2019 Volkswagen Arteon SEL Premium: A Rational Flagship Sedan

Sedans have had to evolve. Like elephants that are slowly evolving to lose their tusks to avoid being killed by poachers, sedans are also evolving to survive. Although, there aren’t any poachers coming after sedans. It’s more of a lack of them. You see, consumers are eyeing bigger game: SUVs and crossovers. Sedans are old news, dried up, done for. There’s no ivory left to harvest. And yet, here’s the 2019 Volkswagen Arteon – VW’s second-most expensive vehicle behind the Golf R and the most expensive sedan. By that simple metric, it’s the brand’s flagship sedan.

Volkswagen Arteon

Sedans are dying quicker than those poor elephants, but VW had decided to stay the course with a little evolutionary kick courtesy of a fastback design. You’re also getting all of the latest tech, including Volkswagen’s slick Digital Cockpit system, at an affordable price. That puts the flagship in an interesting spot in the market. It falls just short of other sportbacks under VW’s umbrella, like the Audi A5 Sportback and directly in the crossfire against the Kia Stinger and the Buick Regal Sportback.

One can’t help but root for the Arteon and VW. The sportback had such a difficult birth in the U.S., coming at a bad time for the automaker in terms of its never-ending diesel scandal and seemingly delayed forever as a result of failed emissions testing. Once it rains and all. But at times, even as much as one can root for an underdog, the Arteon feels like it’s meant to fit in a mold. That’s not a bad thing if you like your cookies to be shaped in circles. It is bad if, however, you like triangular cookies, or square ones, or ones that are kind of just all over the place. The last ones are my favorites.

A peculiar thing to note before diving into the review. Volkswagen let us test a 2019 Arteon SEL Premium 4Motion. Interestingly, it’s no longer a trim that’s offered for the model.

Exterior

Personally, I think sedans played it too safe, which opened the door for crossovers, SUVs, and those hideous coupe-like SUVs. Once the wheel was made, they stopped to admire it instead of setting sights onto the next best thing. For better or worse, boring sedans are out, and now automakers are on the back foot to try to make them great again. Key the entrance of sportbacks.

Volkswagen Arteon

I love how sportbacks like the Arteon look. They simply have prettier dimensions. The sweeping rooflines, the wide stances, I’m a sucker for great design, and the Arteon’s is stunning. There’s zero complacency here. It’s simply gorgeous.

Ignore the VW badge at the front and it’s easy to forget that this is a relatively affordable machine. People looked, some stopped to stare, others mouthed things that I will only assume to be good, but everyone took once glance at the Arteon. It draws attention without going overboard – ahem, Honda Civic Type R. I love cars like the Arteon, because they look good and fly under the radar. I’m incredibly fond of the headlight design, which has LED lights that integrate directly into the grille. It’s such a small feature that most people probably won’t notice it, but it’s something I fixated on.

This being the range-topping SEL Premium trim that’s meant to be seen as an affordable take on Audi’s sportbacks, there’s a lively amount of chrome. It’s the perfect amount, not being too overbearing and managing to do enough to raise the overall appeal of the Arteon. This is a luxury sportback and the exterior doesn’t let you forget that.

Volkswagen Arteon

Standard features on the SEL Premium 4Motion include 19-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and taillights, heated exterior mirrors, and a hands-free liftgate. The entry-level SE is just as well equipped when it comes to exterior features and shares the same overall look, as only R-Line trims have a different look than the rest of the lineup.  

Interior

With an exterior this pretty, you’re expecting to open one of the Arteon’s doors and see a cabin that’s as similarly striking. It’s not like its “Sweeny Todd” horror show in there or something, but it just doesn’t have the same sense of drama as the outside. It’s like Volkswagen let its most brilliant designers loose on the outside and then called in the home team to keep things more subdued on the inside.

All of the Volkswagen’s I’ve ever driven have put simplicity, ease of use, and usability before style. Despite its flagship status, it’s the same thing with the Arteon. The dashboard and center console layout look like an evolved form of what’s found in the Jetta, which is, more or less, similar to what you’ll find in the Golf. One would assume that this being VW’s most expensive sedan (at least for now), there would be that special touch – a splash of maraschino cherry juice in an old fashioned. Alas, there is no such thing.

Volkswagen Arteon

What you do get with the Arteon, is a well-thought-out cabin that’s built like a tank with a simple design. Some people like simple, and if you fit into that category, you’ll like the Arteon. Everything’s as it should be – well labeled, easy to access, and easy to read. There’s loads of space on the inside, too, especially in the back where you’ll be hard pressed to find a giant that can’t fit back there. With the sportback, you’re looking at 27 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats and a total of 55 cubic feet of space.

There are a few odd things that I couldn’t quite understand with the Arteon. Like the tan and black leather seats. They’re an interesting shade of brown and VW placed the brown portions in interesting places, like on a small portion of the front of the headrests. There’s no denying that the brown helps break up the Arteon’s interior from becoming as dreary as a gloomy, smog-filled day in West Baltimore, but it’s not exactly lively in there. Though, you do have three different ambient lighting choices, one of which is yellow. So there’s that.

The other issue I have is with the buttons. For one, there are so many blank buttons throughout the entire cabin that it kind of seems like this isn’t one of the more expensive trims when it is. Then there’s the placement of the buttons themselves. The heated steering wheel button, for instance, is on the right side of the shifter. Sure it’s summer, but that’s going to be a tricky button for people to use in winter.

Volkswagen Arteon

Then, there’s an analog clock. That’s like giving a modern Navy Seal a musket from 1861. The Arteon, at least in my eyes, is supposed to be this high-tech car that blurs the lines between being a car and a computer – it has Digital Cockpit for crying out loud. And yet, there’s an analog clock in the middle of the dashboard. It’s not a nice analog clock either, like the gorgeous IWC clocks in Mercedes-AMG models, but some unbranded, clock that was taken from the box of Target specials. It’s also unnecessary, as the top of the VW’s Digital Cockpit has an analog clock reading.

The SEL Premium 4Motion is well equipped with three-zone climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, ventilated and heated front seats, heated rear seats, a massaging driver’s seat, a surround-view camera, and a Dynaudio audio system. The massaging seat is halfway decent and the surround-view camera is amazing.

Performance

This is really where I was expecting more from the Arteon. The entire lineup is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that cranks out 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. That’s 11 more hp and 2 lb-ft of torque less than what you’d find in one of the Kia Stinger’s lower trims. But unlike Kia with the Stinger, there is no high-performance variant. There is no raucous twin-turbo monster – it’s just this 258-horsepower thing. At least the engine is paired with a quick-shifting eight-speed automatic, which is great.

Volkswagen Arteon

In addition to not really making a stirring amount of power, the Arteon is clearly not tuned toward performance. It’s hardly what one would call sporty – in Car & Driver’s testing, the Arteon was slower than a front-wheel-drive Honda Accord with the available 2.0-liter turbocharged engine to 60 mph. That’s not good for a car that costs this much or looks this good.

Fuel economy isn’t stellar either. The EPA rates the Arteon at 23 mpg combined for 4Motion models. For comparison sake, the all-wheel-drive Stinger models can get 24 mpg combined. And the Audi A5 Sportback, which I can only image comes with a similar engine as the Arteon, is rated at 27 mpg combined. I’m not sure why the Arteon is so much worse off than the Audi. For whatever it’s worth, we got 25 mpg in our week with the car.

Volkswagen Arteon

On the road, though, few consumers will probably care about the lack of performance or lackluster fuel economy. Every Arteon comes with adaptive suspension that helps keep bumps at bay. For the most part, the suspension works well. You have five modes to choose from, but I didn’t find that they did anything different. The ride doesn’t change much from Comfort to Sport, with the only thing changing being the sensitivity of the throttle pedal and the heaviness of the steering wheel. While you can change how heavy the steering is, there’s not much feedback coming through. The brakes aren’t great, either. Essentially, if you enjoy driving, you’ll probably have more fun with the Stinger on a good road.

What the Arteon is, is a capable cruiser. We covered 500 miles in one week in this thing, and besides the large amount of road noise and the hard seats that make your butt numb in an hour, it covers miles on an open highway well.

Conclusion

The Arteon, and all of the other sportbacks, are here to replace traditional sedans. I’m all for the change, as I think the Arteon has loads of benefits over a sedan. The main ones are that it has more interior space and is much prettier. But as an overall package, the Arteon has some serious flaws. There’s a serious lack of performance, subpar fuel economy, a drab interior, and a cabin that lets in way too much road noise for something that’s being marketed as quasi luxurious.

Volkswagen Arteon

At the end of the day, these issues don’t result in a bad car. So what if the Arteon is a little boring? Not everyone wants something that stirs the soul or excites on a winding road. It’s got the looks to woo people, the spacious interior to keep them comfortable, and enough tech to put flip phones to shame. It’s a little rough around the edges, but the Arteon does the CC proud.