2019 Volkswagen Arteon first drive: Bargain German GT?

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How do you sell sedans in America today? With its new Arteon five-door fastback, Volkswagen hopes the answer is “make ‘em look good” — and set reasonable expectations.

“We know this car isn’t going into a big market,” said Elmar-Marius Licharz, VW’s mid/full-size product-line head. Considering the Arteon replaces the CC, a swoopy sedan that sold just a few thousand units in 2016, and that midsize best-sellers like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are off 12 and 14 percent, respectively, this year, Licharz might be understating the challenge.

Style could be the Arteon’s ace, though: It’s a gorgeous car in person, long and low with wide rear flanks implying more power than the car actually has. All U.S.-market Arteons will be powered by an EA888 turbocharged inline-four engine with 268 hp, coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission; VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is optional on the higher trim levels. As of this writing, there will be no stick shift, no V6, no DSG (for America) and, of course, no TDI diesel model. Given that the U.S. on-sale date is a year away, though, these specs are subject to change.

Arteon liftback

The VW Arteon is a legitimate five-door fastback vs. a standard sedan with a traditional trunk.

With its five-door hatch/fastback design, the Arteon splits the difference between sedan and station wagon. The cargo area is wide and deep, delivering far more versatile storage than a traditional trunk. Up front, the dash design will be familiar to current VW owners with its broad horizontal design line (with different accent materials available); Arteon also gets the option of a fully digital gauge cluster a la Audi Digital Cockpit. A wheelbase boosted by more than 5 inches means more rear-seat legroom, and the extended hatch helps improve headroom (more on that in a moment).  

When it arrives, the Arteon will be offered in three trim levels: SE, SEL and Executive; SE models get 18-inch wheels, leatherette trim, power front seats and automatic climate control, among other standard equipment. SEL adds VW’s digital cockpit instrumentation, leather seating, remote start and a sunroof. Executive models load up the luxury with a heated steering wheel and rear seats, ventilated massaging front seats, 19-inch wheels and additional electronic assists. Finally, an R-Line package will be available on any trim, offering sportier details. 

The Execution

If a casual glance at the Arteon makes you think “Audi A7,” that’s not accidental. VW hopes its new fastback sedan appeals to a premium-car audience, and Audi’s styling flagship is a good place to draw inspiration. The flared rear haunches and clamshell hood, in particular, add dramatic flair to the sleek shape.

Inside, the Arteon fixes one CC shortcoming: the absence of rear-seat headroom. With the front seat set for my 6’1” frame, I was perfectly comfortable in the rear, with ample head-, leg- and kneeroom — not just adequate, but long-distance, road-trip comfortable. Front passengers are treated to an upscale look, particularly in the R-Design Arteon and upper trim levels with the larger touchscreen infotainment display and digital dash.

It’s a great place to eat up miles, and on the road, the Arteon delivers a remarkably authentic German GT experience for its expected mid-$30K starting price point. Of course, that’s partly because our testers were all German-market cars with the seven-speed DSG transmission and 20-inch wheels, neither of which will be offered in American-spec Arteons. 

Arteon interior

The Arteon interior features strong horizontal design elements and good-quality materials; Elegance trim level shown.

We will get VW’s unique (at least at this price) twist on adjustable drive modes: The standard DCC system lets drivers select the usual comfort, normal and sport settings, tuning the adjustable shocks and engine/steering response. But if one of those settings doesn’t deliver the desired result, fine-tuning between the main modes is possible via a settings submenu. The result is nearly infinite drive control configuration, at least one of which should do a decent impression of the Euro-spec model.

On the Autobahn, drive-mode controller in normal, the Arteon feels utterly relaxed at 100 mph for extended runs; up in the Haartz mountains near Wolfsburg, drive mode switched to sport, the car proves it’s just as adept at playing in turns and cracking off passes, though some credit here goes to the DSG transmission and huge 20-inch wheels we won’t get. Still, the turbo-four provides ample push for this big liftback, all with a soundtrack that’s more Ingolstadt or Stuttgart than Wolfsburg. It’s an impressively quiet, composed grand tourer with amenities that should have some of the entry luxe players looking nervously over their shoulders. 

Arteon rear detail

The new VW Arteon will be available in the U.S. starting summer 2018 as a 2019 model.

The Takeaway

If it’s as good as the German-market model when it arrives stateside next summer, the Volkswagen Arteon will hold a lot of appeal for style-conscious buyers on a budget. Will it sway folks looking for an Acura TLX or Infiniti Q50? Possibly, but given today’s crossover market, the Arteon’s biggest competitors might be the VW Tiguan and Atlas sharing its showroom space. 

Andrew Stoy

Andrew Stoy – Digital editor Andrew Stoy has spent the past 20 years wrenching on and writing about cars. He’s worked everywhere from dealer service bays to the headquarters of the world’s largest automakers.
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