountering a pot-hole, the shock will stiffen, helping the suspension “ride over” pot-hole rather than falling into and suffering the jarring rebound when the suspension hits the other side of the pot-hole.

    Does anybody have any more?


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