Payne: Flagship Arteon is the sexy VW hatchback

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
The gorgeous 2019 VW Arteon is the cure for the common SUV: great looks, hartchback utility, good price. It's only missing a high-horsepower sport version as found on other V-dubs.

Let’s hear it for art.

Some of the country’s most recognizable art is in its downtowns: The elegant "Spirit of Detroit" in Motown. Calder’s “Flamingo” in Chicago. The sculpture that spells "Love" in New York. They break up monotonous landscapes of right angles.

The VW Arteon is like that in the boxy world of SUVs. This stunning sedan sculpture is the cure for the common five-door.

From its finely drawn face to its meticulously stamped clamshell hood (go on, feel the surfacing with your fingers) to its coupe-like roof, the Arteon lives up to its name. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of art in automotive today.

Even amidst the New York Auto Show’s exotic supermodels, the Arteon and Mazda 3 hatchback stopped me in my tracks. Both cars make a statement in classes that have seen sales eroded by ute-mania. Both offer flowing, feline lines to counter the masculine SUV bulk. Both accomplish this while embracing the SUV's most utilitarian feature — the hatchback.

And both do not fully follow through on their dramatic aspirations. Where the Mazda 3 stops short of optioning a high-horsepower hot hatch, so does Arteon shy from offering a second, more-powerful engine to complement its athletic bod. No doubt their low production volumes test the business case for a second engine.

But as halo designs for the respective brands, they deserve halo performance.

After I picked up my jaw from the ground upon seeing the Arteon again in Solvang, California (“The Danish Capital of the USA”), I slid inside. Defying its coupe-like roofline, its interior is palatial. Credit a wheelbase stretched five inches over its predecessor, the attractive VW CC. That translates into leg room that is six inches longer than a Nissan Maxima and four inches more than a Kia Stinger and Buick Regal — all competitors in the sporty sedan segment.

My 6-foot-5 frame easily sat behind myself in the rear seat. So pick up your friends for a day out — but be sure to tell them to hang on.

Because even though Arteon has the biggest back seat in the VW family (beating even the giant Atlas SUV), it has the personality of hot-hatch siblings Golf GTI and Golf R — my favorite compact toys. Credit a shared platform — VW’s genius, scalable MQB architecture.

Indeed, Arteon is a natural walk for V-dub fans looking to supersize their hatchback Golf into a hatchback sedan. It has the same driving controls, same infotainment system, same driving dynamics.

If you haven’t tested a sportback — the Arteon, Kia Stinger, Buick Regal and Audi A5 — do yourself a favor. Their versatility is the best-kept secret in autodom.

Los Pedros National Forest in southern California is Hell, Michigan on steroids. Its writhing, rural roads stretch for miles. Sporting the same torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system as the Golf R, the Arteon eagerly attacked Los Pedros. Dial the mode selector to Sport and the steering and sophisticated adaptive-damping suspension tighten.

The big car’s dimensions seemed to contract as it rotated effortlessly through corners. Hmmm, you might want to put barf bags in the rear seats for your passengers.

Pushing the Arteon’s limits, I pined for more from its 268-horse turbo-4. VW offers the 220-horsepower GLI over the standard Jetta. And the 228-horse GTI and 292-horse R as Golf upgrades. But halo Arteon gets ... nichts?

Pity. After all, VW group has gems in its toolbox like the 394-horsepower turbo-5 holer (found in the Audi TT RS) or the 349-pony turbo-4 in the Audi S4. Heck, the Golf R’s growly 288-horse turbo-4 would do.

Perhaps Volkswagen corporate wants the Arteon to respect the family hierarchy. Give the gorgeous Arteon a sultry mill and I’d never covet an Audi A7 again. At much less than a $70,000, 335-horse Audi A7, the Arteon would be irresistible

Know your place, Arteon!

But that place has already been taken by the aforementioned turbo-4 powered Kia Stinger hatchback, which goes head-to-head against the Arteon until $40,000 at which point it sprouts a 365-horse, twin-turbo V-6 and lays rubber up the road in pursuit of luxe Germans.

Arteon? It is content to stay in its lane and trade blows with the Maxima, Buick Regal and Acura TLX. With their giant, elephant-packing hatchbacks, the Arteon and Regal are my picks here. The Buick steals the value play by adding an all-wheel drive 310-horse V-6 for just $40,000 — less than the comparable all-wheel drive Arteon SEL trim.

The va-voom VW makes its pitch with upscale touches like athletic handling, panoramic sunroof, three-zone climate control and Kurkuma Yellow Metallic paint (yum).

The 2019 VW Arteon looks out over the Santa Barbara harbor in Kurkuma Yellow Metallic paint.

But VW is taking a risk by pricing with luxe brands like Buick and Acura, and making customers pay al a carte for tech features. Other upscale mainstream brands like Mazda and Kia load their cars with standard features like adaptive cruise-control. Heck, even the Arteon’s younger brother, the $25,000 Jetta SEL, is a catch with standard items like adaptive cruise-control and high-beam assist.

With my preferred Arteon SEL trim, you’ll have to reach to $43,000 to get the (excellent) adaptive cruise-control system and all-wheel drive. I’m a sucker for 19-inch wheels, so tack on $1,250 for those. Then pick from Arteon’s color palette, including the stunning Kurkuma yellow (necks are still spinning in Cali after I drove it past).

Priced in the meat of the U.S. market, Arteon has competition aplenty, even from its own family. The smaller Golf GTI and Golf R come loaded from $35,000 to $40,000. The Atlas SUV will debut a sporty two-row “Cross” version this year that's aimed at ute heart-throbs Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Edge. And there are entry-luxe lookers like Mercedes A-class.

Arteon takes the best from all of them. It beats the Golfs with size while keeping their intuitive, well-engineered interiors and instrument controls. It has more dazzle and more rear seat room (I’m not making this up) than the boxy Atlas. And its looks rival any luxe-mobile.

On my way back from Los Padres National Forest, my mirrors filled with another Arteon and we danced through the twisties.

It was hard to keep my eyes on the road. I kept glancing back in the mirror at that plunging clamshell hood. The hockey-stick LED running lights. Chrome grille lines dragged across the front as if by the hairs of an oil brush.

It's the art of Arteon, a masterpiece in SUV Nation.

The 2019 VW Arteon is the California hills above Santa Barbara.

2019 Volkswagen Arteon
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback sedan
Price: $36,840 base including $995 destination fee ($45,940 SEL Premium AWD as tested)
Powerplant: 268 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque, 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder (premium gas recommended)
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Performance: 5.8-second 0-60 (Car and Driver est., AWD); 155 top speed
Weight: 3,854 pounds ((AWD as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA 22 city/31 highway/25 combined (FWD); 20 city/27 highway/23 combined (AWD)
Highs: Luxury good looks; nimble AWD handling
Lows: Gets pricey; performance engine option, please?

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.