The VW Arteon Is Missing That Moonshot Quality

Volkswagen aimed for the stars with the brilliant but doomed Phaeton. The Arteon feels like a halfhearted follow-up.

VW

So. There’s a Tesla Roadster on its way to the asteroid belt. That’s one way to make sure it won’t be back for warranty service; every Tesla Roadster owner I ever knew generally had to keep a much closer orbit around their local service facility. Still, I’ll bet you that even the most dissatisfied former owners are charmed by this new-space-age stunt. It’s ambitious, and people respond to ambition. We might be frightened by it, as some people are in the case of various politicians. We might be critical or contemptuous of it, as a variety of online commentators have been regarding pretty much everything that Elon Musk does. Nevertheless, we can’t help but respond. Ambition is catnip to other human beings. It’s disruptive. Distorting. Contagious.

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The Volkswagen Phaeton might never have escaped this planet’s gravity, but there was something more than a little Musk-ish about Ferdinand Piech’s determination to have the people’s badge on the world’s finest luxury car. You could say that Dr. Piech was a sort of predecessor to Mr. Musk; he gave us everything from the aluminum space frame to the five-cylinder engine to Quattro all-wheel drive while being somewhat less than self-effacing about the whole thing.

It’s been 12 years since you could buy a new Phaeton in the United States, and a couple of years since you could buy the very lightly updated EU-market variant. Any Phaeton you see on the streets now is likey in pretty rough shape. So you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that no other automobile of its era could quite match it for pure luxury. The Phaeton made the big Benz of the day feel a bit toylike. It weighed nearly three tons, much of which was in the thick double-pane glass and obsessive insulation.

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There were a lot of moonshot aspects to the Phaeton, from the 12-cylinder engine to the four-zone climate control to the absolute perfection of the many available wood trims. It appeared during an era where everybody else was trying to cut some cost and weight out of their big luxury sedans, and as a result it felt completely unique. Some called it “stealth wealth”, some called it ridiculous, but nobody got out of the car without having at least partially converted to the idea of a $100,000 Volkswagen.

In the end, however, the Phaeton was simply too much car for the brand. The mechanically similar Bentley Flying Spur sold like hotcakes at three times the price, thus proving for eternity that luxury buyers are no more “discerning” or “perceptive” than people who buy name-brand cough syrup because they think it makes them get better faster. But the Phaeton was too much of a moonshot for its buyer base. It wasn’t that they were unwilling to pay more money for a car —they just weren’t ready for that kind of improvement.

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Enter the Volkswagen Arteon, which showed its blandsome face at the Chicago Auto Show this week. It’s an eminently sensible replacement for the very long-in-the-tooth VW CC, which used to be called Passat CC but is now just CC the same way Madonna is just Madonna. It should provide a nice step up for current Jetta and Passat owners. It has a turbocharged four-cylinder like pretty much every other car in the world. It’s built off the same VW Group platform that underpins most of the existing lineup.

The Arteon won’t need a whole new parts inventory the way the Phaeton did. It won’t require special training or unique certification for mechanics. It won’t spawn an underground owners’ group that learned how to hack the car with a VAG-COM diagnostics computer to make Bentley steering wheels and German-market taillights work. It won’t shock or awe your passengers, won’t amaze you with hidden capabilities, probably won’t break your heart with month-long vacations to the service department. You’re free to think of it as the Avalon to the Passat’s Camry: a little more style and space for a little bit more money.

I’m sure the Arteon will be a success in exactly the same way that the Phaeton never was. Everything about it makes more sense. Yet a decade ago, I was seduced into taking delivery of two Phaetons in the course of 18 months precisely because the cars didn’t make plain old sense. It was the ambition of them that appealed to me. The moonshot aspect of their design, engineering, and construction. The sense of specialness that radiated from every chiseled surface.

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I’m waiting for another luxury sedan to give me that same sense of devil-may-care ambition. I’ve been waiting nearly a decade now. Probably gonna have to keep waiting. Today’s luxury sedans are cynical and calculated. The only one I’ve seen that feels really ambitious is the Lincoln Continental—but the high-end versions of those are priced in V8 Phaeton territory with a lot less content.

It’s okay. I’ll keep waiting. For outrageous ambition; for a product with both eyes on the stars and no cautious toes in the shallow water of the balance sheet. For what they used to call a moonshot—but after this week, maybe we’ll have to call it a trip to the asteroid belt. Like the man said: To infinity, and beyond!

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