Volkswagen graduates from art class. But is there any work out there?
Volkswagen New Zealand general manager Tom Ruddenklau reckons he got some illuminating advice about the future market for four-door cars from a German VW executive a few years back: "When it comes to sedans, you have to go premium or go home."
That explains the just-launched Arteon, then. It's ostensibly a replacement for the CC sedan and like that model, it's based on the Passat.
But Arteon aims to go a lot more upmarket than its predecessor, with VW eyeing up the likes of the BMW 3-series, Mercedes-Benz C-class and Jaguar XE as potential rivals for this $74,990 newcomer. They don't mention the sister Audi A4/5; so we will.
That premium thinking makes more sense than ever in 2017, says Ruddenklau: "There are 5000 sedans sold in this country every year. When you look at the profile, there's a large mainstream Japanese competitor [Camry] that dominates that sector. But ranked at two, three, four and five are Europeans. It's premium that does really well."
Mainstream sedans don't do well at all as a rule, which is why VW NZ only sold 13 Passat sedans last year. That body shape has now been dropped completely, with the Passat name continuing only in wagon form (especially the SUV-like Alltrack).
All of the above also explains why Arteon has been launched here in one, top-of-the-range model. The R-Line has a 206kW/350Nm turbo-petrol 2-litre engine, seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and 4Motion all-wheel drive. It can hit 100kmh in 5.6 seconds and returns 7.3 litres per 100km in the Combined fuel-economy test.
The Arteon has progressive steering, DCC adaptive chassis control with driving profiles and a slide-control that gives you 15 different settings for the suspension (as used by Bentley), virtual instrument panel, 9.2-inch glass-covered touch screen, gesture control, head-up display, Nappa leather upholstery, 14-way adjustable seats with heating and driver massage function, three-zone climate control and 360-degree camera system.
The driver-assistance package includes adaptive cruise with emergency assist function and traffic-jam assistant, autonomous braking and lane-assist.
If we're talking premium then the Arteon is still a strong value proposition. Its $75k price really only gets you into an entry-level 3-series or C-class, but the VW is loaded with luxury and technology. At 4862m in length it's also more 5-series/E-class size - longer and wider than the Passat on which it is based.
But Arteon will surely sell mainly on styling. "Art" is in the name after all, and it's arguably the first series-production VW family car to be based around The Look first and foremost.
VW Group already has a luxury brand that prioritises style, of course. It's also one that also shares quite a lot of technology with VW. It's called Audi and globally, it's the upmarket foil to VW's everyman character.
Ruddenklau reckons the Arteon's grille badge will work just fine in the Kiwi luxury market: "You don't see many Passat taxis in NZ. There's a lot more premium-ness to the VW brand here [than in Europe]. You see it in the likes of Tiguan, where we have a massive mix of high-end R-Line sales. The top-spec Adventura V6 is also our strongest Amarok model."
Arteon is a stunning-looking thing. It's kind of a grab-bag of upmarket VW Group styling detail: there's a lot of Audi A5 Sportback in the profile, and the rear tail-lights and "Arteon" bootlid script owe a lot to the Porsche Macan and/or Panamera. But it's all cohesively done and really quite imposing on the road.
Speaking of Sportback, now's a good time to draw attention to the fact that Arteon isn't actually a sedan. It's got a tailgate, so it's really a five-door. But "hatchback" sounds a bit downmarket (ask Audi) and four-door "coupe" or "fastback" styling is very much in vogue at the moment. So that's what Arteon is... says VW.
There are some very familiar bits underneath, of course. The powertrain is standard-issue VW Group stuff and once you get past that avant garde exterior, the cabin architecture is pure Passat - albeit with posh furniture like ErgoComfort seats, digital everything, shiny surfaces everywhere and LED mood lighting.
A Passat interior is a pretty nice place to be, no question about that. But if you're familiar with that model and travel by Arteon, the carryover bits do undermine the latter's claim as a bespoke luxury car.
On the road, it's a typically polished VW experience. The turbo engine has plenty of punch and you can choose between three powertrain settings in the drive-mode selector - there's even a separate menu for the sportiness of the exhaust noise.
It's swift but also stable, with 4Motion as standard. The slide-control for the suspension (giving 15 different settings) sounds like a gimmick, but because it's a linear graphic and this is an enjoyable car to drive, we actually found it quite useful over our day-long and quite varied drive route.
Dynamically, Arteon does still feel very similar to other VW Group models on similar platform/powertrain architecture. But it also feels very good, full-stop.
If you're looking to impress the neighbours with a sub-$80k BMW or Mercedes-Benz, the Arteon should surely at least be on the shopping list. It's a worthy alternative and a interesting take on this part of the market that will be relatively rare. It's a totally new direction for the brand, remember, VW NZ has just 40 to sell this year, and annual volume will likely stay below 150 even when supply frees up.
For the truly discerning buyer, perhaps the question should be whether Arteon rates against similar models from other VW Group brands.
A Skoda Superb Sportline 206kW is a lot more mainstream, but it costs $66,990 and by the time you've ticked a few option boxes to bring it towards Arteon-spec, the price could easily start with a "7". The latest Audi A5 Sportback (185kW) is very close to Arteon in styling and execution, but it starts at $98,490.
The Arteon is still looking pretty good.