Volkswagen’s decision to push itself up market never quite struck a chord with the car-buying public. The fabulously over-engineered Phaeton from 2002 remains an iconic piece of luxury design, but despite being just as capable as its rivals, the car suffered from inverse snobbery and never found its mark.

Although the Phaeton was a glorious failure, it helped kick-start an increase in quality right across the VW range. As a result, the manufacturer’s current line-up has a chunky, machined elegance that stands out for its sophistication, functionality and general lack of showiness. In the motor industry, the bigger the car, the bigger the profit. VW might have made its name with city cars for mass consumption, but unless it can upscale the costs and the quality, the margins will always be slim.

Neither a luxury car nor sports car, the Arteon is handsome and ergonomic

Like many car-makers, VW is at a crossroads, not yet ready to deliver the technology that will free us all from the internal combustion engine, yet still in possession of incredibly sophisticated engines and drivetrains that it needs to sell to stay in business. The fall-out from the 2015 emissions scandal was not only expensive and reputationally catastrophic, but it also injected some urgency into the company’s plans for electric propulsion.

The Arteon is a move back into premium territory. Based on the big VW Passat – the kind of car that sells well in China but in Europe has been all but buried by its German rivals in recent decades – the Arteon emphasises design, elegance and, to a lesser extent, performance. Creased and crisp, the big five-door hatch straddles the psychological grey area between premium and luxury, the territory that Audi (a VW sister group, don’t forget) has occupied for decades. It’s not a true luxury car, nor is it a sports car. But it is handsome, as well as being an ergonomic tour-de-force. Not a button is out of place on the Bauhaus-simple dashboard. You come away thanking the company’s single-minded approach to simplicity and general absence of unwanted curves and bling.

On the road, the Arteon is a more than decent performer, mustering quiet confidence without descending into a screaming, always-on sports machine. The latter isn’t a VW quality and probably never will be but then again, neither is full-on luxury. Instead, the Arteon is a mature piece of automotive design, the no-brand alternative to badge snobbery or top trump performance comparisons. If you’re happy to be anonymously stylish, only compromising the cachet of a brand, then the Arteon does its job just fine.