A practical, comfortable and efficient cruiser.
Every so often, a car comes along that takes a while to understand. The 2021 Volkswagen Arteon is one of them. Not quite a cut-price A4, not a big cruiser like a Toyota Avalon, it’s something else entirely.
It’s rather unusual for a car to be facelifted after just one year on sale. The 2013 Honda Civic comes to mind, an emergency refresh to fix the rash of complaints over the 2012 model. However, the 2021 Volkswagen Arteon receives an update for a very different reason. It’s actually been on sale in Europe since 2017, which means it’s due for a mid-cycle refresh. New for 2021 is a restyled front bumper, a new grille, a new wheel design and LED running lamps that stretch all the way out to meet the Volkswagen badge on the front. While there is a bit of teenage Autozone camp to such an unusual expanse of LEDs, the first three exterior updates are quite handsome.
In fact, the Arteon’s design is very handsome overall. A long wheelbase, sloping roofline, wide haunches and crisp beltline cut a striking silhouette. The hood is a clamshell design that wraps around onto the fenders giving a sleeker appearance. The doors feature frameless windows to maintain a unified greenhouse and give more coupe-like vibes while the wing mirrors are mounted far enough out from the body to minimize frontal blind spots.
Overall, it’s a very attractive thing to look at. Of course, we can’t talk about the Arteon’s design without mentioning its piece de resistance. It’s actually a five-door liftback. Press the top of the Volkswagen emblem on the back and the tailgate motors up, revealing a cargo area as cavernous as it is flexible. Good-looking and practical – who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too?
On the inside, the 2021 Arteon gets a rather thorough tech refresh. Gone are conventional climate controls and steering wheel buttons and in their place sit capacitive touch controls. At first glance, it’s a bit “oh dear.” While capacitive touch controls in cars are nothing new, many of them have been simply awful. With the Arteon, execution is a bit more successful. The climate temperature controls are too fussy and vague considering they’re hidden behind the gear knob, but automatic climate control is a “set it and forget it” thing, so they get a pass.
Where Volkswagen’s implementation of capacitive touch controls is brilliant is on the steering wheel. Having a slider for volume is so much more convenient than the tedium of conventional buttons and everything else seems to work basically as expected. Another big addition to the interior for 2021 is a massaging driver’s seat. While there’s only one massage program, it’s fairly invigorating and an unexpected luxury in this segment.
As expected, interactive cabin tech is top-notch. The gauge cluster is Volkswagen’s familiar virtual cockpit, a fully digital affair that displays an enormous wealth of information from the trip computer to the current song playing to the navigation map. The eight-inch infotainment system itself has wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, an easy-to-use menu structure with very slick graphics and conventional knobs for volume and tuning. Resolution and black levels on both screens are absolutely exceptional and neither the cluster nor the infotainment wash out in harsh, direct sunlight.
As for audio, the Arteon comes equipped with a Harman/Kardon stereo that has a bright sound signature, low distortion and good range, but staging leaves something to be desired. The JBL stereo in the Toyota Avalon is a much better unit in the near-premium car sector, although the Arteon’s system is certainly on par with the Stinger GT’s system.
Moving away from tech, the rest of the interior is exceptionally well-made. Soft-touch materials are featured on every upper surface, the leathers on the seats, steering wheel and gear knob are as supple as an eye-wateringly expensive designer wallet and every single control has a satisfying positivity to its movement.
Power for the Arteon comes from Volkswagen’s familiar EA888 two-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine. With 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, it strikes a nice balance between performance and economy. Power goes to the ground through an eight-speed automatic gearbox and 4Motion Haldex all-wheel-drive. While the eight-speed automatic is very smooth, it suffers from significant lag that makes us wonder if Volkswagen’s seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox would be a better option.
With such a high level of electronics integration, it’s no surprise that drive modes play a surprising part of the Arteon’s character. The adaptive variable dampers have no fewer than fifteen levels of damping, enough that any two immediately adjacent settings would be indistinguishable for most drivers. There’s a sport mode for the steering, sport and eco modes for the powertrain and an eco mode for climate control. The personalized drive mode setting lets you have it your way even more so than Burger King which is important as no preset drive mode really feels like a Goldilocks option.
Comfort mode allows a touch too much suspension movement, normal mode lacks a certain tautness to the steering and sport mode, while nice, may simply be too aggressive for many drivers. Get all the settings right though, and the Arteon is absolutely superb. Accurate, well-weighted steering, well-damped suspension that doesn’t beat passengers up over diabolical pavement and power delivery so smooth that it feels like the Arteon is running on double cream instead of gasoline.
Fuel economy is also quite good. We averaged 9.4 L/100km over a week of mixed driving, handily beating the government’s combined estimate of 9.8 L/100km. It is worth noting that the Arteon requires premium fuel, so overall fuel costs will be similar to rivals like the Toyota Avalon that run on regular fuel.
The 2021 Volkswagen Arteon isn’t a powerful bruiser like the Kia Stinger GT, nor is it enormous and cushy like a Toyota Avalon or Chrysler 300. Instead it’s a practical, comfortable and efficient cruiser that’s chock-full of toys and incredibly handsome. Just 352 Arteons found their way into Canadian driveways last year, ensuring a certain degree of rarity. While it isn’t exactly the reincarnation of the Phaeton, the Arteon is a fantastic option for those who want a premium car that’s under the radar.