Atlas, At Last
The first thing you notice about the newest Volkswagen is its name stretched across a large chrome strip on the rear tailgate. And it’s missing the T.
AtLast. It should be called the AtLast because it’s a good decade and a half overdue. Then again, given the tongue-twisted names of other VW crossovers (Touraeg, Tiguan), maybe we shouldn’t complain.
Alas, the Atlas is the latest entry in the crowded midsize three-row, seven-seat SUV segment. It competes directly with the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Mazda CX-9, and, to some extent, the five-passenger Jeep Grand Cherokee.
It also looks like many of those vehicles. Or most of them, in fact—the Atlas looks like everything and nothing, just like one of those renderings used in insurance companies’ advertisements. Its styling is inoffensive but also devoid of any clear family resemblance to other VW products.
And it’s huge by VW standards. The Atlas is 9.5 inches longer than the Touareg, and its rear seat does something few of its competitors do: It fits full-size adult human beings. This isn’t a seven-seater just on paper, and accessing the rearmost two seats is fairly easy, thanks to a middle row that slides and tilts forward. That’s a good thing because there’s a new Tiguan on its way to take up five-passenger duty.
The Atlas is also far less expensive than the Touareg—and many of its competitors—starting at just $31,425 USD. That’s a theoretical price, though, because it’s for a base model that won’t be available at launch and in a spec few will want. The base Atlas uses VW’s 2.0-liter turbo-four, sending 235 hp and 258 lb-ft to the front wheels only.
Most Atlas customers will wind up with a 3.6-liter VR6 (narrow-angle V-6) under the hood. Excluding a limited-availability launch model, the Atlas realistically starts at $35,915 USD for front-drive and $37,715 USD for all-wheel drive. That puts it in the ballpark of the established players, albeit with a small premium over a comparably equipped Honda Pilot.
With a claimed curb weight of 4,502 pounds (2,042 kg), the Atlas is a heavyweight. The big six-cylinder has its work cut out for it, and its 276 hp and 266 lb-ft should be enough to drag the big VW to 60 mph in just under 8.0 seconds. Thankfully the VR6 sounds better than any of the V-6s in this class, and it’s commendably smooth and quiet in its operation. The sole transmission, an eight-speed automatic supplied by Aisin, shifts smoothly, but a huge gap between second and third gears leaves the Atlas without an ideal passing gear when you need it most—in the 45–65-mph (72-105-km/h) range. And fuel economy isn’t a strong suit, with preliminary EPA mileage estimates at just 17/23 mpg (13.8/10.2 L/100km) city/highway for the all-wheel-drive six-cylinder Atlas.
At highway speeds, the VW’s cabin is suitably quiet with occasional wind noise as the only real nuisance. The ride quality is excellent—aided by a long 117.3-inch wheelbase—though big bumps can send structural jitters through the cabin. Cornering grip is good, and the Atlas will use all four tires as it approaches its handling limit. Proof, in some distant way, that it uses the same basic architecture as a GTI? Sort of.
Where a GTI is dripping with personality, the Atlas just isn’t. Our test car’s interior was a sea of black plastic and vinyl with Volkswagen’s trademark no-nonsense interior design. The primary ergonomics are excellent, the touch points (steering wheel, armrests) are padded, and the seats themselves are all-day comfortable, but many trim pieces use hard, ungrained, cheap-feeling plastic. And although the new infotainment screen is slickly integrated behind touch-sensitive glass, the navigation system is, in typical VW fashion, nicht gut.
The highest trim level (the $49,415 USD SEL Premium) is the only way to get leather seats, a Fender audio system, LED taillights, and a digital instrument cluster that replicates some of the functions of Audi’s virtual cockpit. It’s not worth it—the vinyl seats are fine, the taillights are for the enjoyment of those behind you, and the digital dash doesn’t offer much real benefit. Lesser-equipped models are just fine—all Atlases come with full-LED front lighting, for example. A full suite of semi-autonomous driving aids is available, including active cruise control with stop-and-go functionality.
The Atlas’ only major miss is that it has no single standout feature. Without the Mazda CX-9’s interior quality and exterior styling, the Hyundai Santa Fe’s 100,000-mile (161,000-km) warranty, the Ford Explorer’s available EcoBoost power, and the Honda Pilot’s and Toyota Highlander’s perceived reliability, we wonder how exactly Volkswagen will attract customers. That old “German engineering” tagline is a tough pill to swallow in the days after Dieselgate—and especially on an SUV designed specifically for and built in America.
This is a crowded segment full of established players, and the Atlas is a fine entry, but a wallflower arriving late to the party will have a hard time getting noticed. Let’s hope VW comes up with some clever way of marketing its new, biggest-ever SUV. Maybe they should have called it the AtLast after all.