It appears the rumours were right. Volkswagen was close to approving a second-generation Phaeton flagship sedan before the Dieselgate scandal changed the company’s priorities.
Here’s a look through the bumpy history of Volkswagen’s ill-fated alternative to the Audi A8.
Unveiled at the 1999 Frankfurt motor show, the Concept D was an accurate preview of the upcoming Phaeton flagship sedan from the C-pillar forward.
The rear section, though, with its liftback design and round rump was seemingly copied by 2009 Bugatti 16C Galibier concept.
Under the bonnet was a 5.0-litre V10 turbo-diesel making around 230kW and 750Nm. It was hooked up to all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission.
Two years later Volkswagen introduced the D1 concept, which practically previewed the production car.
Developed as part of a plan to move the Volkswagen brand further upmarket, the first-generation Phaeton began rolling down the production line in December 2001
This push include the launch of the Porsche Cayenne-based Touareg, and the fitment of the unique 4.0-litre W8 engine — a pair of narrow-angle VR4 engines sandwiched together — to the Passat.
While the Touareg continues to this day, few buyers stumped up for the Passat W8, and the engine was discontinued after just three years.
Reports from the time suggest then-CEO Ferdinand Piech’s plans to transform Volkswagen into a luxury player were because he was angered by Mercedes-Benz launching the A-Class, encroaching into the small car segment where the Golf is a major European player.
Mr Piech is said to have given the engineering team a list of 10 parameters. These reportedly included a draft-less air conditioning system, world-best torsional rigidity, maximum passenger comfort, Lexus-beating levels of quiet, and the ability to be driven all day at 300km/h in 50 degree heat while maintaining a cabin temperature of 22 degrees.
Ground-breaking technology included blind-spot monitoring, a touchscreen navigation system, and road-sign recognition.
His drive for perfection meant the car cost around €1 billion ($1.5 billion) to develop. Some estimates peg overall losses from the project to be around the €2 billion ($3 billion) mark.
The Phaeton rode on a front- and rear-wheel drive platform codenamed D1, which was shared with Bentley Continental coupe and convertible, and Flying Spur sedan.
Like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7 Series, Audi A8, and Lexus LS, the Phaeton was available in both short (5.05m) and long (5.1m) wheelbase forms.
Headlining the range was a 6.0-litre turbocharged W12 making up to 331kW and 650Nm, but its 5.9 second 0-100km/h time wasn’t as brisk as it should’ve been.
Burdened with a steel body and Mr Piech’s demands, the Phaeton had a starting kerb weight of around 2.2 tonnes, or around 500kg more than the similarly-sized, aluminium-bodied Audi A8.
Other petrol engines available included a 3.2-litre VR6, a 3.6-litre VR6, and a 4.2-litre V8, while the turbo-diesel family included a variety of 3.0-litre V6 mills and a 5.0-litre V10.
The company had originally planned to make 20,000 Phaetons every year. All up just 84,253 were made during the car’s 15 year run. Thanks to its long production run, the Phaeton was given four updates during its lifetime.
It was made in a purpose-built transparent glass factory in Dresden, Germany. After the Phaeton was axed the Dresden plant was converted into an electric vehicle plant, first for the e-Golf and now the ID.3 electric hatch.
Although the Phaeton was made in right-hand drive, the car was never sold in Australia.
The Phaeton was not a sales success in the USA, where it was discontinued a few years after going on sale, nor Europe. It did, however, do reasonable business in China.
Volkswagen China developed a successor of sorts. Released in 2016, the Phideon was produced in a non-transparent factory, rode on the MLB architecture, and was available with boosted four- and six-cylinder engines, as well as a plug-in hybrid.
Sadly no V8, V10, or W12 engines have ever been offered in the Phideon.
This week Volkswagen took the unusual step of unveiling a seemingly near production-ready concept of the second-generation Phaeton.
Compared to original car, the second-generation Phaeton employs more bling and has a much sharper design, although some cues, such as the grille and thick C-pillar shape, are carried through.
With its fully digital instrumentation display, capacitive buttons, and a giant touchscreen for the infotainment and climate control systems, the concept’s interior is from a different technological age. It’s clear the Touareg wasn’t the only Volkswagen meant to receive the flashy Innovision cockpit.
In the rear a large console separates the two seats, and there are screens protruding out of the front seatbacks.
Although it’s based on the MLB front- and all-wheel drive architecture with longitudinal engines, used by vehicles such as the Audi A6, Volkswagen Touareg, and Bentley Bentayga, Volkswagen hasn’t confirmed which drivetrains it planned to offer on the second-generation Phaeton.
Plans to put this car into production were officially called off in 2016 as the company had decided to “focus on its electric mobility offensive”, after the Dieselgate emissions cheating scheme was revealed in late 2015.
Investing in a high-end, low-volume sedan to compete with the Volkswagen Group’s own luxury marques didn’t seem prudent as executives were arrested, investigations across multiple jurisdictions continued, and the spectre of paying out billions of euros in fines and settlements loomed.