Say what you want about Ferdinand Piech, but there can be no doubt that he is one of the most significant figures in the entire history of the automobile.
At Porsche, he oversaw the 917, one of the most dominant race cars ever built.
At Audi, he oversaw the Quattro, which permanently changed high-performance cars by introducing all-wheel drive into the equation.
And although his failed attempts to move Volkswagen upmarket are not really celebrated, I think that period deserves recognition for giving us some of the most wonderfully insane cars of the 21st century. The following are six of my favorites from When Volkswagen Went Nuts.
Number One: The Phaeton
Photo courtesy of Greg Gjerdingen: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:04_Volkswagen_Phaeton_(6827581414).jpg
I would definitely say the Phaeton is the most famous of insane Piech-era VWs. For those who are not familiar with it, though, here’s a quick rundown.
The Phaeton was VW’s flagship car, a $70,000 ultraluxury sedan that competed with the Mercedes S-Class and could even be had with a W12 engine (and a V10 diesel in other markets, but we’ll get to that engine later). The Phaeton got pretty complimentary reviews when it was launched in 2004, but it was a sales disaster and was withdrawn from the US market after just three model years (though it continued to be sold elsewhere until 2016). The only significant reason for this was depressingly stupid: it just didn’t have the status of its rivals, and status is everything to luxury car buyers. The plus side is, depreciation hits these cars like a free-falling Argentinosaurus, so you can now get a nice Phaeton for less than $20K. This or a Mitsubishi Mirage? No contest.
Number Two: VR6 Golfs and Jettas
The Car Spy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VW_Golf_IV_R32.jpg
These are the other cars on this list that I expect everyone to be at least partially familiar with. From around 1994 to 2009, the Golf and Jetta were available with a narrow-angle V6 engine (go to the link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VR6_engine#/media/File:Stand_VR6-motor-contrast.PNG to see what narrow-angle engines look like).
The result was a fairly amusing, pint-sized, Germanic muscle car. The hottest VR6 Golf or Jetta was the R32, as seen in the picture above. It came with the mechanicals out of an Audi TT and 240 horsepower, as well as the first production DSG gearbox (a manual was standard). That was genuinely amazing in 2004; even Ferraris still used single-clutches back then.
In 2006, VW dropped the VR6 from the Golf and Jetta. It made a comeback in 2007, but only on the R32-and by 2009, that was gone, too. When the next R32-which was simply called the Golf R-arrived, it was with a more powerful but less bonkers turbocharged inline-4, thus confirming the end of the VR6 in VW’s compact cars.
Number Three: The Passat W8
Rare, interesting, and beautiful. Way back in their TG days, Richard Hammond and James May said that a car had to be at least two of the three to be a future classic. The VW Passat W8 ticks all three of those boxes.
Rare? Definitely. VW only made about 11,000 Passat W8s originally, and I would wager that far fewer remain, due to lousy early-2000s VW build quality.
Interesting? Well, it has what is, to my knowledge, the only production W8 engine ever put in a car. That is interesting enough, but the fact that they chose to put the engine in a mainstream family sedan is fascinating.
Beautiful? Well, obviously the Passat is not Lamborghini Miura-level beautiful, but I think this generation of Passat has a great design that still looks elegant and contemporary today. Oh, and you could get the W8 as a wagon with a manual transmission, a car which packs so much awesome into a car-sized package that it could explode at any minute in a supernova of awesomeness. Oh, wait-- that’s just the engine overheating again.
Yes, the Luxembourg police forces used these, although I think that paint job may undermine the car’s natural Q-car stealth.
Number Four: The Touareg V10 TDI
M 93: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VW_Touareg_V10_TDI_(I)_%E2%80%93_Frontansicht,_15._April_2012,_Mettmann.jpg
Now, unfortunately, we must move on from a car I really like to a car I don’t like at all: The original Volkswagen Touareg, a car which is ugly, unpleasant, and shockingly unreliable even by early-2000s VW group standards. There is, however, one interesting type of Touareg: the V10 TDI
Strangely, using a V10 on a truck or SUV was not a new idea. Dodge and Ford had already been doing it since at least the 1990s. But VW was the first car manufacturer to put a V10 on a mainstream vehicle with any sort of civility, and the first to make a diesel V10. The engine made around 308 horsepower. That may not sound like a lot for a 5-liter V10, even a diesel one, but the flipside is that the V10 made 553 lb/ft of torque, making it a towing champion; the UK-based car show Fifth Gear managed to tow the Space Shuttle with one. It was a great engine, but it had a few problems. First, the car surrounding it was still a Volkswagen Touareg. Second, it was not especially good for the planet and struggled to pass US emissions regulations. Eventually, VW replaced it with a diesel V6, which also failed to meet US emissions regulations, but which fooled the EPA into thinking that it did for six years.
As a side note, I learned while doing the research for this project that VW sold the Touareg with an optional W12 engine overseas, and that you could also get a Phaeton with the diesel V10 overseas. The Phaeton sounds appealing. The Touareg sounds like a waste of a perfectly good W12. And speaking of W12s…
Number Five: The W12 Concept
VW never put the W12 concept car into production, but I think it deserves a mention anyway. It was part of a trio of VW group hypercars that also included the Bugatti Veyron (the only one to make it to production) and the Bentley Hunaudieres. Actually, VW made three concepts. The first was the W12 Synchro (pictured above at Goodwood), released at the 1997 Tokyo Auto Show. It made 420 horsepower. At Geneva 1998, VW released a Roadster version, and at Tokyo 2001, they released a 600-horsepower “Nardo” version, named after the Nardo Ring in Italy. The W12s were sort of like the Mercedes C111 concept cars. They were never actually intended for production, but instead were used as very dramatic looking test beds for future technologies. In this case, the W12s (and the W16-powered Bentley Hunaudieres) were used primarily as test beds for the Bugatti Veyron (the Bentley in particular). The W12s were also used to help develop that W12 engine for use in several production cars. As much as I like the W12s, however, it is hard not to think that VW made the right call in focusing on the Veyron, as I cannot imagine the W12 having the same effect.
Number Six: The 1-Liter Concept/XL1
Klaus Nahr: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1-Liter-VW_(525150348).jpg
To me, the 1-Liter is the most interesting car on the list. It is undoubtedly a hypercar, as it has a level of focus every bit as high as that seen on the Veyron. However, its focus is not on speed, but on fuel efficiency. The car was revealed in 2002, and VW claimed it could do 238 MPG. The car also had a gestation period of nearly ten years-- one of the longest of any car. What happened was the car was greenlit for production, cancelled, and then re-greenlit. It eventually arrived in production form at the 2011 Qatar auto show as the XL1, and went on sale in 2014.
The production XL1. Credit: MotorBlog:
The original 1-liter, strangely, did not have a 1-liter engine. It had a 0.3 liter 1-cylinder diesel engine making just 8.4 horsepower. By the time it went into production, though, everyone realized this engine would be absurdly underpowered, and replaced it with a 0.8 liter 2-cylinder diesel hybrid engine (not a typo). This engine makes a combined 74 horsepower through a seven-speed DSG gearbox. It also gets an astonishing 260 MPG. Unfortunately, it also cost $146,000, and was never sold stateside. But hey, sure beats a Prius, right?
One last thing: While researching this story, I stumbled across this:
Credit: RudolfSimon: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VW_L1.JPG
Cool, huh? Apparently, VW released this car, called the Volkswagen L1, at the 2009 Frankfurt Auto Show. In pretty much every way, this car is a bridge between the 1-Liter and the XL1. It has a 0.8 liter two cylinder diesel hybrid engine, like the XL1. However, the L1 is much less powerful, with either 27 or 39 horsepower depending on the drive mode. The styling also is caught between the two- it has a shape closer to the 1-Liter, but with a front fascia and wheels like that of the XL1
So, those are, in my opinion, the most interesting cars from Volkswagen’s Bubble Era. Did I miss anything? If so, email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org, where you can tell me all about my unforgivable omissions. You can also email me if you own a first-generation Volkswagen Touareg and want to tell me that it is the greatest, most reliable car ever made and that I am an idiot for thinking otherwise.
One last thing: I would like to apologize for the long gap between my last article and this one. I promise, I will get the next one up more quickly.
Rory Cahill is a highly sarcastic teenage car enthusiast and amateur automotive journalist, who is especially interested in 80s/90s cars, classic off-roaders, and anything weird. He owns a 1984 Mercedes-Benz 300D Turbodiesel. He is also very interested in rock music and politics, and wrote this whole bio in the third person because he is a filthy, filthy snob