Derived from the conservatively sculpted Passat, the sleek Arteon seeks to entice Golf GTI and R buyers as they mature...
Imagine the scenario: you’re in your late-30s, have a brace of kids and a great job that pays well. Life’s grand… if only your spouse would stop nagging you to grow up and get rid of that “noisy”, “cramped” hot hatch (a GTI, for the sake of this argument). You love Volkswagen and plan to remain loyal to it but a Tiguan is too suburban and a Kombi, well… it’s a Kombi, and tour operators use those. Not cool.
Your alternatives are an Amarok, but you’d prefer not to get into heated arguments with puffer-jacketed parents at your kids’ weekend sport meets about what’s the best bakkie; and a Passat, which, you reckon, is driven by pensioners drifting across highway lanes doing 80 km/h and therefore will do zilch for your street cred.
Careless stereotyping aside, there’s credence to this quandary, says Volkswagen SA, and that’s why it has launched the new Arteon into a market not exactly enamoured with the midsize sedan at the moment (and that includes the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, which have all seen a decline in sales but seemingly still draw in midsize-hatchback owners seeking an upgrade).
It’s been rather clever with the range’s composition, too, and the entry-level diesel Arteon is more expensive than the most expensive Passat (with which it shares its lauded MQB base), a price point it justifies by being lavishly specced. It gets even more luxurious as you move to the 2,0 TDI R-Line and peaks in this 2,0 TSI R-Line at a shade under R700 000. For that rather substantial outlay, you get LED headlamps, 19-inch alloys, three-zone climate control, Nappa leather trim, seat heating, plus VW’s full-fat Discover Pro infotainment system equipped with sat-nav and linked to Active Info Display configurable instrumentation.
Of course, if you’re out to net hatchback owners on the hunt for an upgrade, aside from every mod-con as standard, it helps if your midsize sedan is good-looking. Think a budget-friendlier Mercedes-Benz CLS and you’re right on the mark when engaging with designer Tobias Suhlmann’s work that fuses elegant lines with intricate surfacing. We love the interplay of the headlamps flowing into the grille strakes (Volkswagen refers to the design as its “premium grille”). It’s a big car – a whisker shorter than five metres – but doesn’t look bulky.
The cabin is a more reserved affair, blending the Passat’s facia-wide air-vent inserts with deeply sculpted and sumptuously comfortable R-branded seats, a flat-bottomed steering wheel which feels sporty to hold but not bulky, and de rigueur glossy trim that looks good for the first five minutes after driving the Arteon off the showroom floor and then will forever remain impossible to clean.
Some members of the CAR team expressed reservations whether the Arteon’s interior feels special enough to justify a R700k price tag – especially below eye level, where some plastics are firmer than you’d expect – or compete with similarly priced premium rivals from Audi and BMW. However, aside from irksome squeaking on this test vehicle where frameless door glass meets rubber, the cockpit feels well-constructed.
It’s also notably spacious. Where the sweptback roofline suggests compromised rear headroom, that’s not the case and most adults should fit comfortably. They’re afforded acres of legroom, too; we measured 780 mm, which isn’t too far off the grand saloons we tested last month. Luggage space is equally impressive and folding the split rear seatback frees up a midsize-SUV-rivalling 1 032 litres of utility room.
To comfort prospective hot-hatch buyers struggling with separation anxiety, this Arteon boasts the Golf R’s punchy 2,0-litre turbopetrol engine, albeit in a slightly detuned state more suited to the Arteon’s laidback demeanour. Figures of 206 kW and 350 N.m are at the sharper end of the segment and the TSI unit shifts the big sedan with verve. It posted a 0-100 km/h sprint of 5,80 seconds and strong in-gear acceleration figures on our test strip, rendering overtaking manoeuvres a fire-and-you’re-instantly-faster affair. This version of the DSG transmission is also one of the better we’ve tried, displaying little of the pull-away lagginess that often afflicts dual-clutch units.
What this engine doesn’t do, though, is connect with its driver on an emotional level. Sure, the Dynamic Chassis Control drivetrain selector offers access to a sport mode, which includes a sound symposer piping in artificial engine growls to the cabin (somewhat effectively, too, aside from eliciting the occasional buzz from the R14 627 DynAudio speakers), but it’s a workman-like drivetrain rather than a charming one. That said, the same criticism can be levelled at any number of the Arteon’s rivals. With the settings dialled to comfort, the TSI fades into the background at a cruise (where slight wind flutter around the seals takes over but not obtrusively so).
The dynamics are similarly vice-free. High grip levels from the 4Motion system mean the Arteon can carry serious momentum through high-speed corners, where it feels at its most comfortable, secure and poised. Tighter-radii bends expose the near-1,8-tonne kerb weight through mild understeer, but the Arteon certainly does a passable impression of a grown-up Golf R.
It mostly rides fluently, too, with a loping gait at higher speeds combining with the generally excellent noise, vibration and harshness suppression to render it a great cross-country car. The dynamically damped ride can turn choppy at low speeds – optional (R9 987) 20-inch wheels enveloped in 35-profile tyres will do that, as will the R-Line variants’ sportier suspension tuning and 20 mm drop in ride height – but impacts are more often heard than felt. If comfort is an ultimate priority, it’s best to stick to the standard wheels, though, or opt for the 2,0 TDI Elegance.
Braking performance is terrific: the Arteon came to a halt across 10 emergency stops in just 2,81 seconds and 37,79 metres. Its fuel consumption is equally impressive, posting an average usage on our 100 km combined fuel route of just 7,2 L/100 km. Like any turbocharged engine, though, exploit the performance on offer and that figure quickly heads north.
There's little doubt the Arteon will remain a rare sight on South African roads. We've turned to SUVs and crossovers in our droves, leaving once-popular sedans to fight for a dwindling slice of the pie. What's more, expecting buyers to fork out R700k for a four-door with a Volkswagen badge on the nose poses its own set of challenges in an environment dominated by premium aspirational German brands (and Volvo's S90, a first-rate car that's criminally overlooked).
Yet... putting aside those prejudices, large sedans such as the Arteon are a treat to drive. In the case of the Volkswagen, refinement, space, comfort and quality are tops, plus it's generously equipped, light on fuel if driven with restraint and looks dashing. VW may not sell many Arteons but the small group of buyers who are either new to the brand, or upgrading from their Golf GTIs and Rs, should rest assured they've acquired one of the best new sedans in the market.
*From the September 2018 issue of CAR magazine