Artistic Intent

Volkswagen’s new flagship seems to be intent on making up for the lack of outright prestige with pretence and derivativeness – a cause that isn’t aided by its clunky moniker.


Tiguan, Up(!), T-Roc – VW’s recent crop of all-new model names certainly invites unkind comparisons. Renault can get away with a Twingo, nobody minded Opel’s Tigra, but Volkswagen appears to be better served by less

exuberant designations. After all, VW owners are more likely toplay a round of golf than go hunting for tiguans in the T-Roc quadrant.

Which leads straight to VW’s all-new flagship model. Seemingly more moderate in its ambitions than its relative predecessor, the ill-fated Phaeton (another ill-advised VW model name, by the way), this new ‘best Volkswagen’ is intended to give the Mercedes E-class, BMW 5 series and its own Audi A6 cousin a fight for their collective money.

Another car this new VW replaces is, of course, the (Passat) CC, which was a slightly more upmarket and decidedly sleeker variant of the base Passat saloon. Albeit hardly a mould-breaker, the CC was a worthy entry to the four-door coupé (aka ‘sleek saloon’) sector and by far the finest offspring of the ill-advised tenure of Murat Günak and Peter Schreyer at the helm of VW design.

To make a long story short, the new top-end Volkswagen is supposed to be many things to many people. It also ought to exude an air of sophistication, which can be the only explanation why it was given the name of Arteon.

What sounds like the fake name of an invented ancient Greek god of the arts is probably the result of extensive, expensive research and creative musings, courtesy of some world-class marketing agency. ‘Arteon’, the name, not the car, was probably very, very expensive.

‘Arteon’ also sums up most of what’s wrong with the car’s appearance. For, although it may lack the contagious ‘Toronado’ line that’s blighted many recent VWs, the Arteon exhibits all the hallmarks of the Lower Saxonians’ recent ‘Heidesign 2.0’ foray.

It’s a busy car that’s trying too hard to be too many things at once: up-to-date, classically elegant, sharp, contemporary, imposing, sophisticated, impressive, aspirational, rational.

Where the Phaeton was too Volkswagen-y for a luxury saloon, the Arteon is too common for an aspirational product. It’s silly, crassly overstyled front-end aims for the kind of prestige neither its brand name nor its market positioning validate. It’s like a fifteen year-old getting a Glencheck three-piece suit in the hope of coming across like Sean Connery in Goldfinger: better luck next time, kid!

Just as Walter de’ Silva and Flavio Manzoni decluttered VW’s styling in the wake of Schreyer/Günak’s Plakettengrill rampage, incumbent brand chief designer, Klaus Bischoff, seems intent on establishing a heavily bechromed, character line-saturated style that’s half Plakettengrill Levantinian splendour, half Herbert Schäfer-era Heidedesign reloaded.

‘You’re truly spoiling… this lovely car with the leaf, you dirty philistine!’

There are, of course, worse car designs around than the Arteon. Yet what’s so very infuriating about it is not just that it throws away the restrained class of the previous generation of VWs, but that Heidedesign 2.0 doesn’t even stand by its intention to throw away most of the values of German design. It’s the remaining faint layer of shallow rationalism that’s truly aggravating.

Trying to be all things to all people may work out alright for a while. It’s in the long term that skin-deep traits truly betray themselves.

The Phaeton, silly though it was in a great many ways, really was as timeless a piece of styling as they come. It never impressed, but it never turned into last season’s fancy dress either. Which explains why today, the Rich Volkswagen leaves far more dignified an impression than its contemporaries from Munich or Stuttgart.

Styling a busier, excessively ornate version of an Audi A7 will not leave posterity impressed. ’cause, you know, that ain’t very arty.

Better luck next time, Klaus!


The author of this piece runs an obscure motoring site of his own, which you may or may not choose to visit at

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

11 thoughts on “Artistic Intent”

  1. I agree with you, Kris, completely. The CC was rather nice and the Phaeton ‘timeless’ (well put, that) if a little stolid (but maybe there’s little wrong with that in a large saloon – Mercedes did quite well for a while with stolid looking large saloons). Interestingly, some of the panel gaps look inconsistent and clumsy on this artyone, exacerbating its other issues.

    1. Next to a CC, Phaeton or Skoda Superb, the Arteon’s failings are becoming even more painfully obvious then they are anyway.

  2. The Arteon is basically a reclothed version of the Skoda Superb. And that really shows it up. Other than its frameless doors (for which I am a sucker), the Superb does everything else better.

    More broadly, VW design experiments with glitzy chromed snouts really don’t work. They did this before in the early 2000s, when the Golf / Jetta went all shiny. Thankfully, it didn’t last. They need to return to simpler forms.

  3. There are at least two questionable details on the car. One, the scroll inside the foglamp aperture. Two, the useless strip of plastic on the leading edge of the bonnet, almost hanging there. I don’t what to call this except Automotive Baroque. Does VW need to become a European version of Buick?

    1. That plastic strip is a pillar of Heidedesign 2.0. It can be found on this, the new Polo and the T-Roc. It’s the visual explanation of the enormous indent/extension beneath the grille. Which tells you all you need to know about what’s wrong with Heidedesign 2.0: it’s claiming to be rational, precise and ‘German’, yet it obviously isn’t.

  4. “And what, Klaus, shall we put in the space at the front?”
    Klaus (for it is he): “Oh, just fill it up with as many horizontal chrome slats as you need. After all, nearly everyone else gets away with this
    non-think, so why shouldn’t we? Job done.”

  5. Perhaps what we have here is Klaus Bischoff’s homage to his compatriot, Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer, who made his name and fortune in the New World at the turn of the last century. It might explain the nose treatment anyway.

    But jukebox fury aside, is the Arteon a cohesive VW design? Well, to my eyes it resembles a rejected Audi proposal and as such appears to be trying a little too hard and therefore seems to somewhat counter-productively have ideas above its station within the VW AG hierarchy. The absence of the ‘Toranado line’ adds weight to this assumption I feel.

    It also manages to make an A5 appear restrained and visually pared-back, which is saying something in the current climate.

    1. That rear haunch appears to strive for a similar effect as the A5’s, even though this isn’t supported by the graphics. But I’m fairly certain the VW’s tumblehome, ‘shoulders’ and overall proportions in this area are very close to the A5’s indeed.

    1. The Phaeton successor was axed, yet VW is far too proud a brand to admit complete defeat. Hence this silly sort-of-successor to the CC.

  6. One of funniest tag lines I’ve seen recently is the one for the China-only VW Lamando which is “Lamando. Let a man do”.

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