First drive review: 2021 Volkswagen Arteon is an Audi cover band that still rocks

After just two years on the market, the 2021 Volkswagen Arteon gets a refresh that seems too soon, but starts to make more sense when you consider that three new Arteon varieties (the high-performance Arteon R, a hybrid, and a new shooting brake body style) will be sold abroad this year. Unfortunately, none of those are coming to American shores, so we’re left with the regular ol’ Arteon that gets a few substantive changes.

The most noticeable changes are to the Arteon’s technology, with an updated multimedia system, upgrades to the digital instrument cluster, and new USB-C charging ports. The exterior and interior have also been slightly restyled, but those changes are harder to spot. The grille incorporates a new LED light bar and revised lower air intakes, while the interior gets a dashboard layout that looks more layered. More extensive changes weren’t necessary; I still like the fastback shape, and the interior is the best of any Volkswagen, befitting the Arteon’s top-of-the-line status for the brand. 

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

The powertrain is a carryover. It’s a 268-hp 2.0-liter turbo-4 that makes 258 lb-ft of torque, mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard, with all-wheel drive available as an $1,800 option on the SEL R-Line and standard on the line-topping SEL Premium R-Line. This engine is plenty for day-to-day driving, but if you want to really get the Arteon hustling it requires keeping the revs high using the paddle shifters. Driving the Arteon made me wish for the Arteon R and its 316 hp turbo-4 with a more performance-oriented all-wheel drive system. That added power would also offer a more luxurious experience in addition to the performance gains.

My test vehicle, an SEL Premium R-Line, proved itself to be a rather capable touring car. In its more comfortable settings, the Arteon glides on the highway and churns through miles with ease. Take the car into the canyons and it remains quite composed, though even with the suspension turned up to its firmest there’s still noticeable body roll. Like other Volkswagens, the steering feels too light in Normal mode, but its Sport setting adds back necessary heft for a more pleasant experience.

Thankfully, the Arteon offers a high level of customization when it comes to drive modes and suspension settings. The “Custom” drive mode allowed me to dial up the steering weight to Sport, while leaving the engine and suspension in more comfortable settings to make a suitable default driving character. Most vehicles with adaptive suspensions provide three or four suspension settings ranging from comfortable to firm, but the Arteon gives you 15. Do you need 15? Probably not. Is it a very cool feature that hopefully makes its way into more performance vehicles? Absolutely. 

The technology upgrades caught my attention the most. As a part of the new MIB 3 infotainment system, wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay now come standard on every Arteon, along with a wireless charging pad on SEL R-Line models and up. The Volkswagen Digital Cockpit, which swaps in a 10-inch display for a traditional instrument panel, has also received a serious upgrade. Previous versions of this system disappointed. While they felt like Audi’s excellent Virtual Cockpit, they had less content. The system is now highly customizable with 21 different viewing options, eclipsing the amount of suspension settings. And it integrates directions while using Android Auto or Apple CarPlay’s map apps (like Google Maps), which makes the whole ecosystem feel rather integrated. It’s improved to the point where I now prefer it to its Audi counterpart.

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

The main touchscreen is only 8.0 inches on the diagonal, but it feels larger, partially because it sits behind one piece of glass that includes the capacitive menu buttons on the sides. It’s a very responsive system, with enough processing power that menus and graphics fly by rapidly. It’s also a fingerprint magnet; it seemed like I could see each evidence of each time I pressed or swiped the screen, like it was made of unhardened clay. When sunlight hits the screen the fingerprints make it hard to see, so be sure to keep a microfiber cleaning cloth in your Arteon to wipe away those pesky prints. 

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The Arteon slots between the mid-size and full-size categories, so the backseat is suitable for adults. The middle seat is unpleasant with all-wheel drive due to the large floor hump, and the middle position sits a touch higher so taller passengers will run out of head room. For four passengers, however, the Arteon serves as a comfortable touring car.

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

2021 Volkswagen Arteon

Much like its in-between size, materials are the same way. The Arteon boasts luxury grade elements to be sure, but it fails to rise to that level when taken as a whole. The technology elements and that frameless rearview mirror are countered by some flimsier plastics on the dash and other hard touchpoints. 

In all, the Arteon presents an appealing package and is an excellent road trip companion. But the market for these larger, near-luxury sedans seems to be drying up and the $48,585 price tag (including destination charges) on my tester is a significant amount of scratch. It makes some sense as a larger, lower cost alternative to the Audi A5 Sportback, but that vehicle’s performance and cachet thoroughly outpace the Arteon.

The 2021 Arteon is priced from $38,190, including destination, and is in showrooms now. For more details, read the in-depth reviews at The Car Connection.

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