2019 Volkswagen Arteon First Drive Review: Does It Have a Chance in the U.S.?


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Volkswagen doesn’t like the narrative that the 2019 Arteon is “replacing” the CC (aka the Passat Comfort Coupe), and you can kinda see why: The Arteon is far more visually striking and a better performer, and it takes the automaker in new directions of assistance and safety technology.

Volkswagen is calling the Arteon a “five-seat GT car.” We’d call it a good-looking midsize hatchback. Discussing the car for America is rather straightforward. Although the world gets three gas and three diesel engine options, America will see only a 2.0-liter turbo generating 276 hp and 258 lb-ft.

VWs have always been known for having generally favorable European driving dynamics and functional but plain interiors. The Arteon separates with those on the interior front, where, along with its lauded exterior design that is largely unchanged from the concept two years ago, VW is moving decidedly more upscale. The Reflex Silver Elegance model we drove required a front-seat passenger to reach far forward and down to find completely hard plastic surfacing.

The car will launch in Elegance and R-Line trims, and a base model will follow shortly. The Elegance, as you’d imagine, comes with upscale aesthetic enhancements: LED taillights with indicators that build from inboard to outboard as they signal, a continuous chrome strip on the lower body, and heated windshield wiper nozzles. Inside comes contrast stitching on seats and mats, aluminum-look pedal covers, Alcantara and leather seat covers, and heated front seats.

The R-Line has a more aggressive front end with intakes in gloss black and different bumpers. Inside, the roof liner goes black, door plates get the R-Line logo, which is also stamped on the seats, and it gets a flat-bottomed R-Line steering wheel. In Europe, the R-Line can be had with 20-inch wheels and a 20mm-lower ride height. No 20s for U.S. drivers, though. Just add them to the we-can’t-have-nice-things list.

The Elegance model we drove had a seven-speed DSG and 4Motion all-wheel drive. Models that eventually make their way to the States will have eight-speed automatics, though. That’s unfortunate because the DSG was smooth and quick, doing a good job on city streets, country roads, and the no-speed-limit portions of the Germany’s roads. Shifts were barely perceptible with no hunting.

And the tastefully small paddle shifters made for acceptably quick shifts in the Harz mountains, where doing our own shifting to set up corners and charge up hills was just more fun.

The ride and handling of the Arteon is adjustable to Comfort, Normal, and Sport modes, and the differences among them are quite noticeable. I preferred the middle setting most of the time, though over some of Germany’s rare broken pavement, Comfort mode did smooth things out. 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.

Would a V-6 mean more power off the line? The more 2.0-liter turbos we drive, the less we ask ourselves that question. VW says this Euro-spec model, which has a curb weight of 3,700 pounds, goes from 0 to 62 mph in 5.6 seconds.

Some automakers have sacrificed rear-sear room, especially headroom, while designing for the en vogue “four-door coupe” movement. The fastback look usually means taller back-seat residents have their head hit the headliner. Not so in the Arteon, where my 5-foot-11 frame had considerable space above me as well as glorious space in front of me. I was able to comfortably cross my legs without hitting the back of the driver’s seat.

The packaging is quite good in the Arteon, which is similar in size to the Passat in wheelbase (111.9 inches vs. 110.4) and width (73.7 inches vs. 72.2). Surprisingly, the Passat edges the Arteon in overall length, 191.9 inches to 191.4.

The only place that seems to have been sacrificed, or at least held to normal VW standards, is a center console that doesn’t offer much storage. And we’d always appreciate more USB ports. The Arteon has two, one in the center storage box and one in front of the shifter.

From the driver’s seat is where VW’s new, techier feel becomes apparent. The Volkswagen digital cockpit will seem familiar to anyone who has seen Audi’s virtual cockpit. The multiconfigurable space puts considerable info in front of the driver.

One of its nifty touches: a speed-limit indicator that updates with remarkable accuracy. Even cruising at 110 mph or so on the autobahn, it would update within a second or two of seeing a sign imposing a lower limit. The virtual speedometer also uses a small arrow to display either the speed limit or where the disengaged cruise control is set.

In the center stack, there’s a unique touch when selecting among the drive modes. The various modes are represented as reflected in a shiny Arteon’s side sheetmetal: a woodsy winter scene for Snow, the red and white curbing of a track for Sport, and so on.

And speaking of cruising along at autobahn speeds, the Arteon was remarkably quiet. Granted, those are on Germany’s well-maintained roads of suede, but wind noise seems to be controlled very well, not becoming intrusive until speeds that are illegal in the states. Although the prototypes we drove in December had lesser rubber, our car was outfitted with 245/35R20 Pirelli P Zeroes. The tires contributed to some road noise, but overall the Arteon feels and sounds like a top-of-the-line model.

Except for the engine note. The Arteon uses a sound symposer (the “soundaktor”) to artificially infuse the cockpit with more thrilling sounds than the engine actually makes. It’s not terribly off-putting—except for the knowledge that the vroom-vroom isn’t real.

VW seems to be stepping up in the semi-autonomy and safety-systems areas with the Arteon. In addition to adaptive cruise control, the Arteon gets innovative headlights that use the navi’s GPS and road data to predict when a curve is approaching, lighting it before you get to it, unlike the many “dumb” systems that only turn the headlights when you turn the wheel. There’s also rear-collision protection, which can detect an impending collision and aligns seats and tensions belts. It even quickly lowers the windows to optimize airbag deployment and, possibly, protect ears from the percussive effects of deployment.

The most advanced feature, though, combines lane keeping, active cruise, and other systems for what VW calls Emergency Assist. After trying to alert an inattentive or incapacitated driver question, the system eventually will put the hazards on, wiggle the wheel a bit, and pull into the slow lane before coming to a complete and presumably safe stop. Even some automakers known for their advanced safety tech can’t pull off that one yet.

As technical director Frank Markus pointed out after driving the prototype last winter, Americans hate hatchbacks. So just who is this American Arteon driver? Well, VW officials seem to think that the price (around $38,000) will make it competitive with other “premium” (their word) sedans. When asked, they most often mention the Infiniti Q50 and the Lexus IS. Less often, they mention the Audi A4 and the Mercedes C-Class. It will all come down to value.

Nothing, though, is written in stone for the U.S. version of the Arteon. VW officials said “a lot can change” between now and the “sometime next year” arrival target. A few VW folks were quietly asking the gathered journalists whether they thought there even was a market for the Arteon in America. Talk about a vote of confidence.

The last time I was asked that, it was a BMW marketer asking about the 2 Series Active Tourer. If you see one in the States, let us know.

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