VW Phaeton: The Car of the Future

vw phaeton the car of the future

With so many superb high-end sedans for sale, I'd be hard-pressed to name the automaker building the world's best luxury car. But I'll tell you which one makes the best chocolate cake: Volkswagen. At VW's 'Glass Factory" in Germany, a PR flackling served-up a Schwarzwaelder Kirschtorte whose cherry-flavored choctasticness established an insurmountable standard for the field. The same could not be said for the car being built below. The Phaeton was doomed from day one, minus the number of days between the moment of conception and the first commercial example. And yet, despite its inevitable withdrawal, the Phaeton may prove to be one of the most important cars of its time.

When the ghetto fabulous Bentley Continental GT made its debut, VW's boutique brand took great pains to distance their erstwhile British sedan from its German roots. But there was no getting around the fact that the Conti's rap sheet included some hard time on the Phaeton's platform. The baby Bentley's mighty mill was a twin-turbo version of the W12 engine powering the big Vee Dub. Should [all] US Phaeton owners pile into a modern Bentley, they'd immediately recognize the swankmobile's climate control and air suspension systems. By the same token, the current Audi A8 owes much of its character to its humble (though pricey) predecessor.

It's also worth noting that the Phaeton marked a return to form for German engineering. The luxobarge's windshield wiper blades rest on alternate sides to create even wear. The sunroof's lip spoiler adjusts at speed to prevent drafts and harmonic distortion. The climate control system opens vents for rapid cooling, then closes them when the desired temperature arrives (switching to indirect air flow). At a time when even Mercedes had lost the plot, the Phaeton's build and materials quality were beyond approach. I mean, reproach. For those of us who wondered if the Germans had lost their manufacturing mojo, the Phaeton kept the faith alive.

Of course, none of that makes the Phaeton particularly important. You might even call the ridiculously-badged, absurdly-priced Phaeton automotive cocaine: a sign from God that VW was making too much money. The model's real contribution to the future of the automotive industry lies elsewhere, well away from the greasy bits. It was the Phaeton's sales and marketing that separated the machine from the dozens of Dodos (Chevrolet SSR anyone?) launched by overly-adventurous automakers.

German Phaeton buyers were invited to the imperious Glass Factory to spec-up their car. In VW's Customer Experience Center, perched high above the former Allied bombsite known as Dresden, café and kuchened customers stroked sumptuous leathers and glassine veneers. They twiddled a digitized table to select an ideal blend of exterior and interior colors and the appropriate rear accommodations (dual thrones or bench). After their chariot was built, these automotive patrons returned to… an empty room. At the push of a button, accompanied by symphonic swelling, their custom built Volkswagen Phaeton rose from under the floor. A specialist guided the appropriately awed owner through the Phaeton's various functions. Then the outside wall rolled back and the customer drove their car into the parking lot and onto the street.

Although VW's Phaetonology shared some of its key characteristics with Japanese dealer techniques (which are driven by a lack of urban real estate), the Germans elevated customer contact to Wagnerian levels, and blazed a trail for US sales. It was, in a word, genius.

First, there were no cars. Why anyone selling an expensive product would want potential customers to contemplate a large number of them is beyond me; "pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap" is programmed into us on the genetic level. Second, Phaeton customers were isolated, indoctrinated and, most importantly of all, relaxed. The average car dealer's showroom is more uncomfortably exposed than a public urinal and less relaxing than a dentist's chair. Third, customers customized their car. Their detailed selections bonded Phaeton owners to both their vehicle and the company providing it. And fourth, the handover process– THE critical moment in the entire sales process– was appropriately dramatic, bonding Phaeton owners to both their vehicle and the company providing it.

The retail end of the American automotive business hasn't changed since the turn of the century– two centuries ago. Clothes, hardware, music, food– there isn't any other retail sector that hasn't been revamped and revolutionized in that time. The Phaeton gave VW a better way to sell cars. MINI has moved in that direction. And now Audi has a chance to make it happen. Audi of America's Executive Vice President Johan de Nysschen recently announced that his company will create regional distribution hubs to store, maintain and distribute cars 'within 48 hours.' Why not keep all but single examples at the hub, change the dealerships to [smaller] 'Experience Centers,' customize customers' cars at the hub, send 'em to the dealer and sex-up the handover procedure? I reckon it'd be a piece of cake.

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