First Drive: 2019 Volkswagen Arteon

LAC SACACOMIE, QC – “La Belle Province” certainly comes by its name honestly. Once through the gross commercial wasteland surrounding Montreal’s Dorval Airport, the Quebec landscape grows ever more mountainous until suddenly you find yourself in a setting worthy of Clarence Gagnon’s brushes. It matters not that the snowbanks lining either side of the increasingly narrow road tower over our heads, or that dry pavement has given way to packed snow. With all-wheel drive and the seat heaters on blast, we’re content to enjoy this scenic tour through the Laurentians.

Presumably, the joining of “art” and “eon” refers to the image Volkswagen is hoping to project with their new flagship 2019 Arteon sedan, suggesting a design penned for the modern age. Which seems ironic when the prevailing belief is that the era of the sedan is over – giving way to a market dominated by SUVs, trucks, and crossovers. But while it may be struggling, the sedan isn’t quite dead – which could be a metaphor for Volkswagen itself, fighting to regain the trust of customers who went elsewhere during the global “dieselgate” scandal. They’ve had plenty of success with the redesigned compact Tiguan and the newly released, full-size Atlas crossover – and believe their new flagship, mid-size Arteon will appeal to buyers who haven’t quite given up on sedans yet.

Although it could be cross-shopped by the mainstream, mid-size buyer who’d also considered the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the Arteon clearly has higher aspirations. There’s more than a little Audi A6 in its sharp, clean lines and oversized wheel arches. But then VW has always considered itself a cut above the mainstream, a semi-premium brand aligning itself closer to the Germany luxury marques than its North American and Asian competitors. And as the premium brands move downstream, capturing the lucrative mainstream market with more competitively priced, entry-level models, the Arteon faces very tough competition indeed.

With its wide, machined face, long clamshell hood, and sweptback roofline; the Arteon joins the category we’ve begrudgingly agreed to call “four-door coupe”. First impressions are good – it’s stylishly Germanic, with sharp lines, narrow LED headlights, a beltline uncluttered by door pillars, and large, muscular wheel arches. Twin trapezoidal exhaust tips finish up a tidy rear end.

At 111.7 inches, the Arteon’s wheelbase is a full five inches longer than the CC’s, giving it ample rear legroom and trunk space – the latter accessed by a wide, hatchback-style trunk lid.

The cabin too is decidedly Germanic, stylish without being fussy and well-executed with premium materials. Our drive was limited to an Execline trim with standard two-tone Nappa leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel with paddle shifters, 12-inch digital cockpit, heated front and rear seats, aluminum pedals, keyless access, and navigation. While autonomous emergency braking, hill start assist, pedestrian monitoring with reactive hood, adaptive cruise, dynamic cornering headlights, and rear-view camera are standard on this trim; there’s an optional $2,095 Driver Assistance Package that adds park assist, lane assist, and 360-degree area view.

Though repeatedly reminded that the test cars were pre-production, we didn’t notice any strange anomalies – other than a navigation route that tried to convince us to turn onto a snowmobile trail. Fit and finish, while not quite at Audi’s level of craftsmanship, was very good and the car was extremely quiet and well-composed. The dash has a modern, high-tech appearance, augmented by the Audi-style, configurable virtual cockpit. Standard is VW’s Car-Net app smartphone connectivity technology with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and MirrorLink. The 8-inch touchscreen detects an approaching finger and expands the bottom row to display more button options.

For now, the only model available on the Volkswagen Canada website is the $47,995 Execline with standard all-wheel drive, and while front-wheel-drive models are expected to arrive in the US market, there’s no word yet on whether we’ll see them too. Under its wide hood is a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder producing 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. It’s smooth and efficient but doesn’t feel nor sound very thrilling. While our testers came equipped with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, the production cars will come with an eight-speed automatic. Too bad – the DCT is a slick and snappy affair, efficiently moving through the gears with no discernible lag.

The Arteon is equipped with standard adaptable Comfort, Normal, and Sport drive modes, the suspension going from soft to firm depending on driver preference. In sport, the car felt just a little too busy over ragged pavement that gave way to ice and snow, so we left the setting on Normal for most of the drive. The default for most German cars is a firm ride, but the Arteon does an admirable job of smooth, comfortable long-distance cruising. Fans of sportier handling will probably find the Arteon lacks the Golf’s sparkling character though; and the steering, while nicely weighted, delivers little feedback. Still, it’s exceptionally quiet and the all-wheel drive system adds another layer of assuredness to its competence over the snow-covered roads.

If relaxed cruising is at the top of your preference list, you could do a lot worse than Volkswagen’s new mid-size Arteon. A handsome, well-crafted sedan with oodles of comfort and safety technology, the Arteon is a more upscale replacement for the outgoing CC – and will hopefully attract new buyers into the fold without cannibalizing Passat sales.

Mid-size flagship with full-size ambition. 4/2/2019 9:00:00 AM