Life out­side the com­fort zone

Kia and VW show that car man­u­fac­tur­ers can ring the changes. Ben Barry and Ben Pul­man aren’t so lex­i­ble…


I CLIMB OUT of the Volk­swa­gen Ar­teon, hand the keys back to Ben Pul­man and he looks down to ask what I think. This is go­ing to re­quire some diplo­macy. I tell my fel­low ed­i­tor-at-large that I get the Ar­teon, I re­ally do. Let’s say you’re on a com­pany-car scheme and you’ve got mid-30s bud­get to spend. You might look at the de­fault BMW 3-se­ries, and see you can get an M Sport four-cylin­der petrol auto for a whisker un­der £35k. The Ar­teon, ar­guably, is sim­i­larly smart, and far less ubiq­ui­tous; I tell Ben P it looks great, es­pe­cially with the span­gly mus­tard paintjob. When he parks it on the drive, peo­ple must think he’s a suc­cess. I mean all this sin­cerely.

His 2.0-litre petrol car’s me­chan­i­cal spec is com­pa­ra­ble to that BMW too: 187bhp, auto ’box and, erm, not all-wheel drive. It only un­der­cuts the 3-se­ries by a few hun­dred quid at £34,380, which might un­ravel the case a lit­tle. But con­sider this: the Ar­teon is 4862mm long, has a wheel­base of 2837mm and 563 litres of boot – di­men­sion­ally, it slots right in the gap be­tween Audi A4/A6 and BMW 3-/5-se­ries, mean­ing more rear room for grow­ing fam­i­lies than the com­pa­ra­bly priced 3-se­ries and A4. In fact, none of the oth­ers has a boot this large, so there’s more room for Ben P’s new ar­rival, that tough-to-col­lapse pushchair and sam­ples for busi­ness meet­ings. It’s also gen­er­ously equipped, and when you sit in­side it feels com­fort­able and smart and bristling with tech.

And, and, and… you get that swoopy four-door body, which re­ally makes it more com­pa­ra­ble to the 4-se­ries Gran Coupe and Audi A5 Sport­back – those cars bump up the price by a cou­ple of thou­sand, which prob­a­bly blows the bud­get.

Ben P lis­tens to all this in­tently and with great pa­tience. He knows, how­ever, that there’s a ‘but’. The ‘but’ for the Ar­teon comes with the drive. Af­ter the huge drum­roll of the ex­te­rior and the flashy in­fo­tain­ment and pi­ano-black of the in­te­rior, my hopes were raised for some­thing dy­nam­i­cally spe­cial. But the Ar­teon is dis­ap­point­ingly an­o­dyne be­hind the wheel: the steer­ing feels sleepy and numb, the per­for­mance flat, the han­dling so lack­ing in piz­zazz that it’s im­pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile with a com­pany that once got union bosses hopped up on Vi­a­gra be­fore fly­ing in high-class hook­ers for wild sex par­ties. Where has the sense of fun gone, Volk­swa­gen?

Of course, you can get far more po­tent ver­sions – there’s a 2.0-litre all-wheel-drive model with 276bhp for £40k – and the Ar­teon will pound mo­tor­ways ef­fort­lessly thanks to its im­pres­sive re­fine­ment and com­fort. It’ll be­come an in­dis­pen­si­ble fam­ily ac­ces­sory, but it feels like ab­so­lutely no ef­fort has been in­vested in mak­ing the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence re­motely in­volv­ing.

I sus­pect de­sign, tech­nol­ogy, prac­ti­cal­ity, run­ning costs and af­ford­abil­ity are all higher up po­ten­tial buy­ers’ or­der of pref­er­ence than tear­ing apart an in­cred­i­ble B-road. The Ar­teon re­flects that and in many ways is im­pres­sively ex­e­cuted to fit those needs. But I do wish it wasn’t quite so dull to drive.

I WAS NEVER go­ing to over­turn Ben Barry’s ver­dict on the Ar­teon – ‘It’s just trans­port, isn’t it?’ – at our an­nual Our Cars gath­er­ing in Wales, not when the de­serted roads of Snow­do­nia were all around us and Mr B likes lots of power and rear-wheel drive. Now, how­ever, away from our favourite play­ground, it’s a chance for him to re-eval­u­ate his choice (or dou­ble down on his ini­tial thoughts…) and for me to see why he’s so ex­cited about his Kia. (Clue: the Stinger has lots of power and rear­wheel drive.)

Ar­teon and Stinger are re­mark­ably sim­i­lar in some ways. Both are ‘brand builders’, de­signed to get their re­spec­tive marques above the para­pet in a crowded mar­ket. And both have ig­nored the temp­ta­tion to be SUVs, and are in­stead sa­loons with coupe-es­que lines. Or ‘scoupes’, as my wife has taken to call­ing them.

From there they start to diverge, though, as the Ar­teon has a sen­si­ble choice of four-cylin­der en­gines (ours is a 2.0-litre petrol with just un­der 200bhp) and drive goes to the front un­less you pick a pow­er­train com­bi­na­tion that ne­ces­si­tates four-wheel drive.

Ben B’s Kia is res­o­lutely rear-wheel drive, and for the same list price as my Ar­teon you can have it in a yel­low that’s just as vi­brant, and with a 2.0-litre petrol that’s even more vi­brant. Or for the price of our Ar­teon with op­tions (sun­roof, widescreen sat-nav, around-view cam­era and adap­tive dampers) you can have Ben’s GT S, which has all of that kit as stan­dard and a stonk­ing 360bhp and 376lb ft. At which point you can make a ra­tio­nal case for a rear-wheel-drive saloon with a large-ca­pac­ity V6 and a Kia badge.

When you drive it, you can’t re­ally fault it ei­ther. There are a few foibles (heavy steer­ing that’s a tad too quick, a dead spot atop the throt­tle, and I wouldn’t want to foot the fuel bill) but it’s fast, com­fort­able, with a good driv­ing po­si­tion set amid an in­te­rior that is lovely to be­hold.

Kia’s sold big sa­loons else­where be­fore – so it’s not an ab­so­lute bolt from the blue – but it’s quite a car. It could have been an en­larged Op­tima with all-wheel drive. Or a big Amer­i­can barge, given the ori­gins of the plat­form be­neath. Yet Kia’s done it prop­erly, with real con­fi­dence, and the ex-head of BMW’s M divi­sion over­see­ing the project.

By com­par­i­son, VW’s take is straighter. The Ar­teon is a big Golf be­neath and it hasn’t got the likes of Ben Barry all ex­cited. But as ‘just trans­port’ it’s bet­ter than the Kia. Prac­ti­cal­ity is un­der­rated. Com­fort is too of­ten a dirty word. Ev­ery­thing works so sim­ply and sen­si­bly. Maybe it’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween liv­ing in Lon­don (me) and out in the coun­try­side (BB), but I’d rather the Ar­teon’s qual­i­ties than the op­tion to oc­ca­sion­ally turn off the trac­tion con­trol and bug­ger about with the back end.

Then again, it might also be the dif­fer­ence be­tween some­one who’s about to have a child, and some­one who’s emerg­ing from the early years of par­ent­ing and wants some­thing en­ter­tain­ing for the part of the school run when he’s alone… Ei­ther way, whether enough peo­ple will buy ei­ther of th­ese £40k ‘scoupes’ for them to be de­clared a suc­cess re­mains to be seen, but I like them both – and I like mine more.

Barry (lean­ing) and Pul­man (tow­er­ing) agree­ing to dis­agreeon ev­ery­thing ex­cept irst names

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