Volkswagen has made a great many product errors during its 79-year history, but it has been supported throughout nearly eight decades by two homerun vehicles and their derivatives: the original Porsche- and Hans Ledwinka-designed Type 1 KdF “Beetle” and Giorgetto Giugiaro’s most successful design, the Golf. Some of the offshoots, such as the Karmann Ghia sports models and the Type 2 Transporter, were fabulous successes in their own right. Others, such as the rear-engine 411 and 412, are best forgotten. Of all the mistakes, the most egregious was the Phaeton, a V-8 version of which we evaluated as part of a Four Seasons test. It was a big, comfortable car that was woefully unreliable and burdened with absolutely the wrong badge. Yet it was so smooth as a highway car that it contributed to the acquisition of the only speeding ticket I’ve had since AUTOMOBILE began. I honestly didn’t know I was over the limit.
In 1955, when I drove the second of three VWs I possessed in the ’50s, I was asked to take a Cadillac studio engineer from the GM Technical Center to a dealership to pick up his Coupe de Ville after a routine service. He was utterly astonished by the perceived quality of the Beetle, which was better than his own car. It was built when VWs were still painted by dipping them in a tank of enamel, resulting in a magnificent, lustrous finish everywhere. Driving our Phaeton from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to California, a friend and I overnighted in Kansas City so he could show the car to his friend who loved it and called his wife over to see “your next car.” She was entranced by the lines and the leather, but one look at the big VW badge on the nose and she all but shouted, “Never! What were you thinking?” She was outraged by the disparity between the high price and the low prestige.
But there would seem to be a place for a more luxurious VW without the cognitive dissonance embodied in the too expensive and thus essentially unsalable Phaeton. The sleek CC was an approach, if not a terribly successful one. But this Arteon follow-up to it, unveiled at the 2017 Geneva auto show, might be the car to achieve VW’s dream of moving upmarket with the ultimate economy brand. At any rate, I find the Arteon’s clean, crisp, and tastefully understated yet efficiently aerodynamic shape to be compelling. I can imagine buying this car and remaining well satisfied with its appearance into the 2020s.
I find the painted patch of the roof awkward and would certainly paint it black if I bought one. The wheels are nice but look too much like the front fan of an airliner engine and too sporty for a family four-door. I could easily do without the chrome vent on the front door and fender, but I don’t really object to it. Because it is a bit generic, I can imagine the car staying in production for many years without any need for costly refreshment. Altogether, it’s a good — if plain — design.
1. The band around the wheel opening is slightly concave. An unusual and intriguing choice.
2. In plan view this line swells outward toward the rear, providing a shoulder/shelf above the rear wheels.
3. The roof profile is extremely sporty, even when seen from the front, yet there’s plenty of rear headroom.
4. The sharp peak of the front fender flows into the body side, providing a little flat area that disappears by the time it reaches the rear of the back doors. Nice surface work.
5. The second longitudinal crease in the giant hood stamping disappears at the front but aligns with the curious painted piece below the opening cutline, giving more visual length to the hood. Again, nice unobtrusive work.
6. There is major plan view chamfering so the car is aerodynamically efficient, but the hood centerline is as long as possible, enhanced by the painted transverse piece below.
7. Grille texture is extremely well proportioned and emphasizes frontal width without imposing poor drag-producing corners.
8. The black bumper strike faces are an excellent idea, easy to repair if necessary.
9. Blacking out the lower center makes the car seem slimmer than it really is and gives the impression of a central nacelle around the engine compartment.
10. This slanted, canted surface provides a sense of really cramming air into the corner inlets, which are designed to channel the flow of air to the side around the front wheel, resulting in reduced air resistance.
11. These are enormously impressive wheels on the R-Line model, looking very much like the front fan of a jet engine. But they’re really not appropriate for a family sedan. I’m sure there will be many other options.
12. In this high view you can see how the fenders are really cut back.
13. The dark glass roof is pleasant for occupants but is not particularly harmonious.
14. The metal roof panel could well be painted black to blend with the backlight and forward roof glass. Its profile is excellent.
15. This very small airflow trip strip across the back is doubtless something developed in the wind tunnel, but it looks just fine here, not too big or pretentious.
16. This substantial indentation allows for a hard crease line across the tail. It also provides a place for snow to accumulate.
17. The thin piece of bright metal carrying all the way around the rear end aligns with equally dimensioned trim along the bottoms of the doors.
18. Rear reflectors are tucked under the slightly protruding, slim rear bumper strike face.
19. It’s amazing how much class a trim piece that’s not just an equal-width rolled molding can impart to a car. It is well worth the additional cost.
20. The indented body sides strengthen the door panels, and if they can fill with snow, at least they move away from the body, with the cut lines well below. Again, a nice touch.
21. I’d leave this trim piece off, but it’s sufficiently unobtrusive to be unobjectionable.
22. Not entirely plain upholstery but pretty visually dismal all the same.
23. The interior of this variant is pretty drab and dark, but the controls on the door are nicely placed, and the grab handle is convenient.
24. Nice steering wheel with some functional controls, but why not some color to liven things up a little?
25. Having a screen rather than mechanical instruments is nice, but once again a bit of color would be particularly welcome.
26. At least the nav screen sparkles.
27. And this thin blue accent line is the only touch of color in the physical hardware. A pity.