Home » As Suggested By Autopian Staff: 2004 Porsche Cayenne vs 2005 VW Phaeton

As Suggested By Autopian Staff: 2004 Porsche Cayenne vs 2005 VW Phaeton

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Happy Monday, Autopians! Today we have a pair of suggestions by members of our own staff. I wouldn’t touch either of these cars with a ten-foot jumper cable, but they sure are fun to talk about.

But first, a quick public service announcement. I spotted this Jeep Cherokee at my local chain auto-parts store this weekend:

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image credit: Mark Tucker

The window sticker is hard to read because my phone camera is lousy, but it says “Certified Shitbox.” I checked our extensive database, and determined that this vehicle has not, in fact, been certified by Shitbox Showdown Industries, Inc., or any of its subsidiaries. It has not passed our rigorous 147-point inspection. Please beware of counterfeits like this, and insist on Genuine Certified Shitboxes when shopping for cheap cars.

Now then, let’s see how our two contenders from Friday fared over the weekend:

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Pretty clear victory for the Camaro, though the little Mazda was not without its supporters. The highest offer I saw for the Camaro was a suitcase full of cheap beer, which doesn’t sound too bad, but I have to ask: what kind of suitcase? [Editor’s Note: Pro tip is hold out for an American Tourister because they are the only ones gorilla-tested.– JT]

Today’s contenders were suggested in the smoke-filled back rooms of the Autopian’s inner sanctum. News-man Thomas Hundal found a suspiciously cheap VW Phaeton for sale, and I threw down the gauntlet for someone to find a worthy adversary for it. Mercedes Streeter came through in fine form with a downright scary Porsche Cayenne SUV that fit within our rules. My hat is off to both of them for rising to the occasion, and finding two vehicles that truly capture the shitbox spirit. Both are over-engineered vehicles from Ferdinand Piëch‘s long reign as head of Volkswagen, both have had depreciation curves that made the Cliffs of Dover look like a bunny ski slope, and both are guaranteed to try the patience of any shadetree mechanic brave or foolish enough to take them on. Let’s dig in.

2004 Porsche Cayenne S – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 4.5 liter V8, 6 speed automatic, AWD

Location: Spartansburg, SC

Odometer reading: 143,000 miles

Runs/drives? I think so, but not driveable due to a coolant leak

I’ll admit it: I was one of the many voices howling in protest when Porsche announced the Cayenne. A Porsche SUV? With four doors? Say it ain’t so! But now that ship has sailed, and the old purveyor of pure sports cars has been diluted enough over the past twenty years that the Cayenne is just another Porsche. And the automotive landscape has changed enough that the Cayenne is just another crossover.

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The Cayenne shares a platform and some sheetmetal with its corporate cousins the VW Touareg and Audi Q7, but the overall look is undeniably Porsche. This is the Cayenne S model, with a 4.5 liter V8 and a six-speed automatic equipped with the VW Group’s “Tiptronic” manual shift mode. The Tiptronic allows gear changes via a separate gate on the shift lever, instead of the “flappy paddles” behind the steering wheel that are fashionable these days. Personally, I prefer this, as I have hit flappy paddles by mistake and changed gears without meaning to. I’d rather reach down and yank a lever.

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This Cayenne needs some help. It has a coolant leak which apparently is bad enough that the car can’t be driven. From what I gather, it runs all right other than that. But the common coolant leak with these engines, it seems from a little research, is a series of pipes that run through the valley between the cylinder banks and are made of plastic. There are aluminum upgrade pipes available, but getting to them looks like a real chore. To make matters worse, while you’re in there, you might as well replace the starter, which also lives in that valley (because that makes sense) and can be destroyed by leaking coolant. You can probably get this thing running like a Porsche again, but it’s not going to be easy.

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A bigger problem is that all that work is hardly worth it, unless you specifically want an SUV with a Porsche badge on it. Take away the badge, and it’s just another grubby almost 20 year old crossover with far higher than average maintenance needs. Sure, it’s fast(ish) and cool(ish), but it’s one hell of a commitment.


2005 Volkswagen Phaeton – $1,800

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Engine/drivetrain: 4.2 liter V8, 6 speed automatic, AWD

Location: Tampa, FL

Odometer reading: 138,000 miles

Runs/drives? Seems to

If you thought the Cayenne was complicated and high-maintenance, do you want to see something really scary? May I present to you the Volkswagen Phaeton. Conceived by Ferdinand Piëch himself, in part as retribution on Mercedes and BMW for playing in Volkswagen’s economy-hatch sandbox, the Phaeton was too much. Too lofty, too expensive, too complicated, too hard for car shoppers to accept with the same badge as their uncle’s Rabbit. Only a couple thousand Phaetons were sold in the US.

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This Phaeton is equipped with a 4.2 liter V8 engine, shared with the big Audi sedans of the time. A few Phaetons were sold with VW’s legendary W12 engine, which in twin-turbocharged form found its way under the bonnets of various Bentley models. The V8 is actually a mark in this car’s favor, from everything I’ve read; it’s merely a nightmare to service and repair, as opposed to the near-Lovecraftian madness-inducing W12.

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According to our own modern Volkswagen aficionado Mercedes Streeter, the suspension in this car is a disaster waiting to happen. The Phaeton has an insanely complicated adaptive air suspension, with air bags that are prone to leaks and carry a price tag of around $1,8oo each (plus installation). This car’s suspension may or may not be fine, but the variety of jacks on the ground next to the car in photos don’t inspire confidence.

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The ad gives next to no information about the car, saying only that it “runs perfect” and is “in perfect condition.” The interior certainly looks like a nice place to be, and what we can see of the exterior looks clean, but I note that the photos don’t clearly show the front of the car. One photo shows what looks like some body damage on the front bumper, so “perfect” isn’t the descriptor I’d use in any case.

Clearly, either of these cars is going to require a serious commitment. You can’t half-ass ownership of a Piëch-era luxury vehicle. Expect bizarre failures of inaccessible parts, Byzantine repair procedures, and astronomical parts costs. But from all accounts, the reward for your labors is a very nice ride, good performance, and street cred among fellow gearheads who have all been warned off these hyper-complicated machines (myself included). But if you’re up to the challenge, all that remains is to choose your flavor. So which will it be?


Quiz Maker

(Image credits except the Jeep: Facebook Marketplace sellers)

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86 Responses

  1. Which one of these will make me more money when I strip it for parts? I’m thinking probably the Phaeton—much smaller market, but so much unobtainium. On the other hand, the number of Phaeton owners out there willing and able to pay big bucks for discontinued trim pieces may actually be zero at this point. Tough call.

  2. Beat-up non-running SUV vs running car with nice interior, it’s the Phaeton for me, no contest.

    Even if both their conditions were identical I’d go for the VW, since I’ve been in both and the car actually drives and handles way nicer than the tall wagon.

  3. What’s a Phaeton without the W12? What’s the point? I’ve never really liked the Cayenne, but I expect after the likely $10k in repairs for either of these, it’s the one I’d rather drive.

  4. Between these two monstrosities, the choice for me is easy. $1800 means the VW is the Bic lighter of the two. Drive it until it runs out of fuel, then throw it away. Hell, drive it like YOU didn’t rent it, but someone you really don’t like rented it, and it’s still on their bill. Go on a bit of a rampage until the Xmas tree of warning lights and symphony of sinister sounds reaches a crescendo. Then step out, pour a gallon or two of rubber cement all over it from hood to trunk lid and inside the open windows, don your sunglasses, and walk away, tossing your lit Zippo over your shoulder as you go.

    1. Drive it like hell. If my local oval had “spectator drags”, I’d see how many races I could get out of that VW before it gave up the ghost. Maybe put it in the wall on purpose.

  5. Take the Cayenne.

    The coolant pipe upgrade should get it running OK again. Just don’t drive it like a Porsche because if the rest of the engine goes, it’s an awful event. At least these will look good for a very long time, because the body panels are fully galvanized. I hope the guy swapping an LS in will eventually get the electronics figured out, because a Cayenne would be a great home for a monster LS.

    The Phaeton is a great concept, but they should have made it out of cheap VW parts instead. Also, shitty, wear-prone timing chains at the rear of the engine? Basic VWs are great. Complex ones are not. Don’t ever buy a Phaeton. You’re going to get punished.

  6. I’d say the VW because that Porsche looks ragged out. But if you could talk the Porsche down a bit, I’d buy it and part it out. Surely there’s more than $2K worth in parts in that thing.

  7. My wife drives an Infiniti FX35, I drive a Flex and my son has 4runner, so we pretty much have the SUV market covered, so I will go with the not your uncle’s rabbit.

  8. My vote goes for the Phaeton. I like the Cayenne, but they’re incredibly common and not that expensive, so if I wanted to buy one, I’d spend not *that* much more and get one that’s decently sorted.

    The Phaeton, however, is a true oddity and one that I’d love to own, even briefly. Buy this for under 2K, see what work it needs, then proceed from there. If it’s too much of a headache to even approach, you could 1) almost certainly sell it as a parts car for more than you paid. If it’s even halfway drivable, then you could 2) drive it and enjoy the (pretty good condition) lux interior until it really breaks, then go back to #1.

  9. Oh boy. My choice:
    The VW has a nice interior still, so you could set it in the back yard and let the kids go “vroom vroom” and play investment banker in it. I chose that. Probably you could sell the rare parts and make your money back.
    The Porsche is a dirty, disgusting mess. Nothing redeeming about it.

  10. Get the VW for under a grand and put it in a Le-Mons race. Would be a comfy ride and if you can make it around the track at least 3 times, consider it a win! Blow the engine and dump all the fluids all over the track, and go out in a blaze of glory!

  11. “I wouldn’t touch either of these cars with a ten-foot jumper cable”

    Me neither, but at least the Phaeton can (theoretically) drive home, so that’s why I picked it.

  12. I voted VW based on being told it ran. If I have to choose between hitting my own skull with one of these two ball peen hammers, I choose the one I can drive until it doesn’t, then donate it. If neither is actually drivable I would get more enjoyment from burning that many twenties, and wouldn’t need to buy a gallon of rubber cement to get it blazing.

  13. I’ve been curious to get up close to a Phaeton ever since I first heard out about them. I’d love to poke around all of its crazy over-engineered design elements. I’d really want to see the 12-cylinder version over “just” a V8, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to own either one. The fact that this one has gone 100k+ miles is encouraging, though — something went right.

    Maybe I’m just a little grumpy this Monday morning, but I am offended by the illiterate jerkwad who wants 2500 of someone’s hard-earned dollars and can’t even be bothered to clean the garbage out of his Cayenne for the ad photos. Have a little class! I’d pick the Phaeton just so I don’t have to deal with him.

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