2021 Volkswagen Arteon review: Star without a spotlight
The Volkswagen Arteon is a very nice car that nobody buys. OK, nobody it’s a little tough, but with fewer than 3,000 units sold in the US as of September this year, the Arteon is one of the slowest cars sold by a mainstream automaker. And it’s a goddamn sin.
- Lots of standard infotainment technology
- Smooth driving dynamics
- Great style, inside and out
I do not like
- It lacks the punch of some competitors
- The sloping roof means little rear headroom
“That’s definitely better than 400 units a month,” a Volkswagen executive from Arteon said. But honestly, at this point, even 400 units per month would be an improvement. So in hopes of setting the struggling Arteon on a better course, Volkswagen is giving it a number of thoughtful upgrades for 2021, all of which make this solid sedan even easier to appreciate.
Visually, the Arteon’s elegant silhouette doesn’t change (that’s a good thing). The frameless windows are beautiful and the hatchback shape makes this sedan super functional. Part of the 2021 redesign, defined air intakes flank both sides of the front bumper, and R-Line models have a strip of LED lights that spans the full width of the dashboard, seamlessly integrated into the grille bars. Redesigned 18- and 20-inch wheels are available (plus a set of 19 that I carry over from the latest Arteon), and a couple of extra paint colors are on the docket too.
The biggest upgrades are actually found inside the Arteon, where the cabin gets a full zhushing. The dashboard design is a bit more refined and there’s a redesigned (and Arteon-specific) steering wheel with tactile touch controls. New air intakes line the top of the dashboard and 30 ambient lighting colors cover the width of the cabin, flowing into the digital instrument cluster and along the doors, both front and rear. Finally, Volkswagen’s old sloppy-looking climate controls are gone and in their place you’ll find a sleek new digital / tactile setup, although strangely, unlike the steering wheel, these buttons don’t have any haptic feedback. Strange, right?
In addition to the standard digital gauges, each Arteon is equipped with Volkswagen’s MIB3 infotainment system, housed on an 8-inch touchscreen. MIB3 has built-in and wireless navigation, and the integration of VW’s smartphone App Connect. The MIB3 system is relatively easy to use, with menu buttons that pop up automatically when the system detects dirty fingers approaching.
Overall, the Arteon has a premium aura that has been missing from many of Volkswagen’s recent products. It has the high-quality fit and finish that I remember from the company’s older cars, an attribute that truly sets VWs apart from other mainstream manufacturers. The seats are supportive and comfortable, and are heated and cooled on my fully loaded SEL Premium R-Line tester. The sloped roofline type prevents rear headroom, but there’s a surprising amount of legroom, so just sloppy, I guess. Also, don’t forget, you can fold the rear seats flat, revealing 56.2 cubic feet of cargo space. It’s huge.
There are no noteworthy mechanical changes for the Arteon 2021, but I’ve always liked the way the old man rode, so I’m not complaining. A turbo 2.0-liter I4 is the only engine available, with 268 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque, and an 8-speed automatic transmission. The Arteon SE base is only available with front-wheel drive, but 4Motion all-wheel drive is optional on the SEL and standard on the SEL Premium.
The Arteon isn’t necessarily fast, but the turbo punch is enough to lift this four-door up and out of the way. The transmission has a tendency to hold the gears resulting in a bit of a hum when accelerating – to the point where a passenger actually asked if the car had a CVT – but gear changes are still quick and smooth when finally happen. Sport mode selection fine-tunes the throttle, transmission and steering calibration, and there’s a custom setting where you can set a whole bunch of driving parameters to your liking. Myself? I prefer to simply leave it in Normal or even switch to Comfort. The quiet and refined nature of the Arteon is best experienced in these settings, with well-adjusted steering, smooth torque at low revs, good cornering characteristics and consistent handling thanks to adaptive dampers, even on SEL Premium’s 20-inch wheels.
Small advantage: Arteon 2021 is slightly more fuel efficient than its predecessor, at least on the highway cycle. Comparing the 2020 and 2021 model year Arteons, the front-wheel drive versions are both estimated by the EPA to return 22 mpg in the city, but while the old car was rated at 29 mpg on the highway, the new version gets 32 mpg. Switching to all-wheel drive reduces these figures slightly, to 20 cities and 31 freeways. Even so, after a week of mixed driving, I see an average well above the EPA’s combined 24mpg rating.
The basic Arteon comes with forward collision assistance, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic warning, rain sensitive wipers and a few other niceties, but if you want things like adaptive full-speed cruise control or headlights LED, you have it to pony up for the SEL. The only bits of driver assistance technology added by SEL Premium are front and rear parking distance control as well as automatic parking assistance.
Pricing for the 2021 Arteon starts at $ 38,190, including $ 1,195 for the destination, and you can’t get into an all-wheel drive version for under $ 44,590. Go for gold and you’re looking at $ 48,190 out the door for a SEL Premium R-Line.
The Arteon is a kind of weird tweener in the sedan space; Volkswagen says it targets Acura TLX and Nissan Maxima as competitors, as well as entry-level luxury sedans. The most obvious rival is the excellent Kia Stinger, which costs less at the base end and can be achieved with a 365hp twin-turbo V6 on higher finishes. In fact, the Stinger is currently selling more than three to one from the Arteon in 2020. And, well, as good as the Arteon, the Stinger GT is more fun to drive and is just as functional, so that’s probably how I would go. On the other hand, if you’re looking for comfort and technology, the Arteon probably makes more sense. But at that point, so do many entry-level luxury sedans, not to mention a whole bunch of compact crossovers.
It’s a weird problem to have: being so nice and functional, but being classified in a niche status because you are fighting with so many vehicle segments at once. The Arteon is more attractive and more refined than before, and is a car I would recommend quickly. But until Volkswagen throws a few extra bucks into marketing – or until consumer tastes start to change – I’m afraid this will always be a low-volume player, even if it deserves a lot more attention.