Think about a Volkswagen hatchback, and you will likely picture the Golf, the little economy car that is consistently one of the world’s best-selling vehicles. Or maybe it is the retro-styled Beetle that will come first to your mind.
But this year, VW has added another — and very different — hatchback to its lineup. It is the 2019 Arteon, the replacement for the old CC luxury sports sedan and the German brand’s new flagship product.
The Arteon is one of several newly introduced five-door premium liftbacks in a market segment that had until recently been empty in the United States.
It joins the exuberant high-performance Kia Stinger and the muted, more-affordable Buick Regal Sportback, along with the smaller and more-opulent BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe and Audi A5 Sportback.
In this company, the Arteon distinguishes itself by combining graceful styling, a pleasant driving experience and an especially spacious interior. But despite the Volkswagen badge, it does not stand out for value — it is ambitiously placed at a base price of $36,840, and the top-of-the-line SEL Premium model we tested reached $45,940.
Like the other premium liftbacks, the Arteon provides far more cargo space than similarly sized sedans, along with the flexibility of a big, open cargo hold when the rear seat folds down. Volkswagen quotes especially strong cargo specs: SUV-rivaling capacities of 27 cubic feet in the trunk — twice the volume of many sedans — and 55 cubic feet with the rear seat down.
The Arteon also packs a roomier rear seat than the other premium liftbacks, with extra-generous legroom.
Unlike many spacious cars, the Arteon is also widely renowned for its exterior design. It has a subtle grace whose details are more intricate than flashy, such as the way its headlights incorporate the horizontal bars from the wide-mouthed grille.
It does not make you instantly turn your head, but particularly from the front, this quietly classy car rewards people who give it a second glance.
The rear is plainer, not unlike the old Volkswagen CC sedan. There is no visual clue that the Arteon is a hatchback until the rear windshield rises together with the trunk to reveal the cavernous cargo hold.
On the road, the Arteon is still more about subtlety than attention-seeking. It drives with quiet composure — with a smooth ride and capable, responsive handling rather than high limits and extra-quick responses. It is a similar feel to what you get in the Regal, which is less dialed in than the Stinger.
The Arteon comes with either front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, and all models use a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 268 horsepower.
Complementing the rest of the car’s driving experience, this engine is smooth and punchy, without any of the fierce strength you would get from the available six-cylinder engines in the Stinger or Regal, while fuel economy is a mediocre 25 miles per gallon in mixed driving with front-wheel-drive or 23 mpg with all-wheel-drive — and on premium fuel, too.
Where the Arteon arguably comes up the shortest is its cabin. True, the design has a few flourishes, like metal bars that visually extend the dashboard vents across the entire dash, and available two-tone black-and-orange upholstery. The available digital gauge cluster, which you can customize to present a GPS map between the speedometer and tachometer, is a nice trick.
But for the most part, the Arteon’s interior looks and feels similar to cheaper Volkswagens, without the flash that you would expect at prices that easily exceed $40,000.
Some will appreciate that the cabin is not over-the-top, but at these prices, it is hard to justify hard, rough-grained plastics; plain buttons and dials; and lack of attention-grabbing design details.
Indeed, the price will likely be the biggest problem for many prospective buyers, especially those who are cross-shopping the Arteon with similarly priced luxury cars. Its styling will be a standout for some, to be sure.
Anyone can appreciate its spacious interior. But otherwise, it’s generally pleasant without being remarkable at its best, and there it is behind the curve for its interior and its gas mileage.
No other car indeed has quite the Arteon’s combination of grace, versatility and pleasant overall driving experience, and that is an appealing set of traits. But you can give up some rear legroom for a more-dazzling Audi A5 for not much more money than a comparably equipped Arteon, or get a generally similar experience from a much-less-expensive Buick Regal, particularly given the slow-selling Buick’s generous rebates.
And if the hatchback versatility is not a requirement, you might be pleasantly surprised by the luxury and driving experiences of the outstanding Honda Accord and Mazda6, both of which cost far less than the Arteon.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.