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Volkswagen hopes its new five-seater fastback will make a splash in the executive pool. Will the Arteon sink or swim?

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Flagship: it’s a term that confers prestige and, as such, it doesn’t always sit comfortably with the likes of Volkswagen.

Think Mercedes-Benz, think Mercedes-Benz S-Class; yet consider the marque whose name translates as ‘people’s car’ and it’s the Volkswagen Golf that comes to mind.

Sloping boot is technically a hatchback but VW insists the Arteon is a fastback. The title is more in keeping with the premium vibe

The utilitarian if increasingly plush hatchback defines the brand and serves as its economic bedrock, but it is resolutely not flagship material for an organisation that manufactures more than 10 million cars annually. Which is why we now have this, the Arteon.

Although the Arteon might seem to be a direct replacement for the Passat CC of 2012 – both have five seats, sleek coachwork and a stretched roof line – that narrative is belied by a base price almost £10,000 more than that car’s £25,475, a significantly increased footprint and a hitherto unseen aesthetic that’s guaranteed to turn heads.

The inclusion of almost entirely digital instruments along with Volkswagen’s latest array of safety technology and an old-school approach that equates space with luxury strengthen the Arteon’s flagship credentials. 

How will it fare? Well, the fate of VW’s previous flagship, the Phaeton, looms large. Superbly engineered and remarkably good value, it nevertheless struggled to earn our recommendation against rivals because of its soggy handling, dismal cabin and ‘airport taxi’ image.

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With the Arteon, VW seems to have remedied the last of those foibles, but good looks alone are not enough at the level of the £40,000 GT.

Indeed, by forgoing an aggressive pricing strategy to tempt buyers away from more traditionally premium rivals, some with lasting reputations for handling dynamism, any shortcomings the Arteon exhibits in refinement, driver engagement and desirability are without extenuation.

So can a car that shares its architecture with a compact SUV (the Volkswagen Tiguan) and key parts of its interior with the model a rung or two beneath it on the VW model ladder compete at a level so far removed from VW’s established stomping ground?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Arteon rear

Future VW models will lean heavily on the Arteon’s steely facial expression, with head of design Klaus Bischoff billing the car as “the start of a new design era”.

Integrating scything headlights with the bars of a deep grille is intended to make the body appear wider and closer to the road, with the second of those characteristics aided by muscular (albeit abruptly sheered) wheel arches and a crisp crease that runs the car’s length.

The new twin-turbo diesel engine makes light work of the Arteon’s bulk, but a four-cylinder in such a strained state does not sing a pleasant song

Our test car arrived in R-line trim – a more luxurious Elegance spec is the only other option – which ramps up the sporting cues further and will be chosen by most buyers, according to VW. Whether the Arteon instils within you the ‘I want it’ feeling its maker is aiming for will depend on your tastes, but for us, it seems like a missed opportunity. The attempt to disguise a hulking five-seater as a sporting car fails to stir the soul, or even break away from the formulaic, conservative approach typical of the brand.

There are some nice touches – the large clamshell bonnet, the scalloped flanks – but they are not enough to lend the car the distinct personality it needs. The Arteon sits on the same flexible MQB platform used by VW models that range from the current Volkswagen Golf to the US-built (and appropriately sizeable) Atlas SUV.

It has allowed the new model to be 60mm longer, 16mm wider and 10mm taller than the Passat CC and comfortably longer than both the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupé and the new Audi A5 Sportback.

What engines does the Volkswagen Arteon have?

Four engines are available for the Arteon, starting with a 148bhp 2.0-litre TDI diesel. The other diesel option is the powerplant in our test car – a twin-turbo 2.0 TDI that, with 237bhp, is VW’s most powerful oil-burner.

A 187bhp 2.0-litre TSI petrol engine splits the two for power, and a range-topping TSI petrol engine makes 276bhp from its two turbocharged litres.

So only four-cylinder engines are available, the Arteon having no answer to the mechanical richness of a higher cylinder count on offer at the upper end of the model ranges of its premium-brand opponents.

The more powerful models channel power exclusively through VW’s seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and 4Motion clutch-based all-wheel drive system although it is possible to buy a front-driven Arteon with a six-speed manual gearbox. Expect a 148bhp 1.5-litre TSI EVO unit and a 187bhp 2.0-litre TDI to arrive down the line.

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Arteon interior

Like the square-jawed exterior, the VW Arteon’s interior conjures some initial excitement but it has a fleeting half-life.

It borrows heavily from the current Volkswagen Passat and is a functional space with only a veneer of stylish, expressive form beyond a central air vent that extends the width of the dashboard. Flair? Not here.

A lower driving position would help the Arteon feel more special straight away. Instead, the seat is slightly perched — just as a Passat’s is

Nevertheless, there are reams of Nappa leather, you’ll not get even a sniff of a misaligned panel or a cheap moulded finish, and there’s an abundance of space, particularly in the rear seats, which also offer sweeping visibility thanks to windows that extend deep into the C-pillars.

There’s no shortage of standard equipment, either, including an 8.0in touchscreen, parking sensors at both ends and adaptive cruise control that can use GPS data to adjust for upcoming speed limits.

Predictive cruise control, if you can tolerate it, will adjust the car’s speed to accommodate approaching bends and junctions.

From the driver’s perspective, the fully digital 12.3in instrument binnacle (dubbed Active Info Display and inspired by Audi’s Virtual Cockpit) works extremely well until you need to quickly read your speed when you’ve set the readout to fuel economy, and the optional head-up display (£495) isn’t quite as well defined as that offered by BMW.

The optional, smartphone-esque 9.2in Discover Navigation Pro infotainment system (£895) in our Arteon test car is part of Volkswagen’s new generation of Modular Infotainment System devices.

Its crisp-looking, glass-fronted touchscreen is satisfyingly slick in operation and therefore safer to use than previous iterations, but there are no physical controls to press or twist and marks left on the screen by greasy fingers soon impinge on the high-tech ambience.

Indeed, the absence of a volume or sat-nav zoom dial for quick adjustments on the move can irk — and the recalcitrant gesture control software still isn’t intuitive enough to be favoured by our road testers — but the standard-fit Discover Navigation system, with its 8.0in touchscreen and pair of rotary knobs, provides a remedy.

The ergonomics are every bit as good as we’ve come to expect from cars built on the MQB platform, with plenty of adjustment for the steering wheel and seats.

As such, the car never quite feels its substantial size, although it falters as a proposition for drivers because of a higher driving position than in rivals from the likes of BMW and Jaguar.

VW’s leanings to ‘progressive design’ has undoubtedly hindered the Arteon. Anybody spending the best part of £40,000 on a car like this won’t appreciate being reminded that they’re ensconced within something not so distantly related to a Passat, despite the Arteon’s impressive range of safety technology and connectivity, capaciousness (luggage space is 563 litres with the seats up and an enormous 1557 litres seats down) and rock-solid build quality. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.0-litre BiTDI Volkswagen Arteon diesel engine

The Arteon’s high-output four-cylinder diesel delivers a superior turn of speed to what you’ll find in the typical mid-sized executive option and in that respect – against the clock, at least – it’s fulfilling one basic requirement of an engine worth paying a premium for.

But it doesn’t give the car the effortless thrust or refinement and appealingly toned smoothness that a V6 diesel might.

Steering retains enough authority to allow you to keep adding steering angle under load at apexes, even in the wet. Not bad

Our VW test car needed 6.5sec to hit 60mph from rest and 6.2sec to get from 30mph to 70mph through the gears.

The 187bhp Audi A4 2.0 TDI we tested in 2015 needed almost two seconds more for 0-60mph and more than a second longer for 30-70mph.

Factor in the 255bhp BMW 330d we tested in 2012, though, and you’ll see how far adrift of a truly sporting, similarly priced diesel performance level the Arteon is.

The BMW is another second quicker still to 60mph and more than a second quicker from 30mph to 70mph; and the BMW was a 3 Series Touring with only one driven axle for traction.

Still, the Arteon’s acceleration benchmarks are closer to the 330d’s than the A4’s and, for a car priced and proportioned as it is, that may be considered enough by many.

It certainly would be if that strength of performance was accompanied with matching mechanical refinement for a six-cylinder diesel. Instead, the Arteon BITDI sounds like so many high-output four-pot diesels in this part of the market sound: a bit flat and plain and becoming a touch noisy and coarse under load and at high crank speeds.

At a typical cruise, when the dual-clutch gearbox keeps the engine spinning relatively slowly, the car is far from unrefined – and when you need to pick up speed on part-throttle, the transmission shifts smartly, fairly smoothly and judiciously when left in ‘D’ and the engine’s torque feels ample. But go looking for briskness and driver involvement and this engine just falls a bit short – more on qualitative than quantitative grounds.

Despite those pillarless doors, the cabin is adequately well sealed from wind noise, although it doesn’t go beyond the standard of a typical family saloon here.

On touring economy, the Arteon scored well, recording 55.6mpg on a 70mph motorway trip. Our test results suggest that’s around 10 percent better than from a six-cylinder diesel of a similar power output. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Arteon cornering

The Arteon handles with a tidy, wieldy, uncomplicated sort of poise that disguises its size and weight up to a point, but we must recognise that this car is larger, heavier and more practical than most of the style-centred executive options with which it’ll be compared.

Drive the VW keenly and it emerges with plenty of dynamic credibility, but it begins to feel its size eventually.

Handling isn’t adjustable but it’s stable enough to allow you to forge fast through corners with plenty of confidence

At road-appropriate pace, the car strikes you as a slightly flatter, keener and more vigorous take on a familiar theme: a Volkswagen Passat with about 10 percent more grip, agility, composure and driver involvement.

Ultimately, the Arteon is still a considerably less engaging or sporting prospect than a really great-handling rear-driven executive saloon, but that comparison is a little unfair to it since the VW is trying to be part entertainer, part tourer. And in many of the ways that it seeks to isolate, calm and reassure, it succeeds quite well.

Many, that is, but not all. The more expensive versions of the car come with Dynamic Chassis Control adaptive dampers as standard, and if you have an R-line car, those dampers come with a 20mm drop in ride height. They make a decent fist of broadening out the car’s overall breadth of ability by reacting to what’s going on under each wheel, as an adaptive damper should.

Predictably enough, though, the Arteon’s 19in wheels and low-profile tyres set the lowered suspension a very tough task to deliver the kind of ride suppleness and bump absorption you’d want in a car like this – and they fail as often as they narrowly succeed.

The ride thumps and thuds abruptly at times, and although it feels fluent enough over a reasonably well-surfaced road, it can also conduct a decibel or two of excessive road noise into the cabin on the motorway.

There’s well-judged weight to the steering, though, and as you begin to explore how briskly the Arteon can be whisked along a sweeping road, there seems a moderately impressive kind of precision and tenacity to its handling that you’d put beyond the ability of an average family four-door.

Security and precision characterised the way that the four-wheel-drive Arteon BITDI took to a wet hill route on the day of our test. In treacherous conditions, the car blended outright grip and assured stability well, handling with strong traction but also with the clear progressiveness needed to drive up its limits.

Although the car rolls a little, it also grips with tenacity and has the chassis balance to get to the apex of a tight bend even if you’re ambitious with your entry speed.

Neither the four-wheel drive system nor the stability control allows you to power out of bends in the neutral attitude that the best-handling cars in the class permit, but they do save you from unleashing too much torque too soon and ultimately make the car easy to drive, even on slippery roads.

So you wouldn’t say the Arteon was particularly engaging to drive hard, but it’s more than competent.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Arteon

Starting at £33,505 for the Elegance and £34,290 for the R-line, VW’s less powerful versions of the Arteon split the price difference between a Volkswagen Passat and its rivals from BMW and Audi.

The basic cost of our 2.0-litre BITDI 4Motion model is £39,955 – an almost exact match for a 420d xDrive Sport Gran Coupé with BMW’s superb automatic gearbox.

Arteon compares favourably with like-for-like BMW 4 Series Gran Coupé but Audi A5 Sportback beats it by a distance

That car’s 187bhp is easily outgunned by the Arteon’s 237bhp, though – and an equivalent 3.0-litre 430d is another £5000.

Audi’s higher-end A5 Sportback diesel is a closer rival for the VW, though, offering 215bhp and 3.0 litres from just over £40k.

The scales tip away from the VW further still when you consider the superior handling involvement of the BMW and the brilliance of the Audi’s cabin.

The VW will also suffer greater depreciation than the Audi. After three years, the Arteon is predicted to lose 58 percent of its original value compared with 52 percent for the 3.0-litre A5 Sportback.

That said, buy the Arteon in the trim VW expects you to – R-line with the 148bhp 2.0-litre TDI and seven-speed DSG gearbox – and you’ll get a handsome car with class-leading space and the latest in-car tech, not to mention a low first-year tax of £160, thanks to its 116g/km CO2.

VERDICT

Volkswagen Arteon rear quarter

There are very good reasons why Volkswagen tends to struggle when it comes to making expressive, desirable, luxurious cars – and they’re often the same reasons that make its biggest-selling models so good.

It has always championed ‘progressive design’, by which it means the gradual, careful refinement and evolution of its cars.

Considered approach produces an executive flagship short on sparkle

With the Arteon – and the forthcoming Volkswagen T-Roc and Volkswagen Touareg – it’s trying to find a more imaginative way and a freer hand, but it’s plainly struggling a bit.

The Arteon has mostly been executed with the thoroughness we expect of VW, but on style, richness, rolling refinement and driver appeal, it’s short on the makings of a great mid-sized exec option.

For space, in-car technology and value, it’s more commendable.

History may judge this the product of a brand in transition, but if it’s the start of something significant, it could yet be deemed an important first step.

We can only judge it as an interesting although slightly half-hearted crack at something genuinely different and appealing.

As a result the Arteon just about makes our top five. However, the flagship VW finds itself with ground to make up on the Audi A5 Sportback, Alfa Romeo Guilia, Jaguar XE and the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupé.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volkswagen Arteon First drives