The art of the wheel: 2021 Volkswagen Arteon makes a subtly stylish statement

By Ed Piotrowski and CarPreview staff

What changes will make the 2021 Volkswagen Arteon different?

Probably not much, aside from a new color or tow and higher prices. We do, however, urge Volkswagen to make key safety features, such as adaptive cruise control, available on every 2021 Arteon, not just the most expensive model.

The Arteon (are-tee-on) launched for model-year 2019 as the German automaker’s halo car, slotting above the similarly sized Passat in price and prestige. It’s a fashion-forward four-door hatchback with designer touches such as frameless door glass and a coupe-style fastback roofline. The ’21 Areton will again come with one engine, a turbocharged four-cylinder, and the choice of front- or all-wheel drive.

The overall design is similar to that of the A5 Sportback from VW’s premium Audi division, but the Arteon is larger, less luxurious, and less expensive than the Audi, which is priced from around $46,000. Still, starting about $37,000 and rising to near $50,000 fully equipped, this VW occupies a tricky-to-define market segment. Peers include top-end sedans from mainstream automakers, such as the Nissan Maxima and Toyota Avalon, as well as Kia’s halo car, the Stinger four-door hatchback. But this flagship VW also edges into the price strata occupied by entry-level autos from premium brands, such as the Acura TLX, Genesis G70, Lexus ES, and Volvo S60.

Arteon got off to a slow sales start, attributable perhaps to that hazy market position. Of course, blame also rests with the buying public’s shift away from cars to crossovers and SUVs. It’s a shame because this is an attractive car if you’re after upscale design, polished road manners, and admirable versatility without the pompousness of a premium brand.

Should I wait for the 2021 Arteon or buy a 2020?

The ’21 Areton will be a virtual rerun of the ’20, but almost certainly will be priced higher. The model lineup is unlikely to change, returning base SE, midrange SEL, sportier SEL R-Line, and top-line SEL Premium R-Line grades.

You might want to wait for the ’21 if you’re keen to roll the dice on safety-system availability. All ’21 Arteons will again come standard with such essentials as forward-collision warning, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection.

For 2020, only the SEL Premium came with adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, and with lane-departure warning and lane-maintaining automatic steering correction. Those features were unavailable on the 2020 SE and SEL. If they’re important to you, hold off until VW formally announces whether they’ll be available, at least as options, on those less costly Arteon models.

Looking further ahead, some reports suggest VW may freshen the Arteon as early as model-year 2022. The updates would mostly be minor – tweaked styling details, mostly – but the full suite of safety features as standard across the line is a possibility. So, too, is the remote possibility of a V-6-engine option.

Will the styling be different?

No, and you might agree that’s a good thing. Arteon is positioned as the spiritual successor to the 2009-2017 Volkswagen CC, a midsize four-door with similar fastback styling but a traditional trunk instead of the Arteon’s more capacious hatchback. But the CC was not far off in price and overall feel from the Passat on which it was based. By contrast, the Arteon is larger and sexier than today’s Passat, uses a newer and more sophisticated chassis, and has a more distinctly upmarket persona.

The short sheet metal overhangs, the curvature of Arteon’s hood and the way its forward edge runs over the grille, the cutline above the door handles, and the gentle slope of the roofline are all eye-pleasing elements that’ll return for ‘21.

Appearance distinctions among the models will remain modest, wheels being the most obvious. Eighteen-inch alloys should again be standard on the SE, 19s on the SELs, and 20s on the SEL Premium R-Line. All versions will again come with LED headlamps (steering linked on the SEL and SEL Premium).  

VW’s sporty R-Line trim should remain standard on the 2021 SEL Premium and available on the SEL models. It includes a gloss-black air-intake treatment, chrome-plated exhaust tips and lower-body trim, and specific badging. Even in R-Line guise, any ’21 Arteon will remain more visually restrained than the likes of the TLX, Maxima, or perhaps surprisingly, the Avalon.  

Interior design and comfort will remain assets. Straightforward and refreshingly simple describes the dashboard. The SE should return with analog speedometer, tachometer, coolant-temperature, fuel-level, and fuel-economy readouts flanking a small LCD information screen. The SELs and the SEL Premium will again use VW’s Digital Cockpit, which puts all instrumentation on a 10-1/4-inch LCD display. It offers more opportunity for driver customization and can display mapping from the available imbedded navigation system. But some of our testers prefer the SE’s more conventional layout.

Returning for all models will be an infotainment system powered by VW’s intuitive Car-Net App-Connect software. It supports Apple CarPlay, Google Android Auto, and offers a built-in 4G LTE WiFi hotspot if you subcribe to a supported cellular data plan. An imbedded satellite navigation system that doesn’t rely on a connected smartphone should again be standard on the SEL models and the SEL Premium. VW bucks design trends by integrating the system’s 8-inch touchscreen screen with the dashboard, rather than mounting it tablet-like atop the panel. That makes for an easier reach.

Room for improvement? Add a discrete off button for the climate controls, VW. The only way to turn off the system on 2020 Arteons was through the infotainment screen. More critically, a host of touchscreen-controlled vehicle-customization functions aren’t accessible unless the car is stationary. Where’s the logic in prohibiting the driver from, say, adjusting instrument-panel brightness while the car is in motion?  

Cabin materials are sturdy but there aren’t enough soft-touch surfaces or artsy flourishes to elevate the interior to the premium class. The SE should return with leatherette upholstery, the SEL with Nappa leather supported by imitation-wood trim, and the R-Line trims with a combination of leather and faux-suede and brushed-aluminum accents.

Unfortunately, that dashboard brightwork reflects sunlight into the left-side mirror, seriously compromising visibility. Speaking of which, the driver’s view to the rear is pinched by the slant of the hatch window and backseat headrests that don’t fold when not in use. The rake of the rear roof pillars slices into over-the-shoulder sightlines, too.  

No concessions when it comes to passenger room. At 111.7 inches, the ’21 Arteon’s wheelbase should remain among the longest in the midsize-car class. This substantial span between the front and rear axles allows for exceptional fore/aft front-seat travel, helping even the longest of leg find a comfortable position. In back, it contributes to a limousine-like 40.2 inches of legroom, giving rear passengers plenty of stretch-out space. And credit VW for packaging that provides generous headroom all-around, despite that stylishly sloped roofline.

The fastback profile doesn’t allow quite the cargo clearance of a squared-off wagon, such as the Buick Regal Sportback. But open the large hatch lid and you’ll find a voluminous 27.2 cubic feet of carrying space behind the split/folding rear seatbacks; fold them and you’ll have 55 cubic feet. That’s way more than any midsize sedan and rivals some small crossovers. Expect a power hatch lid with hands-free operation to remain an SEL Premium exclusive for 2021.  

Any mechanical changes?

Very unlikely. VW might at some point weigh the performance (and maybe, the marketing) advantages of offering the Arteon with a V-6 against the price increase that’d likely entail. For model-year 2021, however, all Arteons will again come with a version of Volkswagen’s corporate 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

In this application, it’ll again have 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque and team with an eight-speed automatic transmission. The SE and SEL should continue with front-wheel drive as standard. Optional on those models and standard on the SEL Premium will be VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive (AWD) system.

Acceleration should again be smooth, with little perceptible turbo lag (a delay in throttle response before the turbocharger delivers usable boost). Some of our testers say midrange and highway-speed punch is more than sufficient for confident passing and merging. Others maintain the Arteon runs out of juice at higher rpm relative to rivals with similarly powerful standard or optional V-6s, such as the Maximum and Avalon.

Eco, Comfort, Normal, Sport, and Custom are driver-selectable modes accessed by a toggle on the center console. They calibrate the powertrain, from fuel-consumption minimizing to throttle-response maximizing. Normal mode affords the best balance along that spectrum. Sport noticeably quickens throttle response, but some of our testers say it causes the transmission to behave somewhat erratically. Models with R-Line trim should again come with steering-wheel paddles to replicate manual-type gear control.  

Unlike the Passat, the Arteon uses Volkswagen’s modular “MQB” platform that underpins most modern VW’s, including the Golf, Jetta, and midsize Atlas crossover. That helps give this car laudable rigidity, despite its large hatch opening. It also provides a stable foundation for the standard adaptive suspension dampers, which react to the road surface and help keep the car nicely planted over dips, rises, and ruts.

Ride comfort itself, though, seems unusually linked to wheel and tire size. It’s by far most absorbent on the SE’s 18s. The 19s and 20s fitted to the higher trim levels and the R-Line kit noticeably degrade the ride, transmitting far too much impact harshness through the structure and into the seats. They also contribute to more road noise, although the Arteon’s cabin is admirably insulated from wind rush and intrusive mechanical ruckus.

As for handling, the larger tires do sharpen initial turn-in and they grip with more authority in turns. And AWD quells some noseplow in fast changes of direction, reduces the tendency to torque steer (pull to the side) in quick take-offs, and furnishes valuable traction off the line in slippery conditions. Steering feel is firm and natural. But regardless of configuration or combination, the Arteon acts more like a highly competent midsize family car than a dedicated sports sedan.

Will fuel economy improve?

Only if the EPA revises its testing methods. Otherwise, the 2021 Arteon’s ratings should duplicate those of the 2020 model. That means front-drive versions would rate 22/31/25 mpg city/highway/combined and those with AWD would rate 20/27/23. Our AWD SEL review sample returned an excellent 26.8 mpg in our suburban test loop.

Expect VW to continue to recommend, but not require, premium-grade 91-octane gas for the ’21 Areton.

Will there be new features?

We hope driver aids such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and automatic steering correction to become standard on all 2021 Arteon models. Otherwise, expect all grades to continue to include forward-collision warning, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot alert, rear cross-traffic detection, and VW’s post-collision braking system.

Count on the SE to reprise standard LED exterior lighting, keyless access, pushbutton engine start, rain-sensing windshield wipers, three-zone automatic climate control, leatherette upholstery, and heated 12-way power front seats.

The SEL would add steering-linked headlights, panoramic sunroof, remote engine start, Nappa-brand leather upholstery, driver-seat memory, imbedded GPS navigation, Digital Cockpit gauge cluster, and adaptive cruise control.

SEL Premium models would continue to include the R-Line appearance package, full suite of driver assists, heated steering wheel, massaging driver’s seat, ventilated front seats, heated outboard rear seats, upgraded audio system, and surround-view camera.

Will 2021 prices be different?

They’ll probably increase, though not enough to push the SE past the $40K starting point that defines the entry-level-luxury class. Base-price estimates include the manufacturer’s destination fee, which should be around $1,000 for the 2021 Arteon.

Expect the 2021 Arteon SE to be priced from around $36,500 with front-wheel drive and around $38,300 with AWD. Base-price estimate for the SEL is about $42,000 with front drive and $43,800 with AWD. Look for R-Line trim to add around $1,800. Estimated base price for the SEL Premium R-Line with standard 4Motion is around $49,000.

When does it come out?

The release date for the 2021 Volkswagen Arteon will likely be in fall 2020.

Best competitors

Acura TLX, Buick Regal, Genesis G70, Honda Accord, Kia Stinger, Mazda 6, Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon, Volvo S60

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]