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