VW’s new flagship is gorgeous, but it’s no Audi
The 2019 Arteon’s best design detail is that it’s not immediately identifiable as a Volkswagen. The brand has produced some very safe designs lately, so it’s satisfying to see a sexier shape slink out of the design studios. The Arteon won’t inspire envy from A5 Sportback owners, but the VW is a far more pleasing shape than the Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon, or Acura TLX. As Volkswagen’s flagship four-door straddles full-size mainstream and entry-level luxury segments, however, styling can’t assure success on its own.
Let’s be clear: This is no bargain Audi. Materials inside the $36,840–$47,705 USD Arteon are hit or miss, from the center console’s hard plastic to the unacceptably cheap “is this a Jetta?” feel of the HVAC knobs. Then again, the Nappa leather feels great, the side of the center stack is squishy where your knee will rest at red lights, and the truth is that most sub-$50,000 USD luxury-branded four-doors (like the A5 that starts at $45,195 USD) will hide cheap materials in their cabins somewhere. The difference is that this mainstream-branded car has more to prove, and others (like the new Avalon) have more soft-touch surfaces inside. Experiencing the Avalon’s interior requires walking past its oversized front grille, not a compromise you make with the Arteon.
Audi intenders who see the Arteon as an alternative to the A4 sedan or A5 Sportback hatch will delight in the VW’s spacious back seat. It’s way better back there than those Audis as long as you watch your head on the way in and bring a 12V-to-USB converter, as there are no rear USB outlets. There is a fifth seat (unlike the four-seat CC before VW added a fifth seat belt), but the sizable drivetrain hump limits its functionality. Like those Audis, the 2019 Arteon is powered by a version of the VW-Audi family’s 2.0-liter turbo-four. In the VW’s case, the powerplant makes 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque and is mated to an eight-speed automatic with front- or all-wheel drive.
It won’t feel like 268 hp if you’ve spent as much time as I have with an all-wheel-drive Audi A4 2.0T. The smaller and less powerful Audi is lighter than the Arteon and uses a quick-reacting dual-clutch transmission. Thing is, that same transmission isn’t as smooth at low speeds as the more relaxed Arteon’s eight-speed, but the VW isn’t trying to compete as a Stinger beater or 3 Series fighter. Yes, you can have fun in the Arteon, whose ride strikes a good balance between isolating comfort and actually feeling the road. But even in Sport mode—which adjusts the steering, transmission, and standard adaptive suspension—it doesn’t connect you in quite the same way as, say, our 2019 Car of the Year, the Genesis G70.
If you’ve never pressed an accelerator pedal more than halfway down or where you live doesn’t require all-wheel drive, try the front-drive model. However, budgeting $1,800 USD for VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive might be a good idea for those who live where it snows or for lead-footed drivers who want to avoid torque-steering around town. The engine provides enough oomph for almost every driving situation, and the engine stop/start system is notably less intrusive than the tech we had in our long-term A4.
The Arteon also pummels the Audi in terms of cargo space. The Volkswagen offers a very useful 27.2 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, and because it’s a hatch, the Arteon offers lots of flexibility within those cubic feet. We just wish VW didn’t restrict the power-operating hatch (or the ventilated front seats) to the top SEL Premium trim, which starts at $45,940 USD. At least the midlevel SEL gets the slick black roof (with panoramic sunroof), Nappa leather seats, and a completely digital instrument cluster. VW’s Digital Cockpit feature is cool, but as with our former long-term Audi, I would very much like the car to tell me the song title and artist, not just that it’s coming from Apple CarPlay. The SEL also adds an excellent adaptive cruise control system that can accelerate and brake smoothly in most situations, even in traffic.
If you’re set on a base SE, you’ll appreciate that it still gets LED headlights and taillights, three-zone climate control, a drive mode selector (you’ll notice a change from Eco or Comfort to Sport), automatic emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert and braking, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto on an 8.0-inch touchscreen. And if you notice a ton of blank buttons around the center stack and console, don’t worry—even loaded models have that problem. It’s frustrating to know that even on a $47,000 USD Arteon, more than half the buttons around the gear stalk are still blanks, to say nothing about the blank button behind the electric parking brake. We hear a redesigned center stack (and possibly auto brake hold) will appear in the Arteon’s midcycle refresh in a couple years. When that happens, say goodbye to the analog clock that goes for understated and classy but comes across as a little plain.
We get it—that doesn’t help you; you’ve got the new car bug now. Maybe you admire the Arteon’s styling details, including a clamshell hood that eliminates the need for traditional hood cut lines found on other cars. And don’t miss the subtle character line that rises above the doors to the front of the car. As you peruse the configurator, know that although this premium-ish car drives well and has a large back seat, the interior has a couple issues. Nevertheless, if you can accept a few interior niggles and a distinctly non-luxury badge, the stylish and worthy Arteon is more practical than it looks.