Volkswagen really needs to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. Or gets out of a financial and regulatory prison sentence, I guess. And the new 2018 Volkswagen Arteon sedan has somehow emerged as the poster boy for this problem.
Before the diesel cheating scandal unfolded, VW was chasing profits at all costs, cheaping out on once-proud stalwarts like the Passat and Jetta, which used to be aspirational economy cars that you didn’t mind spending a bit more to have because you got to brag about “German engineering.” Now they’re both rental fleet specials, and have lost much of that all-important character that gave the brand a foothold in this country in the first place.
But before that, VW was spending crazy money on wonderful nonsense projects like the Phaeton W12 and Touareg V10 TDI, both of which are hilariously unreliable and endlessly lovable, if not only because of that “why the hell would anyone ever build this? I love it” factor. You could call it character, maybe, and while VW’s current offerings make sense, they lack a lot of that.
This recent identity flip-flopping is exactly why I think the Arteon is the perfect embodiment of Volkswagen in 2018: a great-looking high-quality knockoff Audi fastback sedan for a world that’s trading all its sedans in for crossovers. Oh, and it’s not quite as expensive as a luxury car but is still pretty damn pricey, especially for a Volkswagen.
China’s gonna love it though. And a I reckon a few of you will too.
(Full Disclosure: I wanted to get back into the auto journalism game so badly after moving to Sweden for grad school that I asked Volkswagen to loan me an Arteon for a weekend road trip. They did, and this review came out of it.)
The Arteon is the replacement for the outgoing but somehow still on sale CC, a car that was great to look at, decent to drive, and admirably ambitious, but never really got its chance to shine. Believe it or not, the CC actually outsold the Passat in the U.S. for a couple of years back in 2010 and 2011, as the last-generation Passat was in its twilight years. I think I’m sensing a trend here.
Regardless, the Arteon does several things differently from the CC. First of all, it’s got a name. Yes, I know CC stood for “Comfort Coupé,” but that name sucks even worse than reminding all of its middle manager owners on a daily basis that they forgot to copy their boss on an important email. But why “Arteon?” Sounds like a Pokémon that was cut from the final game, if you ask me. And who asked for a CC replacement anyway?
I have the answer: it’s China. See, China loves big sedans with long wheelbases, lots of legroom, and subtle-but-aggressive looks. They also love German cars, but despite how it may seem, not everyone in China can afford an Audi at the moment. Enter the Arteon.
It rides on Volkswagen’s modular architecture, with its closest mechanical ties to that of the new Jetta, but is longer, wider, more spacious, and heavier (but more on that later) than the old CC. It also looks way better, and has better tech, fit-and-finish, and powertrain options.
Or option, I should say, as the U.S. version only gets front- or all-wheel-drive, an eight-speed automatic transmission, and the ubiquitous 2.0-liter TSI turbo four-cylinder, this time making a modest 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque.
You’re damn right it does. The Arteon immediately impressed me in pictures when it debuted, both as a concept a few years ago and in production form more recently.
In person, it’s even more imposing, although some of the spectacle is lost when finished in a bland color like “Mangan Grey Metallic,” which will probably end up being one of its most popular hues.
Up close is where the visual details really shine, as the Arteon’s subtle touches are what make it such a pretty overall package. The sloping rear roofline and optional turbine-style wheels are immediately reminiscent of the Tesla Model S, a car I find a lot more boring to look at than the general public gives it credit for, but a handsome one nonetheless.
The Arteon takes these highlights a step further, though, with a massive front maw to remind us that the ICE is still alive and well (though somewhat small), and awesome thin chrome slats that extend perfectly into the slick LED headlights.
Sharp creases adorn the hood and body panels, and the rear tapers off slightly upward to give it a forward-leaning stance. The whole car is much, much wider than you’d first think, especially on the tight roads of Europe, and truly pulls off the “four-door coupe” thing better than most others that have tried. I’d even put it up against the Audi A5 Sportback in the head-turning department.
Inside, you’ll find a lot of standard VW fare, but it’s more refined overall, and that’s alright with me. The dashboard echoes that of the European market Passat we don’t get and recent Audis, with a full-width vent design that looks classy but is ruined a bit by the cheap-ass clock splitting the center vents. A massive touchscreen that thankfully isn’t bolted on like an iPad adorns the center stack, and the same old VW climate control knobs and buttons that have been around for a while now are right below, which is a familiar if outdated touch.
The R-Line model also uses the same steering wheel from the GTI and Golf R, which is great because it’s perfectly thick and a delight to use in spirited driving, which you unfortunately won’t be doing too much of, but I’ll get to that. The seats are great too, providing plenty of support and sporting a faux carbon look on the upper leather panels that’s kind of stupid but also kind of cool, OK?
In back, the Arteon is particularly impressive, as the CC was always a bit compromised for rear seat passengers. There’s plenty of headroom for even above-average height adults, and legroom is massive, almost on par with some full-size luxury sedans. This will make the Chinese happy, indeed.
I’d also like to give Volkswagen’s designers a shout-out for making the Arteon a genuine liftback sedan, and not some half-assed contraption for no reason. The trunk packs about as much stuff as a Passat but is infinitely easier to access thanks to the rear window getting the hell out of your way. The seats fold relatively flat, too, so you can fit longer items with much greater ease and less grunting and swearing.
The real party piece of this interior is the Digital Cockpit gauge cluster, virtually (sorry, I had to) identical to Audi’s Virtual Cockpit system, and a complete joy to use and look at. It can show a full-resolution GPS map between the gauges, media information, vehicle specs like tire pressure and other vitals, and whether or not all the safety nannies are on or off, all while keeping your eyes towards the road and distractions to a minimum.
Speaking of nannies, they are a-plenty in a top-of-the-line Arteon, but luckily, they can easily be turned off with the aforementioned Digital Cockpit interface and are relatively unobtrusive for modern active safety systems. There’s blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and all that good stuff, which you probably shouldn’t spend money on if you really don’t want to, but which also make long highway drives a hell of a lot more relaxing. A massage-enabled driver’s seat helps, too.
Unfortunately, most of the Arteon’s best qualities have been touched upon already, but it can still hold its own when you actually get to the business of going places.
The familiar 2.0T engine does its job like you’d expect it to: with decent power and pace, but basically no character whatsoever. I was surprised to find that VW estimated the Arteon’s 0-60 time at about 5.5 seconds with 4Motion all-wheel-drive equipped, but having tested it with my own ass, I can confirm that’s not far off.
Fuel economy isn’t bad either, as I averaged close to 30 mpg (or about 8 l/km) over the course of my little road trip, and that was with an all-wheel-drive model. Those sharp looks are great for aerodynamics too, thankfully.
While the U.S. is saddled with an 8-speed auto in all Arteons, Europe gets the 7-speed dual-clutch DSG, which is still a great gearbox as far as automatics go. Shifts are crisp and clean, and all of the old quibbles that used to plague this box are all but completely gone, including iffy programming and an inability to crawl effectively at very low speeds.
Where the Arteon let me down was in the handling department. If you’re in the market for either this or a Golf R (for what will likely be a similar price), just get the Golf. You’ll thank me later.
I mean, the handling is fine, but that’s about it. There’s not much urgency on turn-in, and while the weight and feedback are dialed up when selecting Sport mode, it’s still not nearly as good to toss around as most other modern VWs, even the Passat. Your best bet is to use the Individual drive mode settings to select Sport for the steering and Comfort for the adaptive suspension system, and let the springs do their thang while you relax and listen to Seal or something. I don’t know man, it’s your life.
I do also feel obligated to shout out the all-wheel-drive system, as it kept me from spinning into a tree several times despite turning the traction control off and really giving it the beans. As it turns out, Sweden doesn’t plow many of their roads down to the pavement. It’s basically just a packed layer of snow and a legal requirement to fit snow tires to your car that keeps you from exiting the road. The Arteon feels planted on the road too, but I’m gonna go ahead and chalk that up to the one time I went to rally school up in New Hampshire.
Ah, yes. We’ve finally come to the key question. Who is the Arteon for, anyways? Outside of China, of course. We’ve already figured that out.
Aside from them, the Arteon is perfect for a very, very specific American buyer: one who wants a German car but a new German car, not a certified pre-owned German luxury car, and still likes to drive a sedan for the backseat accessibility and lower ride height. Oh, and he or she is looking for something a little sportier. Well, not actually sportier, but sportier-looking.
And he or she owned a Passat back in the ’80s or ’90s and really loved it and doesn’t know why he or she hasn’t bought any Volkswagens since then but wouldn’t mind buying one again, he or she guesses.
And therein lies the problem. Well, one of the problems. Volkswagen claims the Arteon will be a lot cheaper when it reaches the States, but the model I tested—a Swedish-market GTR model with all-wheel-drive and basically all the options—came out to over $60,000 when you factor in current exchange rates.
Granted, you can’t compare cars with exchange rate prices, and I don’t expect any Arteon sold in the U.S. to crest that number, but the Arteon is expensive over here. And it’s got many other luxury options well within that price range.
Not just that, but the Kia Stinger GT that Patrick just drove is the one you’ll want as an enthusiast, as it packs much of the same tech, good looks, and fastback utility for a significant discount. Not to mention the option for rear-wheel-drive and a twin-turbo V6.
Or just buy a Golf R like we all know you were considering anyways.
If you can deal with comfort over corner-carving competence, don’t want a damn thing to do with badge snobbery, and are in the market for a nice new car in the $35-40,000 range, the Arteon is a fantastic choice. And I do mean truly fantastic.
Objectively speaking, it’s one of the best all-around cars for sale right now and makes a compelling case that sedans still have a little gas left in the tank, pun not intended.
I hope a sexy four-door fastback is what gets more people into off-beat German cars and out of soulless crossovers, but I can’t help but think that this is the wrong car for Volkswagen right now. Its money would be much better spent bringing something like the T-Roc to America (which it sadly probably won’t do), or bringing back the Passat wagon in Alltrack form to catch the new jacked-up wagon wave that’s apparently sweeping the nation. There’s hope that some of the fun will return with the brand’s planned all-electric line of vehicles, especially because the microbus is making a spiritual return, and who knows, we could even see an electric Beetle to replace the one they recently canned.
But until then, it seems VW still has a little bit of soul-searching to do.
Brian León has had car bylines at the New York Daily News, Gear Patrol and other places. He currently resides in Sweden.