Interior and exterior updates make VW's flagship Arteon hatchback look even more like an upscale Audi but do little to invigorate its road manners.
The 2021 Arteon is by far the most beautiful machine in Volkswagen's portfolio. Its long, low, and wide proportions convey the type of elegance typically reserved for models wearing Audi's famous interlocking rings rather than VW's humbler logo. It's far more like the sultry A5 Sportback than the generic Passat.
Despite its avant-garde aesthetic and luxury-grade amenities, Volkswagen's sleekest hatchback (cleverly disguised as a fast-roofline sedan) isn't a big seller in the United States. Since arriving as a 2019 model, just more than 5000 copies found buyers through the third quarter of 2020. But the Arteon wasn't built for mass appeal. VW has an expanding roster of crossovers to satisfy the masses and protect its profit margins. Instead, the Arteon was made even prettier and more desirable for the 2021 model year, to continue to entice individualists who appreciate its Audi-adjacent style.
Under the Influence of Audi
We tested a top-of-the-line Arteon SEL Premium R-Line painted in Pyrite Silver that rode on a set of newly designed 20-inch wheels. The cabin gets a more dramatic update than the exterior, with VW adding some tasteful visual flair. The upper part of the dashboard now has a modernized design that scraps the pointless analog clock and relocates the buttons above the infotainment system to the bezel around the shifter. The cabin also looks great at night, the new ambient lighting featuring 30 selectable colors that highlight a strip across the dash, translucent panels on the doors, and even elements in the fully digital gauge cluster and 8.0-inch touchscreen. We're also fond of the new steering wheel's contoured grip and girthier rim, but our winter gloves unintentionally activated its new haptic controls more than once. Other Audi-influenced additions include standard touch-sensitive climate controls that were less distracting and more responsive than we expected.
HIGHS: Simply stunning styling, Audi-esque interior environment, crossover-like cargo space.
The raft of subtle, albeit meaningful, changes don't affect the Arteon's cargo or passenger space. The pilot's seat remains more relaxing than engaging, with front-seat cushions that err on the side of supple rather than supportive. Too bad the "massaging" driver's seat felt like sitting in front of a disgruntled toddler on an airplane. At least adults in the back still enjoy legroom worthy of a luxury car and a surprising amount of headroom despite the hatchback's diving rear roofline. The Arteon is almost as practical as a compact crossover, too, with an expansive cargo area that'll hold nine carry-on suitcases behind the back seat. Fold them down and luggage capacity tops out at 21 carry-ons—only three fewer than we fit in a VW Tiguan.
A Fine Luxury Car—for the Right Price
Those satisfied with the Arteon's one-size-fits-all powertrain—a 268-hp turbo 2.0-liter four-pot paired with an eight-speed automatic—won't care that it's unchanged. Those hoping we'd get the 315-hp version from the European Arteon R are out of luck. However, the EPA highway fuel-economy figure has swelled by 4 mpg to 31 since 2019, a figure we matched during our real-world highway test at 75 mph. Every top-trim SEL Premium has standard 4Motion all-wheel drive, which helped our test car reach 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. While neither that time nor the 4.6-second sprint from 50 to 70 mph qualifies as lazy, the Arteon isn't exactly exciting when goaded with wide-open throttle. The interior is nicely insulated from wind and road noise, but a heavy right foot reveals engine sounds that aren't racy. The automatic has polite manners and deliberate responses, but its tendency to upshift early favors fuel economy over playfulness, making the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters necessary.
LOWS: Unexhilarating engine sounds, massaging driver's seat feels like being kicked by a toddler, barely cheaper than an Audi alternative.
During our time with the Arteon, we discovered that it's best enjoyed at a relaxed pace. Sure, the hatchback can be hurried if you insist, but it's a luxury car first. Its light steering is accurate and body control is poised, but the Arteon is mostly indifferent to corners. The hatch's surprisingly rigid structure and graceful ride quality remind us that VW is really good at building cars that feel expensive. Which is fortunate, because this one actually is.
Although the Arteon is certainly a special Volkswagen and a fine mid-size luxury car, it's not really an affordable Audi alternative because, well, it's not much more affordable. Our SEL Premium R-Line had an as-tested price of $48,190, which is only $1755 shy of a loaded A5 Sportback. In a way, the Arteon is the last throwback to the Piëch-era VWs, the Phaetons and Touaregs, that sought to transcend their badges. And that it does, rewarding the select few who are paying attention.