Mike Humble ponders on the passing of a victim of its own pointlessness…
After 17 years Volkswagen is killing off the Phaeton. A point in case that image is
After years of ruling the roost globally in so far as aspirational, mass-produced cars are concerned; the Germans are having a rough time of it. On one hand, we have ‘Emissiongate,’ where the quoted figures for exhaust outputs have seemingly lied like a cheap watch and, on the other, Volkswagen has finally admitted defeat and yanked the plug from the skirting board on one of the loveliest cars I’ve ever driven – and, dare I say it, the most spectacularly pointless – the Volkswagen Phaeton.
The current motor trade environment has never been more interesting and, in the hurly-burly world of High Street retail, the same cold, hard fact applies – budget is best. It’s not that long ago that cars such as Skodas were driven by the parents of kids who backed their books with woodchip rather than the centre-spread of Look-in. Once, not that long ago, if you shopped in Aldi or Lidl, you seriously ran the risk of becoming even more socially unacceptable than an Ian Huntley-themed children’s adventure park. Times have changed.
I call it poverty chic and the previous global recession has made people stop and think about what they spend their money on, and, indeed, where they spend it. Brands like Hyundai and Kia now rub shoulders with Ford and General Motors – it’s taken them a few years, but their ‘slowly, slowly catchy monkey’ tactics have worked. It’s no longer necessary to drive a Kia Sedona wearing a full Burka or a cardboard box on your head, nor do they still supply a car with optional white wall tyres from new as they did with the Mazda 121-based Kia Shame… Oops, I meant Pride.
However, once you get to the upper classes of motoring, the old phrase of Image is everything still applies, and it’s here that a good few manufacturers have dropped a clanger. The Phaeton was designed to be the finest executive car in the world and, to a degree, Volkswagen probably pulled that off. One of my old Sales Directors had one on test for a few days and I had a drive up to London and back in a 5.0 V10 TDi – one of the few cars to make me gasp out loud at its amazing ability to isolate the outside world completely. Not only that, but the quality and craftsmanship was quite breathtaking, an incredible experience.
Would you just look at that? Take it from us; it’s a car that leaves you speechless. Sadly,
that badge in the middle of the airbag just couldn’t carry the burden
A friend of a friend bought one a few months ago and was stunned to find the salesman shovelling ten grand into his underpants before he had even committed to buying it. It’s been bought as a company asset so will be written off in the books. We thought he needed his bumps feeling but, as he said to me only a fortnight ago, ‘where else am I going to get this level of luxury for the money?’ The Phaeton is a wonderful machine on every level, but fatally flawed, and so, with production numbers slipping to under 3500 units annually, Volkswagen has called time.
The car cost a lot more than just money, too. The then top bod at Volkswagen, Ferdinand Piech, had the idea of developing a vehicle that would roundly trounce rival German makers – a bold plan when the car was first shown in 1999 but it pretty much bombed from day one. Volkswagen soon found themselves lost at sea with this one; while they were there someone conveniently found a long plank… and invited Herr Piech to take a meandering stroll along it. Built in a special factory in a forest with fairies and other mystical wonderments, it was soon so under productive that some sub-assembly of Bentley vehicles was shipped out to keep the crepe soled-shoed, snooker referee-gloved workers occupied.
The point is this: when you mix it with the true premium brands, the Volkswagen name loses its kudos. If you are a top CEO of the Dead Good Big Company Inc. you want to float around in a BMW 7 Series or a Mercedes S-Class. Why would you choose a car that looks like a big Passat from twenty paces regardless of its talent? What makes it even harder to fathom is why they even bothered when they had that exact kind of machine already sitting in their portfolio – the Audi A8. Volkswagen may cut the mustard in the yummy mummy school run or middle manager world but it’s diluted to just plain old H2O at board level.
With past Executive segment masters such as the Senator and Omega, Vauxhall then gave us
little more than an oddly-styled Vectra with only four seats… FAIL!
However, it wasn’t just Volkswagen who did this. We had the Vauxhall Signum – another WTF? kind of car. Take a Vectra estate, add some leather and unconvincing faux piano black and take away a fifth of the practicality by removing a rear seat. At the same time make the load bay all wonky-shaped and there you have it – Vauxhall’s executive carriage. You can pick them up now for pennies and some executive minicab owners love them to bits, but to others it made as much commercial sense as a triangular football. What a shame though… they drive really well but it was no Omega 3.0 – not by a long shot.
Oh, and of course we have good old Rover with its 800 Coupe – their take on the executive motoring. A car with to die forlooks and an interior which still looks mouthwatering to this day but which came with a price tag that could cause the hardest of men to tremble and weep. Craftsmen built 80 per cent of the 800 Coupe as the advert stated, but the car sold in penny numbers to the kind of customer that Rover didn’t want the coupe to go to – elderly, retired gentleman. Towards the end of the run they were throwing them out of the showroom for well under what it actually cost to make them.
Oh, what a damn fine looking car – the 800 Coupe. Sleek on the outside, svelte on the inside,
but the quality was pap and they couldn’t even give them away in the end – a shame!
So before we think too much about our own British cars that flopped more disastrously than a tired-out dog, remember… the Germans can make a world-class cock-up, too!