VW stops producing its flagship Phaeton | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 18.03.2016
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VW stops producing its flagship Phaeton

Volkswagen is ceasing production of the Phaeton, a prestige project that derives its name from the mortal son of the Greek god Helios, whom legend describes as nearly causing one of the world's first traffic accidents.

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Phaeton production halted after 15 years

As far as automotive nomenclature goes, Volkswagen's decision at the turn of the millennium to christen its new high-end sedan "Phaeton" was an interesting one.

In Greek mythology, Phaeton was the mortal son of Helios, the sun god. Seeking affirmation of his divine pedigree, the boy asked to drive his father's solar chariot for a day. When Phaeton lost control of the horses and nearly slammed into the Earth, Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt.

Volkswagen's Phaeton never crashed and burned, but sales never really gained traction either. After entering the market in 2002, it remained one of VW's least successful models, costing more than three times as much as some of VW's other, more prudent models.

But amid company-wide cutbacks in investments to save money in the wake of the automaker's emissions-cheating scandal, Volkswagen announced last December that it would be striking the current version of the Phaeton from its portfolio. An all-electric upgrade could follow, but the company has not yet said when.

The Gläserne Fabrik, or glass factory, in Dresden

The Gläserne Fabrik, or glass factory, in Dresden

A 'people's car' for wealthy people

On March 18, the last gas-powered Phaeton is set to roll off the assembly lines at Volkswagen's glass-walled plant in Dresden, where buyers were in the past invited to watch their newly purchased vehicles be hand-assembled by white-uniformed, and occasionally white-gloved, workers.

VW has said the plant will be renovated and repurposed, although it hasn't officially confirmed for what. That information will be available in April, a spokesman told DW.

Since the first Phaeton was manually pieced together in 2002 in Dresden, it has enjoyed flagship status. It was the brainchild of former Chairman Ferdinand Piëch, who reportedly once told engineers he wanted a high-end car that could easily travel at high speeds, putting it at odds with Mercedes' S-Class, BMW's 7-series and Volkswagen's own Audi A8.

His auto designers came up with a "Volkswagen," or "people's car," for upper-class people, one with full-leather front seats that could be adjusted 18 different ways and a sound-proofed engine that could only be heard by passengers while traveling at speeds nearing 300 kilometers an hour.

A VW Phaeton

A VW Phaeton

An answer without a question

With a price tag of 89,650 euros ($99,900) for the standard 5-seat model with no extras, Phaeton sales were never very strong. Its peak year was in 2011, when VW moved 11,166 units. By 2014, that number fell to 4,061 - out of 6.16 million vehicles sold by VW overall. Recently, fewer than 10 Phaetons a day have been produced at the Dresden factory.

For years, with Piëch at the helm, the Phaeton seemed untouchable, even despite its lack of popularity with customers. It was a pet project of the engineering aficionado Piëch, or as one analysis from the market researching firm IHS put it: "The model was something of an answer to a question no one ever asked."

But with Piëch now gone, VW is looking to cut costs while authorities and courts around the world decide how much money it should have to pay in penalties for programming its diesel cars to deceive environmental regulators.

Volkswagen, for its part, has stressed that no jobs would be lost due to the changes at the Dresden factory, which are expected to take a year to complete. In the meantime, the workers will commute to other factories, trading their white coats for blue overalls.

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