The Clarkson Review: 2018 Volkswagen Arteon

ET, phone home and ask: just what is this?


ELON Musk says he is going to blast one of his old Tesla electric roadsters into a Mars orbit so that one day it can be found by aliens. Maybe, while he’s at it, he could also fill the spaceship with other things that seem to serve no obvious purpose. The Ronco Buttoneer, Sir Sinclair’s C5, the BSB squarial, Tom Watson . . . oh, and perhaps the new Volkswagen Arteon.

It’s one of those cars that crept up on the market like a special forces sniper. Ordinarily, we tend to know which company’s working on what and roughly when the finished product will go on sale, but with the Arteon it wasn’t there, then with a whizz and distant kaboom, I came out of the office one night and it was.

It isn’t a replacement for the four-door Passat coupé that I figured had been dropped from the range because Volkswagen had had a forehead-slapping moment and thought: “Hang on a minute. What were we thinking of? Nobody’s going to want a sleek and stylish version of a car we build for not-very-good cement salesmen. It’d be like making Crocs with tassels. Pointless.”


Browse NEW or USED cars for sale


Nor is it a replacement for the Phaeton. That was a bubble-and-squeak, made-from-leftovers car. VW had paid a fortune to develop the then new Bentley Continental GT and thought: “Why not use its big engine and four-wheel-drive system in a car of our own?”

It was brilliant but it turned out that captains of industry don’t like to hide their light under a bushel. They didn’t want a brilliant car unless it looked brilliant as well and had a brilliant badge. So the only person who actually ran a Phaeton was the director-general of the BBC — the only boss in Britain who needs a low profile.

So the Arteon, then, is a car that replaces nothing. A new entry, as they used to say on the Top 40 chart show, at 40 grand.

And, ooh, it’s a looker. Usually, when I come out of the office, I’m in a rush and I’m distracted by whatever small annoyance James May has created that day, so I don’t spend a lot of time walking round whatever car’s turned up, stroking my chin. I just drive off.

But with the Arteon, my shoes made a comedic squeaking noise as I came to an abrupt halt. It quite literally stops you in your tracks, not because of the wide grille that makes the car look lower and more ground-hugging than is the case, or the four pillarless doors, or the in-your-face mustard paint job. No. It’s the way all these things line up behind a big Beastie Boys VW badge. This, then, is not Crocs with tassels. It’s Crocs made from the softest Swedish leather, and fitted with diamonds and pearls.

And there’s more. It’s huge. I put my shoulder bag in the boot and it was like putting a mouse in Nasa’s Vertical Assembly Building. I didn’t try it, but I bet if you put your head in there and shouted, there’d be an echo.

It’s the same story moving forwards. Providing you can get your head under the sleek — low — roofline, the space in the rear is Mercedes S-class-generous. You really can stretch out back there.

“I simply couldn’t think of anyone I’ve met, or even seen, who might want a good-looking four-door coupé that’s huge in the back and ordinary at the front, with a VW badge and a 40 grand bill”

Now, I don’t want to be racist but there’s a curious reason for this. The Chinese. China’s an important market these days for all car makers but for VW it accounts for a large proportion of its sales. This means that every engineer is wondering as he designs a new car: “What would the Chinese think?” And that’s why the Arteon has such a massive amount of space in the back. Because weirdly for a country where the average male is about 5ft 6in tall and the average female just over 5ft, this is the most important buying consideration. They don’t care about fuel consumption or speed or handling — just space in the back.

This is great news in our neck of the woods because the bigger the back of a car, the happier our increasingly strapping children will be. Which means less fighting over who sits in the middle and a far more pleasant environment.

So, the Arteon, then. Very good-looking and very spacious. And beautifully made and entirely logical to use. But first I have to get my seat in the right place and, wait a minute, what’s this? A lever? Like you’d find in a Victorian signal box. How can a car such as this not have buttons and motors?

And then you fire up the engine and no matter how much you spend, it’s going to be an ordinary, bread-and-butter four-cylinder rumble. There’s no V6, and certainly no W12 like you could have in the old Phaeton.

Naturally, there are some diesels but no one will buy those because they’re this week’s bad news, so I tested a petrol-powered car that also had four-wheel drive and had an R-Line trim. Which means big wheels and a sporty stance. It was all very confusing.

Normally when I’m testing a car, I know what sort of person would be interested in such a thing and review it with them in mind. There’s no point saying the boot on a Lamborghini Huracan isn’t big enough if you have a painting and decorating business and nor is there any point lambasting a Fiat Punto because it won’t do 200mph.

But I simply couldn’t think of anyone I’ve met, or even seen, who might want a good-looking four-door coupé that’s huge in the back and ordinary at the front. Someone who wants pop-to-the-shop economy from a four-cylinder engine and four-wheel drive. A VW badge and a 40 grand bill. Sticking with my earlier shoe simile, this car is like a Tod’s loafer and a wellington boot that come in the same box.


Browse NEW or USED cars for sale


And before you sign on the dotted line you’ve got to think: “No, I don’t want a Mercedes CLS or a BMW 4-series or an Audi A5 Sportback. I want that sort of thing but with a VW badge at the front and a boot the size of the Blue John Cavern at the back.”

It’s a perfectly nice car. It does everything very competently and rides nicely as well. Also, you have a sense as you push a button or move the seat that the button and the lever will continue to work for many years and that this is a car that, as my grandfather used to say of his suits, “will see me out”.

And yet, I wouldn’t buy one and neither will you because it satisfies a demand that doesn’t exist. It is, then, the modern-day equivalent, as I said at the start, of Musk’s electric Lotus and BSB’s squarial. It should be put into space so that in a million years an alien can spend a pleasant hour or two trying to work it out. I hope they have more success than me.

 

Head to head: Arteon vs Superb vs CLS vs 4-series vs A5

VW Arteon R-Line TSI 2.0 280PS DSG 4MOTION Skoda Superb 2.0 TSI 280PS 4×4 DSG Mercedes CLS 400 AMG Line BMW440i M Sport Auto Audi A5 S line 2.0 TFSI quattro 252PS S tronic
Price £39,630 £35,255 £57,350 £49,405 £42,895
Power 276bhp 276bhp 328bhp 322bhp 248bhp
0-62mph 5.6sec 5.8sec 5.3sec 5.4sec 5.8sec
Top speed 155mph 155mph 155mph 155mph 155mph
Economy 38.7mpg 39.8mpg 37.7mpg 39.2mpg 44.1mpg
CO2 164g/km 160g/km 169g/km 167g/km 144g/km
Boot space 563 litres 625 litres 520 litres 370 litres 465 litres

 

Write to us at driving@sunday-times.co.uk, or Driving, The Sunday Times, 1 London Bridge Street, London SE1 9GF

Related Articles

The Jeremy Clarkson Review: 2018 DS 7 Crossback


I was going to write about the VW T-Roc, a small and rather funky-looking SUV that burst onto the market a couple of months ago. But then...

The Jeremy Clarkson Review: 2018 Toyota Hilux


Many years ago, when I was hosting Top Gear, I was watching the news one night and, as usual, there was much footage of various people...

The Jeremy Clarkson Review: 2018 Lamborghini Urus


I am not sure quite when or why all the world’s rich people decided they needed four-wheel-drive monsters, but they did...