The 2021 Volkswagen Arteon feels like one of those car-designers sketches made real, and in a world now mostly populated by tall, clunky-looking SUVs, driving something low and elegant like the Arteon feels like a statement. Based on sales, though, it sadly looks like it’s not a statement many people are interested in making.
I may be shallow, because my entire motivation for wanting to test a Volkswagen Arteon is that they’re lovely-looking cars. Even for me, a person drawn to goofy cars almost congenitally, I can’t help but find the low, wide, lithe-looking shape of the Arteon appealing. When you’re standing by it, it has real presence.
(Full Disclosure: Volkswagen loaned me the Arteon for a week with a tank full of what I assume was gasoline (it tasted like gas) and an interior absolutely filled with a mixture of about 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, and the remainder with water vapor and other trace elements.)
Volkswagen has a bit of a tradition with having at least one premium fastback-style car in their lineup that is (arguably) their standout design halo car. I personally would peg the start of this back to the Type 4 fastbacks in 1968. While many, maybe most, people wouldn’t agree they were particularly attractive, I still think they started VW’s quest for a big, pretty fastback car.
We saw various Passat generations having at least one rakish-looking fastback option, and then VW got more deliberate about it with the Volkswagen CC introduced in 2008. Now that Passat’s sexier cousin has grown up into the Arteon.
There’s a pretty big jump in price from the more conventional, trunked Passat to the Arteon — about $13,000 — but the Arteon is significantly better equipped and has almost 100 horsepower more from its two-liter turbo engine, at 268 hp. Really, though, I think the punctum of the Arteon is its looks. That’s why anyone would give a shit about it, it’s why I wanted to drive one, and it remains, for me, the biggest differentiator of this car. So let’s talk about it.
I know it’s a clichéd thing to say, but I honestly mean it: I don’t think pictures quite do this car justice. The proportion and dimensions of the car are crucial to how it comes across. It’s wider and lower than you expect, and when you approach it, it feels crouched and ready to spring, like a cat in that moment just before it starts to wag its butt and leap onto a hapless vole or roach or something.
The front end, with its wide grille and dramatic horizontal bars that wrap up and into the lighting elements, just further emphasizes the width. The huge hood feels low and massive, perhaps thanks to the prevalence of tall crossovers and SUVs. The sharp arcing creases make it sort of feel like a horseshoe crab shell or something similarly aquatic.
I like that big, low hood. It’s also the first hood I’ve encountered on a new car in quite a while that uses gas struts to keep it open instead of a janky little rod. It also is a sort of clamshell design, so if you’re working on it you don’t have to worry about your belt buckle scratching the visible top of your fenders:
I like the profile as well; it’s long, sleek, and I like the arc of the roofline. The wheels are proportionately large to the rest of the car, which emphasizes the drama of everything. I know these particular 19-inch wheels aren’t to everyone’s taste, but I like them, in a sort of shouty way.
There’s some nice detailing on the car, like the lighting design, which has a full-width front lightbar and indicators that are formed by the inner L-shaped grille bar section, and similarly-themed visual motifs in the taillights as well. Overall this is a car more defined by its larger forms than its details, though.
The rear quarter view looks great as well; you can see the pronounced rear haunch-like swellings over the rear wheel arch here, which aren’t obvious in profile, but do a lot to really plant the car visually when you look at it from off-angles.
The taillight design is strong as well, though I think I prefer the slightly different Euro-spec taillights because they include an amber rear indicator (only visible when activated), which is just one of those things I think makes more sense.
The Arteon has a fairly low greenhouse, which often can make a car’s interior feel claustrophobic, though that’s not the case here. The dramatic rake of the rear hatch with its huge window, and the glass roof on the car I was loaned, made the interior feel surprisingly airy, which I wasn’t expecting.
Honestly, I think the proliferation of panoramic glass roofs may be one of my favorite things about our era of modern cars. You know, since I’ve already started talking about it, let’s get into the interior, the best place on the inside of any car. While we’re in there, we may as well talk about how it drives.
I’ve seen other reviews of the Arteon that suggest that its driving dynamics don’t quite match its looks, and that when compared to similar but more expensive cars from BMW, for example, it’s slower and less engaging. Now, that’s not necessarily wrong, but I think it also commits the very common automotive-journalist sin of ignoring the context of how these cars will most likely actually be driven.
Sure, I don’t think I’d pick the Arteon as my track car of choice, but this really isn’t something that’s likely to come up for, um, anyone who’s looking at an Arteon. This car is very clearly designed to be a fast, comfortable, roomy everyday and road trip car, not a canyon-carver. That said, I found it occasionally fun to drive. The turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four makes a respectable 268 HP and 258 lb-ft of torque, and at no point did the car feel slow to me.
I’m told it’ll go from stopped to 60 mph in about six seconds, which is plenty fast, and when I stomped on the throttle it made satisfying noises and pulled like a champ. Not neck-snapping or bladder-voiding, but if you’re not satisfied with how quick it is, you’re probably looking at the wrong kind of car.
The eight-speed automatic gearbox must have been fine, because it never gave me any reason to think about it, if I’m honest. I suppose that’s better than being annoyed by it, and worse than being thrilled by it.
I thought the steering felt precise and responsive and I enjoyed whipping it around and driving like a dipshit on backroads in the rain with ease. The 4Motion all-wheel drive system must have been doing all of the things it was supposed to do because the grip was great even in the wet. What I liked best about driving it was something that modern buyers seem to hate: the Arteon is low.
You know that “command seating” phenomenon that’s said to be partially responsible for all the SUV and crossover sales? The supposed trend where drivers like to be high up over the road? Well, I’m not sure I’m such a fan. Visibility is good up high, but there’s something about driving a car that’s close to the road that just makes everything feel more confident and engaged.
This isn’t news — there’s a reason racing cars are low, with low centers of gravity. It’s just been awhile since I’ve been in a modern vehicle that’s both low and wide, and the Arteon reminded me of something I like.
I was genuinely surprised by how roomy this thing is inside. I mean, I probably shouldn’t have been since the exterior isn’t really all that small, and that should suggest a similarly large space inside. That’s not always the case with modern cars, crammed as they are with massive slabs of plastic and alacantara that house airbags and electronics and check engine light juice and whatever.
The Arteon’s interior is really spacious, the rear half especially. The back seat is wide, the legroom is surprisingly generous, and the chairs are really comfortable. You could lounge and laze languidly and maybe even lavishly, possibly longingly, back here for a really long road trip and feel just fine, no problem.
Rear seat passengers get their own little climate-control pod with a pair of vents, and the rear seats are heated, as well. There’s the expected armrest with integrated cupholders, too. It’s all nicely done, and the rear seat does not feel like an afterthought.
Of course, the seat folds down in a 60/40 split, and there’s a pass-through panel behind the armrest, ideal for skis or 2x4s or a six-foot party sub that rear seat passengers can happily gnaw on during long trips.
The Arteon’s real party trick is behind those seats, though, which is a lot of nothing. Literally. It’s a lot of nothing in the sense that there is a vast, empty volume in the back of the Arteon, a volume that is the car’s enormous trunk area.
There’s over 27 cubic feet of trunk space there with the rear seat up, which is more than a crossover like a Honda HR-V, for example. Plus, in SUVs and crossovers, the space is more of a taller cubical volume, where here it’s like a low rectangle, wide and deep, easier to load without stacking things up.
Lose the parcel shelf and fold the seats and you’ve got over 56 cubic feet. If you’re okay with leaving the tailgate up for occasional trips to haul really huge and weird-shaped stuff, you can carry all kinds of things in here.
Plywood sheets, bicycles, furniture, and more all could get thrown in there with no problem. Hell, with half the back seat down, I could fit my crappy canoe in here, though I’m not certain the tailgate would fully close on it. If you think you need a crossover or SUV for cargo room, you don’t. A big hatch like this should have you covered well up until you start to reach pickup trucks making more sense territory.
The Arteon has all of the e-candy you expect from a modern car: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and all those beepy ultrasonic sensors that keep you from rolling over very sleepy hounds in the road. The full suite of driver assist systems like lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control all come together to form a sort of Level 1.5 semi-autonomous setup. It’s not like Autopilot or SuperCruise, but it’s not nothing, either.
VW seems to have an “Emergency Assist” system on these that will try to wake a sleeping/drunk/incapacitated driver and, if they’re not responding to the car jerking around, will attempt to safely stop and park the car. I didn’t realize this was a thing, and now I wish I could have tried it out. Next time.
A full LCD instrument cluster is also new for the 2021 Arteon, and while I’d like to see some bolder UI design like other carmakers are trying, everything is very clear and legible.
There are some tech choices that I’m a little conflicted about. For example, all of the USB ports I found were the new USB-C standard, which makes sense, but most of my cables are still the old USB standard. I had to use one of those 12-volt outlet adapters to charge my phone, like some sort of filthy animal.
There are capacitive touch buttons all over the thing, including on the steering wheel controls and HVAC and so forth, and I’m not crazy about those, but, to VW’s credit, these did have pretty decent haptic feedback that made them better than just poking at an unyielding slab of plastic.
The lights have a special rain setting, which was nice, though I couldn’t quite tell from the outside just what they were doing differently. Oh! Speaking of lights, the Arteon incorporates something I like a lot: cornering lamps! In this case, they’re actuated automatically when you turn the wheel past a certain point. Here, let me just show you:
Look at that! I live in an area where I’m not too far from some really dark back roads, and this makes a huge difference. There’s idiot deer all over the place here, vaping and running into roads and causing all kinds of hi-jinx.
The R-line version I had featured this spare-mounted subwoofer, perfect for really bumpin’ those true-crime podcasts, though I am a little embarrassed to admit I first assumed this thing was part of the start/stop system or something.
The interior designers really had fun with the ambient interior lighting, and while I didn’t really capture it well on camera, it’s effective and really makes the interior fun at night. Especially the perforated grid of lights on the door cards.
I’m sure a driver focused on economy could do better, but I averaged almost 26 mpg on a trip that took just over an hour with a mix of highway, back country roads and city streets. The EPA numbers claim 20 city, 31 highway, and 24 combined, so that feels about right.
The Arteon starts at just under $37,000, and the one I was loaned in the high-spec SEL Premium R-Line came in at $46,995. That’s not a cheap car, and puts it in competition with a lot of other vehicles. The most similar competitors are probably the Kia Stinger and the Audi A5 Sportback, both of which are also underrated Merkur Scorpio-ish large five-door premium hatchbacks.
The Stinger is a bit cheaper to start, is a bit smaller and has less power in the four-banger engine, though there’s an available V6 with even more power in the latest update. The loaded GT2 spec costs more than the Arteon, and while I like the Stinger, I think the Arteon looks better and is roomier. The Stinger is a good car, though, so it’s a tough call.
The comparison to the Audi is easier — the Audi A5 Sportback starts at about $42,000 and is less roomy and less powerful than the VW. They’re both from the same parent company, and, really, you’re just paying for those Auto Union rings with the A5, so I’d say get over yourself and save money and get the Arteon.
I’d have liked to try the base model, to see what’s really being given up for the significantly cheaper price. It still looks as good, so my gut says that may be the way to go. If Volkswagen would offer their wonderful Arteon wagon here, I think there would be no contest, since there’s always a place for great-looking wagons. They call it a shooting brake in Europe, but I still have standards for stuff like that.
Modern VWs feel very well-built. I know VW’s reliability history in the early to mid-2000s is still a sore point for many (myself included), but I do think things have improved significantly. VW only moved about 3,600 of these last year, so maybe you can get a good deal on one.
So, why aren’t people buying these? Honestly, because people are dummies still smitten with crossovers and SUVs, for some reason. I don’t get it. You wouldn’t really be giving up anything with an Arteon over an SUV you weren’t planning to off-road (and, let’s be honest, most buyers won’t even drive over a curb).
Hell, even if you need something that feels very SUV-oriented, like a car to tow things, don’t rule out the Arteon, either! I’m not just saying this, because in the UK the Arteon won the Tow Car Awards for 2019! You could use one to tow a camper, if you wanted, or a boat, or whatever. Think about that!
I’d suggest someone looking for a new car being pushed into a crossover or SUV by default should at least consider an Arteon. There’s something about owning a really striking-looking car that, I think, improves your quality of life. You show up places and feel good about how awesome your car looks. You look back at it after you park it and you feel a little better about yourself in general, and I believe that has to have some beneficial effect on your life over a crossover.
Lean into it and get yourself a great-looking car that doesn’t melt into the miasma of every other tall, clunky, overdone SUV out there. The Arteon shows that’s possible, and I think that’s enough reason to at least consider one.