He wanted VW to build a luxury car that, among other things, could be driven all day at 186mph (300km/h) when it was 50deg C outside, while the air conditioning kept the interior at a steady 22deg C. And, no question, the car he conceived was massively impressive.
Piëch was, it’s said, partly motivated by the arrival of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Annoyed about the makers of the S-Class muscling in on Volkswagen’s territory, he decided Volkswagen should do the same in reverse. So he made a great car – and you all bought S-Classes anyway. Except in China, where preconceptions about badges mattered less at the time and any big, technically sophisticated European car could be a hit.
The Phaeton’s popularity there explains why, when the time came to replace it, the glass-fronted factory in Dresden was quietly forgotten and Volkswagen’s Chinese partner, SAIC, was engaged to assist in the development – although given that most of it was completed in Germany, the majority of the work rested with VW. Phideon assembly will be at the VW/SAIC Anting plant in Shanghai.
Which is why they said: “Go to Chinatown, Prior, the one in London, in the Phideon we’ve got hold of, and have some photographs taken of it.”
Fabulous, thanks fellas. Because if there is one thing I know about Chinatown, it’s that it is not the ideal location for a car photo shoot at lunchtime on a Monday, because it is both pedestrianised and full of people going for their lunch.
But we’ll be able to get close enough for a bit of flavour, reckons photographer Bradshaw – although not with enough time for actual flavour, which is a shame – and London is, after all, the kind of busy, bustling city that China’s urban areas specialise in. Although if my experience of Beijing is anything to go by, driving standards are even worse there than they are in London.
In a way, then, it’s as good a chance as we’ll get to see the Phideon in close to its natural habitat. Not that it feels terribly unusual; if globalisation of the industry has done anything, it has left luxury cars designed for a market 10,000 miles away feeling remarkably like luxury cars that could be sold anywhere. Were it not for the fact that the satnav insists we’re halfway between Hangzhou and Wuhan, you could be in any big, left-hand-drive Volkswagen. Which is, presumably, precisely why the Chinese liked the Phaeton in the first place.
Mind you, material fit, finish and appearance are better than those of most Volkswagens. Tolerances are millimetre-perfect, and two materials trying to approximate wood and aluminium respectively feature prominently. I couldn’t tell whether either is actually wood or aluminium (I suspect the former is but the latter isn’t, given how shiny and knurled its finish is), but in China they like conservative big cars with conservative interiors and that’s what they’ve got here. There’s ample room in the front, too, on broad, comfortable seats, and a very Volkswagen, very logically laid-out dashboard. I’ll come to the back in a minute.