"Fünf Mark die Woche musst du sparen, willst du im eigenen Wagen fahren." Loosely translated, this catchline used in Nazi Germany to promote the idea of a ‘people's car' meant "If you want your own car, set aside five marks a week." Hundreds of thousands of Germans bought into this dream in the Thirties followed by millions around the globe over the decades, helping make Volkswagen the automotive behemoth it is today.
But somewhere along the way, the people element got lost, with most of the models in the Wolfsburg carmaker's line-up now costing almost as much as comparable ones from more premium brands, the starkest example of this being the Phaeton, the brainchild of former VW head honcho Ferdinand Piëch.
An outcome of his ambition to build a car that would be the pinnacle of German engineering and would help change Volkswagen's commodity carmaker image, it also proved to be the costliest mistake that Ferdinand Porsche's grandson has ever made, with $900 million (Dh3.3 billion) going into its development. VW's Dresden factory, which has an annual capacity of 20,000 cars, rolled out just around 61,000 Phaetons in ten years, highlighting the limited sales success the model has had. But boosted sales and brand image were not Piëch's only objectives. Having driven the previous version of the Phaeton two years ago, I know how well the engineers have managed to achieve his dream of surpassing Mercedes-Benz in terms of luxury.
Once you can see past the badge, you'll need to get used to its looks. To say that the Phaeton looks understated would be a gross understatement. Walter de Silva and his team of designers have kept it simple, with looks rooted in the past that will not offend anyone ten years from now. And to make sure that it doesn't blend into the cityscape as its almost invisible predecessor did, they've added some extra bling in the form of a full chrome grille and LEDs all around; a strip beneath the bi-xenon headlamps, cornering lights, turn indicators, rear lights and even the fog lamps are made of these sparkly little things. But still if you ask me to describe how the Phaeton looks, all I would say is it's a saloon that's low, wide and really, really long.
The understated design of the exterior is carried over to the cabin as well, with most of the instrumentation evoking those of the Bentley Continental Flying Spur with which it also shares a platform. There's a dairy farm's worth of hide and enough wood to keep you warm through winter in there. Touches like the round analog clock that takes centrestage on the dashboard, which has wooden flaps that gracefully slide back every time you start the car revealing the AC vents beneath, and the chrome V8 badge on the gear shifter all add to the sense of opulence inside.
The seats are 18-way adjustable, massaging leather items that look plush and supple but I found them curiously uncomfortable over long drives. The two individual rear seats are electrically adjustable as well, with a massaging feature and individual climate controls for both the sides.
And oh, did I mention the small fridge tucked away in between the rear seats?
Although the Phaeton can be ordered with a 450bhp 6.0-litre W12 or a 280bhp V6, my test car was powered by the 335bhp, 4.2-litre V8 engine. Mated to a smooth six-speed tiptronic gearbox, it hauls this leviathan from standstill to 100kph in just under seven seconds. It's obviously not a car that you'd go mountain-carving in. It clearly belongs on the highway, where it does its job with grace and sophistication. Any rough patch on the pavement is smoothed out by the superb dampers and the ride quality is right up there.
It's good that the Phaeton is built to last a hundred years and that its lines are timeless, if a touch boring. For, once you've convinced yourself to buy one of these, you can be sure it's going to be in your garage for the rest of your life. Not just because it's a supremely comfortable and loaded luxobarge, but also because it will be a tough task convincing someone else to buy it from you.
But on the flip side, what you're stuck with will be a car that's a combination of matchless opulence, flawless engineering, and unimpeachable performance; one of the best luxury saloons in the world.