Thursday August 31, 2017
By Richard Bosselman
ENOUGH ‘premium-ness’ attaches to Volkswagen’s badge to fuel optimism that now is the right time for the brand to pitch a new halo car into territory that has previously proven tough.
So, explains Volkswagen New Zealand chief Tom Ruddenklau in introducing the Arteon, a four-door fastback here in single $74,990 TSi R-Line 4Motion format.
This 2.0-litre petrol four-wheel-drive car is a spiritual successor to the Passat CC – which simply became the CC here from 2012 – and continues with four chair coupe-masquerading styling, but with a hatchback twist.
Aimed at upper management executives, entrepreneurs and all other kinds of well-heeled and attention-hungry aspirationals, it replaces the Passat sedan locally (the wagon continues) and sells on more than simply style.
Smarts also factor in, with the version here provisioning with a multitude of high-end technologies; some new to VW product and a couple very likely making a first appearance in a sub-$100k setting.
It’s a bold play in a passenger car sector that, thanks to owner abdication to sports utilities, has been shrinking even when car sales overall have hit record highs and might be expected to fall below last year’s 5000-unit count when the current Holden Commodore ends production in around six weeks.
Quirkily, though, all is not lost. The luxury niche within this niche nabs around 40 percent of volume and seems to be showing signs of improvement: Among the top five brands, four are mid to high-end Europeans.
Certainly, Arteon has no shortage of rivals within the gilt-edged arena: VW cites the Lexus IS, BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class and Jaguar XE. (It doesn’t mention the A4/A5 models from its own stable, but they also obviously figure). Ruddenklau also reckons the Subaru Legacy, Honda Accord and Skoda Superb as competition and agrees the impending ZB-series Commodore VXR could join this gang; similar kind of car potentially selling for much the same money as the Vee-Dub.
VW locally has been here before. Arteon follows in the tyre tracks of two models heralded as high-fliers; the CC that ran here until 2015 and the Eos, another four-seater but in convertible format.
Both also looked brilliant, were well-provisioned and cannily priced, yet neither had an easy time beating badge snobbery. Is this also going to be Arteon’s biggest challenge?
Ruddenklau reckons not. He contends that VW here has an especially strong ‘premium mainstream’ image. For an example of the badge’s perceived prestige value, he reminds that the most popular versions of the Tiguan and Amarok are the flagships. And, since the Tiguan R and Amarok V6 Aventura, at $67,000 and $83k respectively, sit in the same broad price band as Arteon, he proposes that the road the new car must travel is probably going to be clear of that obstacle.
“There are not a lot of VW sedans as taxis here,” he suggests. “Yes, the other sedan (Passat) we had in this market has been a general fleet car but overall here there is a lot more premium-ness to the VW badge.”
In any event, head office also believes the only way is up. Ruddenklau recounts that, when visiting Wolfsburg three years ago, the big bosses reinforced that, in sedans, “you either go premium or go home.” His agreement with top level thought that “you’re not going to achieve what you need to achieve by just being mainstream” is also flavoured by the Passat sedan achieving just 13 sales to date this year.
Arteon is the first example of the new way and Ruddenklau is confident it is just the car to “send a powerful message of Volkswagen’s intention in this part of the market.”
For all that, the model’s full sales potential is difficult to assess, VW NZ agrees. Says Ruddenklau: “Our dealer network is confident and our first allocations have completely gone … and we’ve only got 40 this year and most have names beside them already.”
Longer term, he and his product and marketing specialists think it’ll do significantly better annually than CC. But the sky is not the limit; 200 cars per year is the maximum the factory has promised it can deliver here.
The brand is at pains to reinforce that Arteon is not a Passat derivative, as CC was, but a whole new model, built on the MQB Plus platform and thus meted a wheelbase that is some 50mm longer than the Passat's (and, presumably, therefore identical to that of the Skoda Superb). That’s true in respect to the exterior cladding, but something of a stretch when considering the instrumentation cluster, which is largely the same as the Passat’s.
Even though the styling ethos is CC-esque, the Arteon is better executed. Rakish lines, tighter gaps and some intricate detailing means it has a far more expensive and impressive look than a predecessor some used to call ‘a Passat in a party frock.’
The contrast of its long flowing roofline and sharp creases through the belt line result in a car that, in profile especially, closely resembles what you might expect from Audi. I’d be intrigued to put it alongside the massively more expensive A5 Sportback. Is it one of those shapes that turns out to be quite colour-sensitive? Well, maybe. the colour of the car here is called Tumeric and is a metalicky gold. I think it looks great in photos, but dunno if I'd actually buy into it. However, at the moment, the only other colour avalable here appears to be white. Which is safe, but much less interesting.
Considering those sleek, low-slung fastback proportions, the Arteon feels roomy and expansive inside. Occupants sit low, yes, yet comfortably. Head- and legroom in the back are very much helped by a slightly reclined seat but both are not too bad even for those of us of 1.8 metres’ height; even the optional sunroof doesn’t impinge too badly.
Visibility for the rear seat occupants isn’t brilliant, but for the driver forward and side visibility is no great issue, so too the view through the raked wiper-less rear hatch, which opens to a practical boot that provides 563 litres of space, which can increase to 1557 litres, or only 212 litres less than a Passat wagon. And that’s with something not often seen in new cars: A full-sized spare.
The special ingredients over and above the usual safety and luxury items expected in a top-flight European include adaptive cruise control along with a second-generation emergency assistance feature that can steer the car automatically into the slow lane while simultaneously braking the car to a stop. The Arteon's lane departure warning system has ability to react to other vehicles, such as swerving heavy trucks.
The 9.2-inch infotainment system has gesture control, something that until now has only been in BMWs and Mercedes cars here.
We don’t quite get the full gambit of goodies allowed in Europe. The most interesting ingredients absent for now, but expected to show in the future, once the factory gives the all clear, are predictive abilities for the lights and cruise control.
Those functions rely on the car actively using data from the satellite navigation to the degree where it reads the roadscape ahead and reacts to it on the driver’s behalf. Thus, the adaptive LED headlamps are meted the smarts to illuminate a bend before the driver steers into it while the cruise, in addition to keeping a safe distance in traffic, can also not only detect speed limit signs and increase or reduce the car's speed in accordance with these but also slow the vehicle down as it approaches corners as well as helping to keep the car in its lane.
As previously reported, it is packed with standard gear including 19-inch Montevideo alloy wheels, special R-Line seats in Nappa leather, frameless side windows, heated rear outer seats, an active info display, app-connect, adaptive chassis control with four driving profile settings (Comfort, Normal, Sport and Individual), area view camera and tinted rear windows. Options are few, the big choices being a full-length sunroof and 20-inch wheels.
There’s vague talk of a six-cylinder in the future, but for now the sole engine choice here is the most powerful of several available, a 206kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, driving to all four wheels via a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission. Yes, the same drivetrain used by VW’s hottest hatch here, the Golf R.
This revvy and torque-rich unit can certainly hustle the gruntiest Golf along nicely and it doesn’t feel overwhelmed in this larger setting either, with a 250kmh top speed cited. Even so, the immediate performance edge is altered with the shift to a bigger, heavier body – the claimed 0-100kmh time of 5.6 seconds, while snappy for this sort of sedan, is still 0.7s off the Golf R’s. Optimal overall fuel consumption of 7.3 litres per 100km is claimed for Arteon.
To be fair, VW does not claim Arteon to be an outright sports model. Rather, it’s cast as a Grand Tourer that has spirited suaveness. That’s the impression it imparted on yesterday’s first drive, on a wide mix of roads north of Auckland.
The more powerful first impression is less in respect to the punch than the impression of the car’s visual panache and engineering polish.
From the moment you sit in and pull the frameless doors closed, this model imparts an Audi-esque sense of smooth, schmoozy refinement; if VW would only trade its pebbled finish plastics for Ingolstadt’s higher-quality surfaces the impression would be all the stronger.
Even so, it matches up pretty well to the more elite cousin in its ergonomics and tech spread; it’s among the first VW cars to match the four-ringed product in achieving a cockpit which gets the 12.3-inch Active Info Display that replaces the traditional dashboard instruments.
The full impact of its 4862mm length, 1871mm width and 2841mm wheels impacts the moment you thread into traffic. No wonder if’s so spacious – this is a big car; something you’ll especially notice this when negotiating tight urban environments and muscling into the traffic stream.
But that sense of scale also delivers positively on the open road, where it delivers an air of solid resolve. The refinement at 100kmh is really decent, too; those fat tyres generate some road roar, yes, but it’s not overly intrusive and probably only seems noticeable at all because engine and wind noise is particularly well contained.
Germanic ride quality does traditionally tend toward a certain degree of firmness and the Arteon does not stray from that approach. Even so, the GT approach means it maintains some everyday relevance. Rather than being the preserve of track days, Sport is very much something that you could live with every day and though the Comfort setting definitely softens things off, it’s not to the point where the car floats in the corners.
The ACC choices also influence the transmission reactivity and steering feel. Apparently VW recruited a former Porsche engineer, also responsible for the ride and handling on GT models and the Volkswagen Golf Clubsport, to sort the steering. Maybe he could have been a bit more adventurous. It’s obvious that there is a more weighted feel to the wheel in Sport setting, but in the lesser positions it is quite light and a touch uninvolved.
All in all, the launch drive experience left positive impact; it’s a stronger statement of intent than those previous post-2000 opportunities.
Third time a charm, then?