The Volkswagen Arteon is a very nice car that nobody's buying. OK, nobody is a bit harsh, but with fewer than 3,000 units sold in the US through September of this year, the Arteon is one of the slowest-selling cars from a mainstream automaker. And that's a damn shame.
"It's definitely better than 400 units a month," a Volkswagen executive said of the Arteon during an interview earlier this year. But honestly, at this point, even 400 units a month would be an improvement. So in the hopes of setting the struggling Arteon on a better course, Volkswagen is giving it a number of thoughtful updates for 2021, every single one of which makes this solid sedan even easier to like.
Visually, the Arteon's sleek silhouette doesn't change (that's a good thing). The frameless windows are cool and the hatchback shape makes this sedan super functional. Part of the 2021 redesign, defined air intakes flank either side of the front bumper, and the R-Line models have an LED light strip that spans the width of the fascia, cleanly integrated into the grille bars. Restyled 18- and 20-inch wheels are available (in addition to a set of 19s that carry over from the last Arteon), and a couple extra paint colors are on the docket, too.
The biggest updates are actually found inside the Arteon, where the cabin gets a thorough zhushing-up. The dashboard design is a little more upscale and there's a redesigned (and Arteon-specific) steering wheel with haptic touch controls. New air vents line the top of the dash, and 30 ambient lighting colors span the width of the cabin, flowing into the digital gauge cluster and along the doors, both front and rear. Finally, Volkswagen's old, frumpy-looking climate controls are gone and in their place you'll find a swanky new digital/touch setup, though oddly, unlike the steering wheel, these buttons don't have any haptic feedback. Weird, right?
In addition to the standard digital gauges, every Arteon comes with Volkswagen's MIB3 infotainment system, housed on an 8-inch touchscreen. MIB3 has embedded navigation, as well as wireless Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and VW's App Connect smartphone integration. The MIB3 system is relatively easy to use, with menu buttons that automatically present themselves when the system detects your grubby fingers approaching.
Generally speaking, the Arteon has a premium aura that's been missing from a lot of Volkswagen's recent products. It has the high-quality fit and finish I remember from the company's older cars -- an attribute that really set VWs apart from other mainstream manufacturers. The seats are supportive and comfortable, and they're heated and cooled on my fully loaded SEL Premium R-Line tester. The sloping roofline kind of impedes rear headroom, but there's a surprising amount of legroom, so just slouch, I guess. Plus, don't forget, you can fold the back seats flat, revealing 56.2 cubic feet of cargo space. That's huge.
There aren't any notable mechanical changes for the 2021 Arteon, but I always liked the way the old one drove, so I'm not complaining. A 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 is the only engine available, with 268 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque and an 8-speed automatic transmission. The base Arteon SE is only available with front-wheel drive, but 4Motion all-wheel drive is optional on the SEL and standard on the SEL Premium.
The Arteon isn't necessarily quick, but the turbo punch is enough to get this four-door up and out of its own way. The transmission does have a tendency to hold gears resulting in a bit of drone during acceleration -- to the point where one passenger actually asked if the car had a CVT -- but gear-changes are nevertheless quick and smooth when they do finally happen. Selecting Sport mode sharpens the throttle, transmission and steering calibration, and there's a Custom setting where you can set a whole bunch of driving parameters to your liking. Me? I prefer to just leave it in Normal or even head over to Comfort. The quiet, refined nature of the Arteon is best experienced in these settings, with nicely tuned steering, smooth low-end torque, good cornering characteristics and a compliant ride thanks to the adaptive dampers -- even on the SEL Premium's 20-inch wheels.
Small bonus: The 2021 Arteon is slightly more fuel-efficient than its predecessor, at least on the highway cycle. Comparing 2020 and 2021 model year Arteons, front-drive versions are both EPA-estimated to return 22 mpg city, but while the old car was rated at 29 mpg highway, the new version gets 32 mpg. Stepping up to all-wheel drive reduces those figures slightly, to 20 city and 31 highway. Even so, after a week of mixed driving, I'm seeing an average well above the EPA's 24-mpg combined rating.
The base Arteon comes equipped with forward-collision assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, rain-sensing wipers, LED headlights and a few other niceties, but if you want adaptive cruise control you have to step up to the SEL. Pricing for the 2021 Arteon starts at $38,190 including $1,195 for destination, and you can't get into an all-wheel-drive version for less than $44,590. Go for the gold and you're looking at $48,190 out the door for an SEL Premium R-Line.
The Arteon is kind of a weird tweener in the sedan space; Volkswagen says it targets the Acura TLX and Nissan Maxima as competitors, as well as entry-level luxury sedans. The most obvious rival is the excellent Kia Stinger, which costs less on the base end and can be had with a 365-hp twin-turbo V6 on higher trims. In fact, the Stinger is currently outselling the Arteon more than three to one so far in 2020. And, well, nice as the Arteon is, the Stinger GT is more entertaining to drive and is every bit as functional, so it's probably the way I'd go. On the other hand, if it's comfort and tech you're after, the Arteon likely makes more sense. But at that point, so do a lot of entry-level luxury sedans, not to mention a whole bunch of compact crossovers.
It's a strange problem to have: Being so likable and functional, yet being pigeonholed into niche status because you're fighting with so many vehicle segments all at once. The Arteon is more attractive and more refined than before, and it's a car I'd be quick to recommend. But until Volkswagen throws some more marketing dollars its way -- or until consumers' tastes begin to shift -- I'm afraid this one will always be a low-volume player, even if it deserves a whole lot more attention.