Payne: Two good to be true, VW Arteon and Honda Accord Hybrid

Posted by Talbot Payne on January 7, 2021

The 2020 VW Arteon R-line model is the brand's priciest sedan at nearly $50,000 — but that's nearly $20,000 south of a comparable Audi A7 with similar hatchback utility. The sedan is one of the most beautiful shapes on the market.

It’s just gorgeous.

Sleek sedan lines. Clamshell hood. Black, 20-inch turbine wheels. Coupe-like roof tapering to a huge, utilitarian hatchback. No, I’m not talking about the Audi A7. I’m ogling the Volkswagen Arteon, the prettiest midsize car in the U.S. market.

This week’s $49,100 Arteon tester is a prime example of a wave of mainstream cars in the market that are as good as their luxury peers — but for thousands of dollars less.

The 2020 VW Arteon's hatchback can easily swallow large cargo like TVs and bikes — especially with the rear seats folded.

You want beauty and power in a big sedan? You don’t have to pay the comparably equipped Audi A7’s $72,340 price tag. The VW will do nicely, thank you very much. And it upends the brand hierarchy since the two all-wheel drive lookers come from the same VW Group stable.

Another example is the $36,795 Honda Accord Hybrid I just flogged all over Washtenaw County. Is your idea of luxury a sippy 44-mpg Lexus ES 400e hybrid with a mega front grille? Save $10,000 and buy a loaded, 43-mpg Honda Accord Hybrid with a kisser you can see coming a mile away.

Credit the electronics revolution or manufacturing advancements or feng shui, but my twin testers have all but shrunk the mainstream/luxury gap to nothing. I’ll get to the gaps that remain in a moment.

But first, let’s take another lap around the Arteon.

Audi A7 designer Sebastiano Russo is a genius, and his protégés appear to have designed the Arteon. The symmetry of the car is perfection. Once upon a time, it was the wheels that separated luxury from mainstream, but my VW R-line’s turbine pinwheels are the most stunning thing this side of a Tesla Model S.

The interior of the 2020 VW Arteon is not quite as stylish as the car's ambitious exterior, but the digital screens and ready knobs make for easy usability.

The Arteon’s fastback is not only lovely, but it’s a hatchback just like the Audi, bringing SUV-like utility to a sedan. That’s crucial in my book. SUVs have eaten sedans for lunch thanks to their easy hatch-storage and high seating position. But that utility has come at the sacrifice of appearance. Boxy, five-door ute profiles are hard to distinguish.

I recently drove a refined, athletic Audi SQ8 — its profile virtually indistinguishable from every other SUV in the parking lot despite its $95,495 price tag. Sedan designers have been quick to take advantage. There’s no mistaking the Arteon.

Or the Accord. Introduced in the 2018 model year, the Accord wowed with its stunning interior, dramatic sportback and chiseled physique. Its cheaper price compared to the Arteon owes in part to the car’s normal boot opening, as Honda avoided the considerable expense of fortifying the rear end for a hatchback. Additionally, the Accord does not offer all-wheel drive like Arteon.

But when compared to a $47,635 Lexus ES 300h, the bargain Honda is superior in every way. Its exterior is more elegant and its huge maw nearly as intimidating as the Lexus (if that’s your kind of thing).

With digital screen displays and excellent navigation tools including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid is better than a Lexus ES for thousands of dollars less.

The interior is a tour de force with digital instrument display, tablet display and acres of room (roomier than Lexus and on par with the Arteon, with palatial 40.4 inches of rear legroom) that allowed a giraffe like me more space than a living room Barcalounger.

Under its sunroof, it goes toe-to-toe with the Lexus on 12-way memory leather seats, heated steering wheel and trigger shifter. Then it pulls away with Honda’s typical, obsessive attention to interior ergonomics: better infotainment controls, head-up display and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone compatibility.

A word on those last items.

General Motors pioneered head-up displays a couple decades ago in high-end vehicles like Cadillac and Corvette, and Honda is the only automaker to my knowledge to match Caddy in enabling head-up adjustment on the dash — a detail (remember that obsessive ergonomics?) consumers will appreciate.

As for the wireless smartphone apps, Mrs. Payne nearly bought the car on the spot. One of the electronic revolution’s greatest advancements, smartphone apps have enabled $25,000 cars the ability to navigate on Google Maps — and that’s superior to any navigation system that luxury-makers can produce. Wireless compatible means you simply have to enter the car to sync it to your phone’s nav/text/email. Coming soon to every vehicle.

The comfortable, quiet interior of the 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid features optional leather seats and sunroof. Console ergonomics are excellent for storage and usability.

The gap to luxury is still evident in the VW Arteon’s interior. Not that it’s bad — it just doesn’t measure up to the car’s exterior ambitions even as it supplies a standard digital instrument display, Wi-Fi connectivity, mobile-app connectivity and panoramic moonroof for stargazing.

Arteon matches Audi with its torque-vectoring all-wheel drive drivetrain. Shy of the Audi A7’s 335-horse turbo-6, Arteon’s 268 horses and 258 pound-feet of torque are good enough for a 0-60 mph sprint in 6 seconds compared to the A7’s 5.2.

Step on the throttle through the twisties and the big VW hatchback rotates with precision, the turbo-4 growling happily. It’s athleticism that VW has honed across hatchbacks like the peerless Golf GTI and R for years. In between retail store stops where the Arteon preened in parking lots next to cookie-cutter SUVs — boooring! — I enjoyed miles of social distancing across the country roads of northern Oakland County.

That athleticism is found in the Accord as well. Honda is a racing brand with deep roots in Formula One and IMSA racing championships. The DNA trickles down to the Accord. With its planted steering and stiff bones, it is a joy to throw around.

That joy is numbed a bit by the Accord hybrid’s one-speed drive and its unrelenting CVT-like drone. Ugh, the sacrifices of driving green.

But the numbers are undeniable. Compared to the luxe-class Lexus, Accord boasts 614 miles of range on the highway compared to the ES 300e’s 568. Yet the Honda sprints to 60 mph a noticeable 2 seconds quicker. Thrills for less dollar bills.

Of course, brand matters. Lexus exclusivity means you’ll see fewer of them on the road compared to the 250,000-plus units Accord moves every year. Giving the Accord Hybrid a unique grille treatment — or two-tone roof — might help. But so superior is it to the Lexus that it’s hard to justify another $10,0000 for a badge.

My sultry Manganese Gray Metallic Arteon had no such issue. Given its pricing as VW’s halo car, its sales numbers aren’t much different than the A7, meaning you won’t see many of them. Roll down the block and jaws will drop.

And with the $33,0000 you save by buying it instead of an A7? You can buy a Honda Accord EX-L Hybrid.

The 2021 Honda Accord Hybrid is a sleek, mainstream sedan with many of the same amenities as luxury cars costing thousands more. The hybrid starts at about $1,500 more than a gas-powered Accord. This loaded Touring model lists for $36,795.

2021 Honda Accord Hybrid

Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive, four-door, five-passenger sedan

Price: $26,370, including $955 destination charge ($36,795 Hybrid Touring as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder mated to AC motor and 1.3-kWh battery

Power: 212 horsepower, 232 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: One-speed direct drive

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 115 mph

Weight: 3,803 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 44 mpg city/41 highway/43 combined

Report card

Highs: Good looks inside and out; loaded with premium features

Lows: CVT drones; polarizing, big front grille

Overall: 3 stars

The 2020 VW Arteon R-line model is the brand's priciest sedan at nearly $50,000 — but that's nearly $20,000 south of a comparable Audi A7 with similar hatchback utility. The sedan is one of the most beautiful shapes on the market.

2020 Volkswagen Arteon

Vehicle type: Front- and all-wheel-drive, five-door, five-passenger hatchback

Price: $37,015, including $1,020 destination charge ($49,100 Premium R-Line as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 268 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 127 mph

Weight: 3,854 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/29 highway/23 combined

Report card

Highs: Stunning exterior; roomy cabin and cargo space

Lows: Conservative interior; lacks a GTI-like performance model

Overall: 4 stars

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