Remember the Volkswagen Phaeton? While it never came to Australia, it became globally renowned for being somewhat of an over-engineered (Bentley-based) oddball.
The people’s limousine, as it were, was produced for 15 years, but the Bentley-based model missed sales targets, flopped early in the crucial US market, was reportedly one of Europe’s biggest loss-makers, and failed to transform VW’s brand image as hoped.
The Volkswagen Arteon is nowhere near as ambitious. Yet this replacement for the CC four-door ‘coupe’ has similar aspirations as a brand-booster – and is a model also attempting to persuade buyers away from an Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz.
It starts with the most inspirational piece of exterior design we’ve seen from Volkswagen for a long time.
The Arteon, as with its two predecessors, continues to be based on the company’s mega-selling Passat – a mid-sized sedan that very much embodies the conservatism of Volkswagen styling.
But here we have a design language that’s almost daring, including the front end that melds grille, LED headlights and lower intake into one large ‘ventilated’ face that’s set to adorn other future Vee-Dubs.
Then there’s the clamshell bonnet, one of the largest bonnets in the entire VW Group we’re told, which clamps tightly over both the headlights and wheel arches. The chiselled wheel arches in which sit equally bold 20-inch 10-turbine-blade alloy wheels (part of a $2500 option pack that also includes a 700-watt Dynaudio system). And finally, the roofline that sweeps majestically down to converge with the long rear overhang.
The roofline sits 21mm below that of the Passat, which is otherwise outgrown in every key dimension. The Arteon is 9.5cm longer (4.86m) and 3.9cm wider (1.87m), and the distance between axles greater by 4.6cm (2.84m).
As a relatively niche model for a mainstream brand, it’s little surprise Volkswagen Australia has kept the Arteon line-up as simple as it gets. There’s just a single specification 206TSI R-Line 4Motion model priced from $65,590 – a $7500 premium over a 206TSI 4Motion Passat sedan.
It’s only when you seat yourself in the cabin – via frameless-glass doors – that you notice the obvious link to the Passat. And it is obvious, because the front half of the interior is virtually identical.
A similar dash of flair, as applied to the exterior, could truly have lifted the Arteon’s cabin onto another level, while its intended luxury-segment rivals are left with a clear advantage in switchgear tactility and material quality.
The Arteon’s perception of quality is well above the mainstream average, though, and assisted here with silver weave-pattern trim stripes on the dash and door, the sporty yet smart black R-Line seats, discreet LED ambient-lighting strips, and the classy 9.2-inch Discover Pro touchscreen that is certainly luxury-segment grade.
While our general view is that infotainment systems employing complementary rotary-dial controllers remain the best set-up for limiting distraction, Discover Pro still impresses with its ultra-sharp resolution and easy-learning operation.
The Active Info Display digital instrument cluster’s set-up is different to Audi’s Virtual Cockpit. You can’t alter the size of the speedo/tacho dials on the 12.3-inch display, though there are multiple selectable centre display views.
One of the changes over a Passat is a head-up display, though VW has copied Mazda rather than BMW and used a flip-up plastic screen for the projection rather than the windscreen. I was inclined to keep it hidden, as I felt the screen spoilt forward vision.
The Area View multi-camera system is as handy as it is on other luxury cars, providing a bird's-eye view of your surroundings.
A suite of driver aids includes autonomous emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, rear traffic alert, lane assist, and adaptive cruise control. Engaging those last two features activates a Volkswagen-first function called Emergency Assist, which is designed to bring the car safely to a stop in the case of the driver becoming incapacitated for whatever reason.
Fellow tester Mike Costello feigned becoming unconscious behind the wheel (while keeping his eyes open). When he failed repeatedly to respond to the Arteon’s audible and visual requests to put his hands back on the wheel, the system first tried to stir him via gongs and jolting the car before initiating the hazard lights, gradually slowing the car and coming to a halt on the road.
We'll note here that the system only works once before needing to 'reset', which we achieved by just turing the car off and on again. In fairness, it's tough to imagine a person needing it more than once on a single drive.
The comfortable front seats, with a stylish carbon-fibre-imitating pattern and a mix of real and fake leather, provide both massage function and multiple electric adjustment, including lumbar. Adjustable bolstering would have been a nice bonus.
Vision out of the rear window is a bit narrow, but it's a fair trade-off for the shapely roofline. The B-pillar isn’t too thick either, helping you spot cars over your right shoulder.
That sporty roofline inevitably squeezes rear headroom, though it’s an improvement over the CC. And the rest of the rear cabin is excellent: acres of space for legs and feet, shoulder room is good, the upward-angled bench provides good under-thigh support, and storage options are plentiful and the door armrests wide.
The outer rear seats are also heated, and child seats fit easily via ISOFIX points – the low roofline just means you need to mind an infant’s head when lowering them into a rear-facing capsule.
A blemish for a self-labelled luxury car is that the middle and lower rear door plastics don’t match the quality of the upper section, and are inconsistent with the front-door trim that has soft plastics for the upper and middle parts.
Rear-seat-folding release levers are another missed detail, though the Arteon’s boot otherwise impresses with its large size (563 litres), easy accessibility courtesy of that liftback hatch, storage features such as side compartments, load-securing floor net, fold-out hooks, and ski port.
Any luxury car aspirant should ride well and drive quietly, and the VW Arteon is mostly up to the task. The caveats are that the 20-inch tyres can get noisy on coarse surfaces, and the effectiveness of the suspension is very much determined by which setting you have chosen for the dampers.
The Arteon is too floaty in Comfort and too jiggly in Sport, though Normal feels just about perfect for regular motoring duties including freeways drives. We suspect the standard 19-inch wheels might be less susceptible to little impact hits than the 20s.
If those Driving Profile modes are too broad for you, the Arteon provides a sliding damper-setting bar on the touchscreen – accessed via Individual mode – which allows you to select from multiple set-ups. It’s distinctive, yet arguably overkill for a luxury-angled passenger car.
Sport mode is the pick when the road starts to get curvy (and is sufficiently smooth), keeping excessive body movements in check. A responsive front end also makes this large-footprint five-door feel relatively agile, though the handling is of the variety that assures rather than excites.
That includes the way the Haldex-clutched all-wheel-drive system delivers impressively fuss-free exits out of hairpins, complementing the generous grip of the 20-inch tyres in higher-speed bends.
The Arteon’s exhaust note becomes throaty as you explore acceleration that can cover the standing-start sprint in a handy 5.6 seconds. Although a tenth down on the (70kg lighter) Passat with the same drivetrain, it makes the liftback Volkswagen notably faster than either the A5 Sportback 2.0 TFSI or 420i Gran Coupe.
Beyond its all-paw advantage, the Arteon’s 206kW and 350Nm outputs are also superior to its more expensive compatriots.
There are times, however, when even they don’t feel sufficient in the context of the Arteon’s 1658kg kerb weight. While not bereft of low-down torque, the big VW performs at its best with a generous helping of revs on the tacho. Selecting Sport mode helps notably.
The seven-speed dual-clutch auto is more to blame for the lack of response when rolling off and back onto the throttle, the computer controlling the two clutches temporarily befuddled.
The auto also allows the Arteon to roll back on hills if Auto Hold isn’t engaged, and this proves a nuisance for three-point turns on inclines as the car remains rooted to the spot if you don’t press it again.
While there’s no doubting the swiftness of the DSG’s gear changes, we can’t help feeling this maturer style of Volkswagen would be better served by a conventional torque converter auto, such as ZF’s fabulous eight-speeder.
Still, some imperfections aside, the Arteon makes for a worthy flagship VW passenger car.
While the company may be stretching things a little with its regular use of the word ‘evocative’ in its press kit, this is a car arguably more capable of turning heads than any other Volkswagen – especially if the styling is emphasised by exterior colours such as Turmeric Yellow or our test car’s Chilli Red.
If the Arteon is not the most inspirational drive, it definitely succeeds as a relatively aspirational pseudo-luxury car.