The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas Finally Solves VW's America Problem
The Chattanooga Choo-Choo is the biggest, brawniest VW in the company's 80-year history.
- Test Drives
- Test Drives
Everything’s big in Texas – including the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas. Reeling from its diesel emissions scandal, VW is dying to turn the page. The Volkswagen Atlas is the doorstop-sized page-turner, a three-row SUV that’s the largest model in VW’s 80-year history.
VW’s smaller Touareg SUV has been a market head-scratcher, and for more than its inscrutable name. As company execs quietly acknowledged, most Americans saw no point in spending $50,000 or more on a two-row SUV that, while properly Germanic and deluxe, didn’t carry the requisite luxury badge. In middle-class contrast, the Atlas—starting from just $31,425—is aimed directly at the sales-topping Ford Explorer, along with the stalwart Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. That’s the Cinnabon-sized sweet spot of the American SUV market, and VW wants a taste.
A VW SUV that's as American as apple strudel
Built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where no one can accuse it of illegal immigration, the Atlas actually shares its transverse-engine MQB platform with the Mk7 Golf hatchback, along with the smaller, upcoming 2018 Tiguan crossover. Yet its limo-like 117.3-inch wheelbase is the class' longest by far, exceeding even the beefy Explorer by 4.5 inches. That stretched wheelbase deals VW a trump card: The most cavernous, easy-access third row I’ve experienced in this segment. We stuck Atlas product manager Jim Burch—all six feet seven inches of him—in the third row, and while his knees were a bit stressed, he had headroom to spare. Trust me: Most six-foot-four men could spend hours in the third row with little complaint.
One key to that is a second row with 7.8 inches of fore-and-aft travel, making it easy to share space with occupants in the way-back, or create more room for gear. That middle row gets notably supportive seats with a steep 14 degrees of recline, 38 inches of max legroom, and enough space below front seats to jam a Shaq-sized pair of cowboy boots. (A pair of optional captain’s chairs can replae the 60/40 split bench). The ingenious bonus is a mechanism that slides and tilts the seatback and cushion forward in one smooth move, opening a walkway to the third row that’s nearly on par with a minivan’s. And either portion of that 60/40 split bench seat can pivot forward even with a child seat in place. After decades of trying to force Yankees into models that many found too small, VW has figured it out: Big-ass SUVs are what Americans want, and the Atlas is designed around the biggest asses you can imagine.
Exterior is more purposeful than pretty
The Atlas' design initially struck me as a blockier, blander take on a Jeep Grand Cherokee. But the VW's utilitarian honesty is growing on me, and those square, retro-SUV shapes are definitely making an industry comeback. Like the Explorer, the Atlas is a tool for large-family suburban transport, not a crossover fashion statement. The VW’s Schick-shaver front end, with its bulldog underbite and standard LED headlamps, is a high point. The low point is the dead space atop the wheels. Even the handsomely styled 20-inch wheels fail to stuff the arches to visual satisfaction, and standard 18’s look downright scrawny.
Interior: One part fantastic, one part plastic
The interior scores well, with one eyesore exception. The Atlas’ minimalist dashboard and instrument panel is blessedly slim and Euro-stylish. An eight-inch center touchscreen is coated in flush-mounted glass for an Apple-like tablet vibe. That screen affords 360-degree camera views, and users can tap the screen to highlight and zoom individual cameras. The optional Fender premium audio system, including a removable trunk-mounted subwoofer atop a temporary spare tire, cranks a Stratocaster's worth of robust sound. The steering wheel has a surprisingly small-diameter radius for such a big truck, but it’s sculpted in VW’s tactile style.
The Atlas also debuts the Volkswagen Digital Cockpit. This handsome driver’s display, including digital recreations of analog gauges, matches the 12.3-inch size and sparkling resolution of the vaunted Virtual Cockpit in Audis and Lamborghinis. It does lack the Audi’s powerful Nvidia processor, so it can’t, for example, display maps simultaneously on the driver’s and central screen. Unfortunately, the Digital Cockpit is only available on the top-dog Atlas SEL Premium, at $49,415. The consolation is that even the standard analog gauges look solid. An integrated navigation system is also reserved for that pricey SEL Premium edition. Spend less, and you settle for running navigation via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, with the ability to mirror other apps on the Atlas’ central display. Volkswagen argues, perhaps rightly, that most drivers are relying on smartphones to navigate, including with Google’s unstoppable Waze app. The counter-argument is that if you find yourself in a wilderness with no cellular signal, even a valley of city skyscrapers, you’re SOL for directional help.
If you want AWD, you're forced to get the V6
There’s another, more discouraging market slip-up. When the Atlas hits dealers in late May, VW’s excellent, Haldex-based 4Motion AWD will naturally be an option on V6 models. That familiar, 3.6-liter VR6 supplies 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque. But models with the 245-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four will only be offered in front-wheel-drive form when they arrive later this summer. The upshot is that buyers in wintry climes will have to ante up for a V6 if they want AWD. Yet a more-affordable, fuel-efficient 2.0-liter model with 4Motion would seem a smart choice for some people, including for its 258 pound-feet of torque that nearly matches the V6. Let’s hope that VW reconsiders, pronto.
And like a guy who pairs a $400 Tom Ford shirt with Old Navy sweatpants, the bottom half of the Atlas interior creates some cognitive dissonance. Hard plastic for the lower dashboard, doors and console trim carry a ghostly whiff of the notorious cost-cutting Jetta from a few years back. It’s no worse than the nether regions of a Chevy or Nissan, and it’s partly excused by the middle-class price point that VW aimed for. Yet it’s not up to the brand’s usual, almost-an-Audi standards.
Atlas is humongous, but it drives like a familiar VW
The rest is damn good, from the VW’s reliably Germanic road manners to the discreet moves of its eight-speed Aisin automatic transmission. Wind and road noise is notably well-managed. Between the slender front roof pillars, upright windshield and low-slung cowl, exterior visibility reaches Range Rover levels. VW claims those A-pillars are slimmest-in-class, and they look it.
The VW isn’t the fastest lineman-sized SUV—you’ll need a 365-horsepower Explorer Sport for that—but it might be the best to drive among its affordable set. (Think a Mazda CX-9 with decisively more space). I discovered as much in motorcycle-loving Texas Hill Country, where the Atlas charmed the snake-coiling curves like a smaller SUV. Steering is soccer-mom light, yet pleasingly connected, and a Sport mode firms things up a bit. That on-center steering feel recalls a top luxury model; Hyundai and Kia, with their tendency toward artificial, lockjaw stiffness, might take notes on how naturally the VW segues from the straight-ahead into a simple lane change. Between its luxury-car sound levels and sophisticated dynamics, the Atlas would happily manage an all-day Autobahn cruise at 100 mph. (Don’t try that in the Highlander).
Ladle on the options, and the VW covers all the paranoid-parent bases. The Atlas can park itself – even in perpendicular spots – monitor blind spots, resist errant lane changes, guard against rear cross-traffic and cruise adaptively with stop-and-go ability. The 4Motion AWD adds a Rover-like control knob that adjusts for various terrain; I diverged from our official course to find a deeply rutted two-track that the Atlas scarfed up like Texas brisket.
If you’ll forgive the obvious jibe, the Atlas is carrying the weight of VW’s troubled world on its broad shoulders. Fortunately, with Americans renewing their love affair with large SUV's, this VW could also carry Atlas, with room in back for his whole Titan crew.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.
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