As names for cars go, Phaeton perhaps never had the best start in life. The son of the sun-god Helios, when Phaeton ("the shining one") finally learned who his father was, he went east to meet him. He induced his father to allow him to drive the chariot of the sun across the heavens for one day. The horses, feeling their reins held by a weaker hand, ran wildly out of their course and came close to the earth, threatening to burn it. Zeus noticed the danger and with a thunderbolt he destroyed Phaeton. He fell down into the legendary river Eridanus where he was found by the river nymphs who mourned him and buried him. Hardly encouraging stuff and when some commentators heard of Volkswagen's plans to introduce a luxury saloon they predicted a similarly rapid demise. The Phaeton, whilst never cranking out sales to rival the Mercedes S-Class, nevertheless made some respectable numbers in the UK. Enough to justify the huge and shiny factory in Dresden? Perhaps not, but if you're after a nearly new luxury car bargain, the Phaeton might yet have its moment in the sun.
The history of the Phaeton is closely tied in with one man: Dr Ferdinand Piech. This former Chairman of the Volkswagen Group is a fascinating character, the son of Louise Piech, Ferdinand Porsche's daughter, with a considerable pedigree to live up to. With a long and illustrious motorsport track record that included developing the Audi Quattro, Piech was a clinical perfectionist with some unusual habits. He detested air conditioning systems and insisted the Frankfurt Show did without air conditioning. He even carried a personal toolkit so that he could open hotel windows fully to ensure ambient climate!
Until his retirement in 2002, Piech seemed intent on expanding the number and scope of the Volkswagen Group's marques beyond all recognition. SEAT, Skoda, Audi, Lamborghini, Bugatti and Bentley all came under the Volkswagen Group banner and models overlapped, ending up with some strange creations. A Volkswagen that looked like a Lamborghini was built, set a series of records and was then killed off. Then we had a Skoda that was bigger and better equipped than some BMW 5 Series models, before numerous Volkswagen and Audi models in direct competition until finally the Phaeton arrived, a £70,000 limousine that shared its badge with a £7,000 shopping trolley. Two models were introduced in May 2003, the 3.2-litre V6 and the 6.0-litre W12 with the 4.2-litre V8 and the mighty 5.0-litre V10 TDI diesel following soon afterwards. Long wheelbase versions were announced in May 2004 and by the Autumn of that year, there was a 3.0-litre V6 TDI diesel for buyers to consider.
The facelifted Phaeton hit the showrooms in September 2007 with tweaked headlamps and a reprofiled bonnet. The centre console was also redesigned and the Pheaton received an upgraded 3.0-litre TDI engine with 230bhp and a 29.5mpg average economy.