Buying a Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI clearly hasn’t taught me a lesson in staying away from infamously unreliable Volkswagens because I went and bought another. This 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton is ridiculous in every conceivable manner and it broke on me before I even got it home.
Last week, I said goodbye to my silly Jetta TDI wagon. It was the first car that I’ve ever owned that was modified to great lengths. While I enjoyed the Jetta, I don’t feel that it was really right for me. And that’s OK, because I sold the Jetta to another VW enthusiast who already has great plans for it.
Its replacement is one of the most preposterous cars I’ve ever driven and I paid only $2,500 for it.
This Volkswagen Phaeton is a rescue. It was purchased by its previous owner with a bad electronic locking system (KESSY), a broken sunroof, a bad ABS module and more. They replaced all of those parts and brought the car back to life, but weren’t able to finish the job due to being in the military. The car sat for a very long time without being driven or started; its license plates indicating an expiration date in 2019 and odometer coming in at 160,000 miles.
But the previous owner, along with his family, love VWs. They told me stories of having another Phaeton, some buses, and other awesome vehicles in their fleet. Unfortunately, the other Phaeton was too far gone to save.
This Volkswagen Phaeton may look like a Passat with a little extra length, but there’s so much more going on under the metal.
It’s the brainchild of former VW Group Chief Ferdinand Piëch and Volkswagen’s engineers were given absurd targets to meet. We’ve covered the mind-boggling engineering of the Phaeton and I highly recommend giving it a read. This is a car with so many computers that it has a second battery just to run them. Here’s my favorite part:
Piech had 10 specifications that the car had to meet, which caused a number of engineers on the team to quit. They included the ability to drive all day long at 186 mph in 120 degree F weather while maintaining a cabin temperature of 71.6 degrees F. Further, the Phaeton had to be able to hit 190 mph without a single vibration. Top Gear actually drove one to 201 mph.
Where the Touareg V10 TDI is a regular Touareg with an addictive engine, Volkswagen spent a lot of time on the Phaeton fine-crafting details that the average driver isn’t going to care about, if they even notice. Look no further than the Phaeton’s brochure flexing about its Italian-made trunk hinges:
This Phaeton — a V8 — had a base price commanding $64,600 while the W12 set you back at least $79,900. Fully optioned out, a Phaeton easily surpassed $100,000. Unfortunately for Volkswagen, few buyers were drawn in by its ultra-luxury sedan. In its best year, 2004, Volkswagen moved only 1,939 Phaetons in the States.
That 4.2-liter V8 makes 335-HP that moves the car’s bulky 5,200 pounds of weight with the speed of an Audi TT through 4Motion all-wheel-drive. And the occupants get to enjoy it while the cabin is as quiet as a library.
It’s so smooth and so quiet that you have to check the tachometer just to make sure it’s still running. The car’s leather is soft, supple and you can sit in them all day without aches or pains. And check out this wood that wraps around the cabin:
It’s genuinely a lovely place to be and if it weren’t for the outdated infotainment system it would be competitive with the luxury cars of today.
And the Phaeton’s suspension? It handles bumps so well that you feel like you’re riding on a cloud, despite Illinois’ roads jarring potholes. Boeing 747s have more turbulence than a Phaeton.
I was only about an hour into owning this luxo-barge when I encountered one of the downsides of buying a car that’s been sitting for a while.
The temperature gauge stayed right at 200 degrees for the duration of my test drive, and even the 10 miles of country roads that it took to get back to the highway. But as soon as I got up to 70 mph the needle began creeping towards the red.
It took roughly 50 miles for it to go from an indicated 200 degrees to sitting on the red line. So I decided to limp it home 50 miles at a time.
This turned what should have been a three-hour drive home into an all-day adventure. At least my cheap 185,000-mile Touareg worked great as a support vehicle.
At one point I passed by a Phaeton (wait, what? —ed) that was broken down on the side of the highway only a mile before I had to pull mine over to cool down again. Two Phaetons broken down within a mile of each other, what are the odds?
Eventually, I nursed the car home without even triggering the coolant overheating light. The engine appears to have survived the ordeal, but I’ll have my independent mechanic take a look to make sure I didn’t just warp the engine’s head.
The first thing I’ll do to this car is change its timing belt, thermostat and water pump. This sounds like overkill, but simply getting to the thermostat on this engine involves going through the timing belt, which is also right next to the water pump. I don’t have history on any of these parts, so I might as well do them, too.
That should solve the overheating. It has a few other electrical gremlins that need to be vanquished, like getting its new ABS module coded and figuring out why the air suspension buttons don’t work.
This car is another automotive hero that turned out to be awesome, even if it tried to leave me stranded. Should you buy one? Maybe, but only if you’re some kind of masochist.