Volkswagen can’t compete well with Mercedes and BMW — yet there it goes again.
There was nothing wrong with the car — the Phaeton ultra-luxury sedan.
You may remember.
It was beautiful, powerful, elegant. Close kin to the Audi A8 and the Bentley Continental GT. It was available with a mighty 6.0 liter W12 engine and had bells and whistles for the bells and whistles. It was everything a high-end car ought to be.
Except, it was a VW.
Not — as Seinfeld used to say — that there’s anything wrong with that.
Well, unless you care about selling high-end cars, which VWs aren’t supposed to be.
Volkswagen is, after all, the people’s car. Literally translated. It’s odd that a brand built on building cars for the masses — which, by definition, need to be accessible — would venture into the building of high-end cars, which aren’t accessible, by definition.
It’s kind of like finding the Pope at your favorite bar (not preaching to the heathens).
Well, people reacted to the Phaeton in much the same way.
It was interesting to see a car so not of the volk in a VW dealership. A six-figure car sitting right next to $15k Jettas and Beetles. In the same dealership. You may begin to see the trouble. There’s a reason you don’t generally find Bruno Magli shoes on sale at the Foot Locker.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Foot Locker.
VW lost a bunch of money. So did the relative handful of people who bought a Phaeton. Two years after the last one sold new, you could buy a used one for about the cost of a two or three-year old Passat.
None of this was the Phaeton’s fault, per se. It wasn’t that people didn’t like it. It didn’t sell because VW buyers couldn’t afford it.
And buyers who could afford it don’t generally shop VW.
So, given the news out of Geneva last week, the question naturally comes to mind: Will VW lose a bunch of money on the 2019 Arteon — the automaker’s new flagship sedan?
Probably — but not as much.
Well, one hopes. (Because VW needs another financial bleed like JFK needed a fourth gunman on the Grassy Knoll.)
We know it won’t be particularly Volkish, given its probable starting price around $35k, in the same general ballpark as the current Passat-based Comfort Coupe (which of course is actually a sedan that has “coupe like” styling). The CC also hasn’t sold especially well, though — notwithstanding that it (like the Phaeton) is a gorgeous-looking car.
Park one next to a Mercedes CLS — another sedan with “coupe like” styling. The physical comparison is favorable. The problem is the price comparison — and the absence of a three-pointed hood ornament on the VW.
A bigger problem may be the Jetta-ish standard drivetrain.
VW says the base trim Arteon will be powered by a 1.5 liter turbo four in the neighborhood of 148 hp. If the car’s base price is even $30k, that could be trouble, given what’s under the hood of base trim/four cylinder Accords and Camrys that cost around $23k to start.
Which by the way aren’t touting performance or even much hinting at it. They are Transportation Appliances, family cars… that is to say… volks wagens (auf Deutsch).
The Arteon will have a stronger optional engine — an amped-up version of the 2.0 liter four that’s currently available in the Jetta, along with VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system — which isn’t available in the current Jetta (or the current Passat).
Putting AWD on the roster was smart. It is a feature that’s hugely popular in the $25k-$30k-ish crossover SUV segment but very hard to find in mid-sized and even full-sized sedans… unless they’re priced over $35k.
Which brings up what may be the Arteon’s biggest potential problem:
It is a sedan.
And sedans aren’t selling. See above point in re the popularity of crossovers. VW chose a bad time to bring out a non-Volkish sedan, notwithstanding it will be pretty. The reasons for the unpopularity of sedans are simple enough to grok:
They have comparatively small trunks (vs. the expansive cargo areas of crossovers) and — the real flaw, as far as buyers today are concerned — they sit too low relative to all the other crossovers out there.
VW will likely have an easier time selling the new Atlas (and also the new Golf Alltrack, which is a jacked-up Golf with all-wheel-drive in the mold of the Subaru Outback).
But there will be some high-end coolnesses, including a configurable LCD main instrument cluster with a huge (9.2 inch) secondary display in the center stack that will reportedly feature a gesture control interface similar to the one you can get in the current (2017) BMW 7 Series.
We won’t, however, get the TDI engine that will be available in Euro-spec Arteons (thanks, Uncle).
One uber-creepy thing it will feature, unfortunately, is a new and very Big Brothery adaptive cruise-control system that will automatically adjust the car’s speed according to the speed limit. Probably, it will be possible to turn this off — for now — but consider yourselves warned.
This is a glimpse of what’s to come — and what’s coming won’t have an Off button.
Of a piece, the Arteon will offer an Emergency Assist system that automatically senses when the driver is “incapacitated” and automatically pulls the car off the road onto the shoulder and shuts it down while summoning EMS.
How will the programming define “incapacitated”? The same technology that shuts ’er down because the sensors sense the driver’s eyes have closed and he has slumped-shoulder over the steering wheel could probably also shut ’er down if the sensors sense you are driving “too fast” or “too aggressively” or it’s Tuesday and Uncle says stay home today.
Yes, I’m paranoid. With reason.
You should be, too.
Photo: Norbert Aepli, Switzerland/Creative Commons