The Volkswagen Atlas Shows VW May Finally Be Starting to Get Americans

After years of peddling undersized diesel cars with "German-tuned suspensions," VW throws in the towel—and gives us a big-ass crossover. 

Andrew Trahan Photography LLC—ANDREW TRAHAN

After decades of selling niche cars to an audience who liked the quirky, people's car image of the company, Volkswagen decided in the mid-2000s that it was time to mount a full-on assault on the American market. As part of a global quest for dominance, it needed serious penetration into the world's biggest market. The company's strategy hinged on a core competency that buoyed their European sales: diesel. To purge Americans' view of diesel engines as clattering, black-cloud puffing hunks of unrefined iron, it launched the "clean diesel" campaign. Great for highway cruising, simpler than hybrids, and without the hippie stigma, it made perfect sense for the American market. 

And as such, it was vehemently rejected by almost everyone in America.

VW invested billions, launched marketing campaigns, broke the law, lied to regulators, and sold a product that no one could possibly compete with while not breaking the law. And it still couldn't get Americans on board. That's how deep-seated its misunderstanding of our market was. 

But with the new three-row Atlas crossover, VW might be on to something.

The Toureg, at $49,495, starts at a higher price than its competitors top out. It also can't carry as much, doesn't have a great history of being reliable, and was marketed largely on its suspension tuning. Americans buy based on size, reliability, and badge. If you can't deliver one or more of those for less money than competitors, you're not really in the game. 

The Atlas, however, can offer something. It is, in industry speak, pretty damned gigantic. It beats almost all of its competition in terms of wheelbase, and is cheaper than its chief rivals, the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot, when similarly equipped. Did they cut costs by using cheap materials below your waistline? Absolutely. Are Americans willing to lose some quality for a cheaper price? Well, Jeep sold 91,532 Compasses last year, so you can probably figure out the answer for yourself. 

The new Atlas crossover also offers America-centric features like remote start and a third row that can fit adult human beings. There's a cheap 2.0-liter turbo four that's as powerful as any Costco run demands, but VW knows that Americans often demand bigger engines than they actually need, so a full-fat VR6 is on offer. And most importantly, there isn't a diesel to be found.