Even more importantly than being a rival for added-desirability executive options such as the Audi A5 Sportback and a replacement for the old Passat-based CC, that is what the Arteon five-door hatchback represents.
Except that Volkswagen calls this a ‘fastback’ because hatchbacks are, by and large, smaller, cheaper and far more ordinary. Of course they are. ‘Fastback’ executive cars are special; instantly much more appealing than a saloon with an otherwise mainstream badge might have been. Remember the Rover 800?
Where the Arteon leads, at least in styling terms, much of the rest of the Volkswagen passenger car range will follow. Let’s wait and see if that’s necessarily good news.
Delving into the VW Arteon’s design language
The Arteon’s grille and headlight styling will be particularly influential, Volkswagen says. The way those horizontal grille bars run seamlessly into the headlights is intended to make the front end seem wider and more impactful, helping to give this practical five-seater the visual presence of a sports car.
Those curvy rear haunches, blistered wheel arches and sharp body creases are there to achieve the same effect. Likewise the availability of optional 20in alloy wheels for those who want them (naturally, Volkswagen did want them for the cars it used for its press demonstration drives).
It’s at this point that a diplomatic reviewer would normally reserve judgement on a car’s aesthetics and crack directly on with matters less subjective. I’m not going to do that because it would be to ignore what ought to be one of the chief selling points of any car in this part of the executive car market; arguably an even more important one, too, in a Volkswagen starting at something of a disadvantage on brand allure when judged against many of its peers.
In the metal, the Arteon is short on visual charisma and distinctiveness to my eyes; it’s smart enough, if a bit unimaginative and half-hearted.
You can make your own mind up, of course. But having been down this road once before with the Passat CC and seen others follow its lead, I think Volkswagen should have known that it would take more than a plunging roofline and some frameless doors to make this car really stand out.
The Arteon is built on the same MQB platform as the current Golf, Passat, Tiguan and Touran: a sentence that says all you need to know about how flexible modern vehicle architectures have become, and how much freedom they now grant designers and engineers. This is certainly no rebodied Passat; its wheelbase is longer, its axle tracks wider, its roofline lower and its driving position quite different.
The Arteon is available with a choice of three turbocharged petrol and three diesel engines in many global markets, as well as manual or twin-clutch automatic gearboxes and either front or four-wheel drive.
However, Volkswagen's UK distributor is yet to decide how widely it’ll flesh out the Arteon range – and, presumably, how much the car might be allowed to cannibalise Passat sales. So, for the time being, only the top-of-the-range 276bhp 2.0-litre TSI petrol and 237bhp 2.0-litre twin-turbocharged TDI are absolutely confirmed, both with the seven-speed DSG automatic 'box and four-wheel drive.
Prices are also still to be set, but sources suggest that £38,000 will be the likely starting price for the diesel model we're testing here.
Can the Arteon inspire on the inside?
One of the ways the Arteon will justify that price, where the old CC certainly didn’t, is the old-fashioned way: with size. This is a relatively long and wide car; it looks big enough to be approaching £40,000-worth, to put it simply.
On the inside, it offers a very roomy and accessible boot and more than enough leg room for a couple of larger adults to sit in the back quite comfortably, albeit, predictably, with not as much head room as a more conventional saloon might.
Up front, the seats of our Elegance-spec test car were snug and adjustable, and the seating position lower and more enveloping than in a Passat. The Arteon’s doors rise much higher at your shoulder than its sister car’s, its roofline stays lower and its is glasshouse slimmer, leaving quite a large B-pillar to peer around when you’re overtaking and pulling out of oblique junctions.
Onboard technology is one of the key prongs of the Arteon's appeal, with Volkswagen's thinking being that younger buyers probably care more about sophisticated safety and infotainment technology than perfect 50:50 weight distribution or some modern pastiche of century-old European luxury.
That certainly seems a sensible philosophy, but it’s debatable if it’s a real selling point for this car. The Arteon gets the same optional glass-fronted 9.2in-screened Discover Pro infotainment system as has just been installed in the smaller Golf. And, just as in that car, it seems powerful and feature-rich but much-the-worse on usability for the loss of Volkswagen's old volume and map zoom knobs and shortcut buttons.
The Arteon also has the same Active Info Display digital instrument display as the Golf. We like it, but ultimately not quite as much as one or two other digital instrumentation set-ups that this kind of cash can buy.
Does the Arteon do its talking on the road?
There can be few complaints or reservations about the slickness of the Arteon’s driving experience. With its mechanical refinement and the consistent obliging lightness of its controls, the car feels every inch the modern Volkswagen. The 2.0-litre diesel engine remains remote and quiet even at moderately high revs, but its considerable torque and responsiveness and the intelligent shift behaviour of the gearbox all mean you very seldom need to venture much beyond 3500rpm.
The car’s ride is laudably quiet on a level surface, too, even on the optional 20in wheels and low-profile tyres. Rather than simply retune the same suspension hardware you’ll find on the Passat, Volkswagen has gone shopping for new adaptive dampers and bushings for this car in the knowledge that those 20in rims would be tricky to integrate without accepting a harsher edge to the ride than it might like.
The upshot is that the Arteon offers greater dynamic configurability than any other Volkswagen, it’s damping being tunable on a sliding scale from a more compliant setting to a more resolute one when you choose Individual mode on the modal controller, instead of being restricted to discrete Comfort, Normal and Sport presets.
But, while the greater control over the car’s ride is welcome, what it amounts to is debatable. Like most of its stablemates, the Arteon is at its most effective when cocooning you from the world outside with its generally supple ride and isolated steering.
Damper upgrade or not, there’s an unmistakable thump to the car’s ride when those 20in rims hit sharper lumps and bumps, but it's tolerable. However, move towards a firmer suspension set-up in search of the driver engagement the car’s positioning promises, and you’ll likely be left disappointed.
The Arteon's standard 'progressive' variable-rate power steering picks up marginally more weight but still feels starved of feel, while the car's ride becomes more choppy and little more intimately or meaningfully connected to the surface of the road.
The Arteon’s grip level handling agility are both good enough to make it feel more athletic than the average executive saloon, but it doesn’t inspire much greater excitement than that. As such, it’s not a car we’d recommend to the keener driver.
In other respects, though, this is plainly a very refined, sophisticated and surprisingly practical car with a sense of class extending well beyond what many brand-obsessed buyers will be willing to credit.
Will that be enough to overhaul the perception of Volkswagen as a whole, and to make sizeable inroads into the popularity of rivals such as the A5 Sportback and BMW 4 Series Gran Coupé, though? Perhaps not.