2004 Volkswagen Phaeton: the Long-Term Review

Five years ago this month, I walked into an Audi dealership in Nashville, Tennessee with my driver's license, a cashier's check, and a CarFax report. I had flown 700 miles to be there, having never purchased a car before in my life. I was about to either realize my dream or make a colossal mistake. Perhaps both.

(Full Disclosure: I am the second owner of my 2004 Volkswagen Phaeton V8. The first owner was a doctor from Brentwood, Tennessee who drove the car for five years before trading it in on an Audi. One year after its factory warranty expired, the car found its "forever home" with me.)

Almost every gearhead has shopped used Phaetons at one point or another. It's a Bentley with a Volkswagen badge and an Audi price tag. Add steep depreciation to the mix, and it's a veritable steal. What stops most of us from pulling the trigger is our fear of the unknown. What does it cost to maintain? A second mortgage? A healthy kidney? A human soul?

No. Stop being paranoid. It's $2K to $3K in a good year, and upwards of $5K in a bad one. In other words, about the same as a 2004 A8L, S-Class, or 7-Series. But the Phaeton is a very different animal from those other cars, and not just at a glance. It needs to be driven to be appreciated.

Exterior 8/10

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton: the Long-Term Review

The Phaeton doesn't have a lot of chrome, flares, or furrows. It has no scoops, ports, or vents. Its fenders and pillars are bare of any badging. It is, in a word, understated. Simple, clean lines are what make the Phaeton so elegant. This particular example has the "Klavierlack" high-gloss finish, a $2K option that I'm glad the original owner saw fit to purchase. Polished to a high mirror shine, it sparkles like obsidian glass.

There are some who criticize the Phaeton for looking too much like a B5 Passat. From head-on, the resemblance is unmistakable. If you're all right with your luxury cruiser being mistaken for something more quotidian (and I am), then this shouldn't present a problem. The Phaeton simply isn't a car that shouts; it whispers.

Interior 9/10

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton: the Long-Term Review

The Phaeton's cabin is its pièce de résistance. The original owner splurged for the optional "sensitive leather" seats, upholstered in the same butter-soft hides that cosset the Bentley Continental's pampered passengers. The dash and door sills are trimmed in lacquered red eucalyptus—standard in the V8 model—though walnut, chestnut, and myrtle were all available for a premium.

This is a car that's more about comfort than it is about speed (though it's certainly not slow…more on that later). It comes with four-zone climate control, a dehumidifier, carpeted footrests, and rear and side sun shades. This particular example is fitted with the Comfort and Cold Weather Package, so each of the multi-way power seats can individually heat, cool, and massage. There aren't many cars today that come with heated, cooled, and massaging seats both front and back—and remember, this car was built in 2004.

That said, it isn't perfect. I tend to advise my passengers not to hit the "massage" button. The function is fairly weak and feels like a midget stubbornly poking you in the back. And once you decide that you'd rather not have your midget-poking massage, you need to wait 10 minutes for it to stop automatically. It's mildly annoying.

Acceleration 8/10

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton: the Long-Term Review

Back in 2004, the Phaeton V8 could hit 60 mph in 6.2 seconds. That doesn't sound particularly impressive, until you consider the fact that the car weighs two and a half tons. It's virtually as quick as its Audi cousin, despite the fact that the A8L weighs nearly 600 pounds less.

My Phaeton's an older girl, and has lost a few of her 335 horses over the years. She'll still hit 60 mph in a little over seven seconds, and it's easy for me to forget how fast I'm actually going. Since Virginia has the most militant speeding laws in the country, this isn't always a good thing.

Braking 8/10

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton: the Long-Term Review

You'd expect such a big, powerful car to come with big, powerful brakes. And it does. Brakes are responsive, and bring the car to a quick but comfortable stop with virtually no pitch or body roll. The ABS is a little noisier than I would like, and man, do those brakes ever kick up dust. I'll wash the car, drive about 20 miles, and the wheels will once again be black as coal.

Ride 9/10

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton: the Long-Term Review

I wouldn't describe the Phaeton's ride as characteristically German. It rides more like a Lexus LS460. In the Phaeton, you're quite literally riding on air, thanks to its over-engineered, adjustable air suspension. Bumps, dips, and potholes go largely unnoticed in Comfort mode, which is the only one of the Phaeton's four damper modes I ever bother selecting. Sport mode does stiffen the suspension for a more spirited driving experience, but I hate fiddling with knobs and buttons in the Phaeton. I'm always afraid something will break.

Handling 6/10

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton: the Long-Term Review

She maneuvers admirably in regular driving conditions, but doesn't turn particularly gracefully. This is a car that's just a hair under 17 feet long. The turning radius rivals that of the Titanic. Thankfully, icebergs aren't much of a problem in Virginia.

Steering feels a bit light for a vehicle so heavy. The Phaeton can tear through gentle curves at speed, but does not like to be thrown around hairpin turns. But then, if that's your driving style, maybe you should be looking at a Miata.

The Phaeton's best performance feature is its 4Motion permanent all-wheel-drive system. In dry conditions, power is distributed evenly to the front and rear wheels, and a loss of traction redistributes power where it is needed. This has gotten me out of a couple jams over the years. I once stopped ten feet short of a snowbank as I watched a Mercedes SUV glide past me going sideways.

Gearbox 7/10

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton: the Long-Term Review

The Phaeton's V8 is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, which is perfectly capable as far as automatic transmissions go. Sometimes it seems a bit unsure of itself, and I need to punch the gas to encourage it to upshift.

Bump the gear lever to the right, and you're in Tiptronic manual shift mode, if you prefer to feel like you're rowing your own. Personally, I've never driven the car in Tiptronic, so I can't speak to its abilities.

As I said, I don't like to throw the Phaeton around like a sports car, but in Sport mode, the engine will rev higher before it shifts. Even in Sport, the car emits more of a sonorous thrum than an actual roar.

Toys 8/10

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton: the Long-Term Review

Due to its age, there are toys that the Phaeton simply doesn't have. There's no Bluetooth, backup camera, or USB port. But there is so much that it does have. For comfort, there's the aforementioned seat heaters, coolers, massagers, and lumbar support. Rear-seat passengers have their own screen display for climate control settings. The rear sunshade rises and retracts at the push of a button. A mini LED flashlight can be charged via the cigarette lighter.

Using the buttons surrounding the dashboard screen, you can adjust the four temperature zones, fan speed, and audio settings. The "TRIPDATA" button shows you a bevy of information pertinent to your present journey, including average fuel consumption, distance traveled, and miles to empty. Ride height and suspension settings are controlled via two buttons to the right of the shifter.

The navigation system flat-out sucks. There, I said it. It uses a 10-year-old set of CD-ROMs, doesn't display street names on screen, and requires every single digit to be entered by twisting a knob. I used it once, on the day I bought the car. Since then, I've relied on Garmin or my phone.

The coolest toys in the Phaeton (by far) are the three sliding vent covers. These wooden panels magically slide open when the car is started to reveal the dashboard air vents. When the car is shut off, they return to their closed positions. They'll also open or close individually or separately depending on how you change the fan settings. First-time passengers always react to this, sometimes with squeals of glee.

Audio 9/10

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton: the Long-Term Review

The audio system in this car is freaking fantastic. It's a 270-watt system with 12 speakers, a 12-channel amplifier, sub woofer, Digital Sound Processing (DSP), and dynamic sound compression. No matter where you sit in the car, you're enveloped in a cocoon of eargasmic resonance. The acoustics are that good.

Thanks to the double-paned glass and lots and lots of sound deadening, the interior of the Phaeton is whisper-quiet. As a result, there is nothing throaty or guttural about the 335hp V8. Floor the accelerator, and the sound that meets your ears is undeniably powerful, but silky and mellow. It really purrs.

Value 4/10

2004 Volkswagen Phaeton: the Long-Term Review

The Phaeton may be the only car out there that depreciates faster than a Jaguar. Don't buy one as an investment, unless it's an '06 W12. Even then, I'm not so sure. The original owner spent $76K on my car, which was loaded with all the bells and whistles except for the four-seater package. When I bought it five years and 54K miles later, I spent a hair over $20K, and that's including a set of brand-new tires. Today, at 10 years old with 83K miles, my car is worth around $9,000. At least that's what KBB says. That's 88% depreciation in a decade. Ouch.

But for all of the reasons above, the Phaeton is a fantastic buy in the used car market. You get so, so much for the money. Just remember to keep a good chunk of your savings for the maintenance bills.

Five years in, I am still completely, totally in love with this car. Like all aging luxury cars, it can be high-maintenance, but it never fails to put a smile on my face. Buying a Phaeton might just be the best decision I ever made. And if a new one comes to the U.S. in 2018, I'll be buying it in 2023. You can count on that.

76/100

Engine: 4.2 liter V8
Power: 335 HP at 6,500 RPM/ 317 LB-FT at 3,500 RPM
Transmission: Six-speed Tiptronic automatic
0-60 Time: 6.2 seconds
Top Speed: 130 MPH
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 5,194 pounds
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 15 City/22 Highway
MSRP: $66,950