It’s not so easy to tell the difference between economy and luxury car brands anymore. Sure, sit in a Hyundai Elantra and a Mercedes-Benz C-Class back-to-back and you’ll probably be able to discern which is which, but automakers have shown an increased motivation to step out of their corners and into segments they previously had no business being in, largely in the name of brand building or profit-chasing. That’s why we’ve got a $30,000 Mercedes and a $70,000 Kia both for sale in 2018. Strange times we’re living in.
Volkswagen, on the other hand, seems to be stuck somewhere in the middle. Traditionally a maker of not-quite-economy cars and SUVs, they’ve fluctuated in the last decade between cheaping out on the U.S. market Jetta and Passat and offering insane, expensive options like a 12-cylinder executive sedan with Bentley parts (the defunct Phaeton) and a twin-turbo diesel V10 luxury SUV (for now, the Touareg still exists; the diesel V10 does not). The first two were relative successes despite their abandonment of VW’s core customer group, and the latter two were spectacular sales flops despite their bravado and relative value for what you got.
So where does that leave the legally-beleaguered brand in 2018? Well, it’s still not quite so clear, as evidenced by the all-new Arteon, Volkswagen’s replacement for the gorgeous but flawed CC. To find out if this Vee-Dub is worth buzzing about before its U.S. market introduction, I took a weekend road trip up Sweden’s snow-covered Eastern shore in a top-of-the-line Euro-spec model.
Verdict: Volkswagen’s budget grand tourer is an all-around impressive package — one that looks fantastic, rides comfortably and competently, packs impressive technology and proves VW can make a luxurious car (almost) as well as its corporate sibling Audi. But despite offering a decent discount over the more prestigious luxury brands, the question remains: who in the U.S. is going to shell out $40K or more to buy one?
The Good: It’s hard for any car to stand out from the crowd when finished in dark gray paint with dark gray wheels, but my goodness the Arteon does its darnedest. Volkswagen’s designers have penned a truly fantastic-looking fastback, one that’s more reminiscent of an Audi A5 Sportback ($42,600) or Tesla Model S ($74,500) than it is of a Passat.
Subtle touches add to the overall appeal of this big VW, such as the gorgeous LED running lights that flow seamlessly into the massive grille, and the aggressive stamped metal of the hood. The Arteon also uses Audi’s sequential LED turn signals, a feature I hope makes it to the U.S.-bound version because it’s a neat party trick for those lucky enough to sit behind the Arteon’s wide, confident rear end in traffic.
The interior is slightly less “whelming” than the exterior, but still a handsome and well thought out place to spend ample time. Anyone who’s been in a European Passat in the last few years will recognize the full-width vent design with a slightly cheap-looking clock placed front and center, but the rest is a masterpiece in (relatively) affordable quality. Soft touch plastic, metal and genuine leather line every surface you’re likely to touch, and the cabin is incredibly spacious for a car with such an aggressive roofline, especially in the rear seats, where even above average height adults have decent headroom and almost S-Class levels of legroom.
Another high point is Volkswagen’s suite of technology available on the Arteon, which you may notice borrows heavily from Audi. The optional full-width “Digital Cockpit” (not to be confused with the “Virtual Cockpit” of the four-ringed brand) is stunning to look at and to use and keeps your eyes firmly in front. I wish the same could be said about the massive central touchscreen, but thankfully the clumsy volume controls will be replaced with real knobs and buttons on the U.S. version. There’s also a garrison of active safety features that work smoothly, such as lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring and more.
2019 Volkswagen Arteon
Transmission: seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (eight-speed automatic for U.S. market)
Torque: 258 lb-ft
Weight: 3696 lbs
0-60: 5.5 seconds
Once again, the Volkswagen Group’s tried-and-true powertrain delivers, as the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission offer decent power (268 horsepower) and familiar usability, including sharp shifts and a 0-60 time of less than six seconds. It’s a shame the U.S. only gets the traditional eight-speed automatic as a gearbox, as the DSG is well-suited to this car.
Who It’s For: The Arteon is for a very specific, very important buyer: the Chinese businessperson.
Its long wheelbase, vague name and sharp looks make it perfect for the modern Chinese market, but savvy U.S. buyers will be getting a heck of a deal on a new car if they opt for the Arteon. This is a great-looking, German quality grand tourer aimed at those who couldn’t care less about badge snobbery, all for the price of a certified pre-owned Audi.
Watch Out For: Though the powertrain provides ample thrust and quick shifts, it’s devoid of almost any character, including sound and that indescribable “it” factor that some engines just have. This is no sports sedan, no matter what its low, wide, aggressive stance suggests. Handling is competent but lackluster: this is a car better suited to long highway routes and meandering country roads than it is to your favorite set of switchbacks.
Though VW has promised me the U.S. market Arteon will be “much cheaper” than the European version, you should still be wary of trim and option prices sending this car easily into Audi territory. The Swedish market car I drove stickered at over $60,000 USD at current exchange rates. If you’re paying that much for a VW… well, maybe don’t.
Alternatives: An estimated price of $35,000 to start puts this VW among some tough competition, most notably the luxury fastback sedans such as its cousin the Audi A5 Sportback ($42,600) and the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe ($43,300). I’d also throw the new $70,000 Kia Stinger into the ring, which offers a better driving experience than the VW (and many luxury cars) for a very enticing price. The excellent but humble Honda Accord ($33,010) could be an extremely reasonable competitor too.
Pro Tip: For the best (and most value-conscious) result, skip the optional all-wheel-drive system if you live anywhere with decent weather, and instead spend on tech and style options. The Arteon is at its best when being sat in and looked at, so put your money there. Also, skip the multiple preset driving modes and use the individual settings to set the steering to sport and the adaptive suspension to comfort. You’ll thank me later.
What Others Are Saying:
Car and Driver: “The Arteon’s best face is quite literally that: a coupe-like mug that looks as if it could grace a new Scirocco rather than a largish sedan to sit above the Passat in VW’s lineup.”
Automobile Magazine: “For those more tempted by substance rather than badge, the Volkswagen Arteon, which can be outfitted with enough kit and caboodle to challenge those luxury alternatives, is sure to be a strong alternative when it arrives the U.S. in 2018.”
Motor Trend: “Things get stiffer in Sport mode, but overall this is a car meant for long-trip comfort. It isn’t really a performance sedan, so the mode can’t perform magic. The weight of the steering is good, but actual feel leaves a bit to be desired.”