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2018 Volkswagen Atlas: First Drive Review

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by Aaron Gold May 2017

The all-new Atlas is Volkswagen's first foray into the 7-seat crossover SUV market, and it comes at a critical time for the German brand: The company is still dealing with the fallout from the diesel emissions scandal, and they desperately need to regain the trust of American buyers. The Atlas is a vehicle designed expressly for American buyers, and VW is building it at their plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. But is the new Volkswagen Atlas worthy of your hard-earned dollars?

Before we drive, let's start with a premise: We think big 3-row crossovers are a great idea. These vehicles provide the passenger seating of a monster-size SUV like the Chevrolet Tahoe or Ford Expedition in a smaller and easier-to-drive package. Their carlike construction gives them lighter weight, easier maneuverability and better space efficiency; the trade-off is reduced towing capacity and off-road abilities compared to truck-based SUVs, but these are attributes of which few buyers take advantage. The market already has several examples of these exceptionally useful vehicles, including the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave (the latter two have all-new versions coming for the 2018 model year), and all are very good. Clearly, the Volkswagen Atlas has its work cut out for it.

Atlas Gets the Format Right

Climb around in the back of the Atlas and you'll see that it's off to a strong start. Seating space is arguably the most important consideration in a vehicle of this sort, and the Atlas acquits itself well. Let's start all the way in back: The Atlas' third-row seat is one of the best in the class, a well-padded bench with enough room for two adults to sit in honest-to-goodness comfort. Third-row occupants get storage cubbies, cupholders and (in all but the base model) USB ports. It's almost as if Volkswagen actually expected real people to sit back there. (What a novel idea!)

The second row is also generous, but we've come to expect that in this class of vehicle. Legroom actually trails that of the competition, but you're unlikely to notice unless you set up a back-to-back "test sit" comparison with the Atlas' rivals. The second-row seats slide fore-and-aft, allowing more legroom to be opened up for the third row, and the seats are designed to flop forward for third-row access, even with a child seat strapped in. Speaking of which, the Atlas is wide enough to accommodate three child seats in the second row. If your kids are older, Volkswagen offers optional two-place "captain's chairs," which provide a useful special separation between siblings who are in the throes of rivalry.

Cargo volume is another strong point: The Atlas provides a useful 20.6 cu ft. of storage space behind the third-row seat, more than the Honda Pilot (16.5) and just short of the Ford Explorer and upcoming Chevrolet Traverse (21 and 23, respectively). The seats are easy to fold, with well-marked levers, and doing so provides a flat load floor. Folding the third-row seats yields 55.5 cu ft. of space; drop the second row and you're up to 96.8 cubes.

Subtle Styling -- But Is It too Subtle?

Style is arguably not the Atlas' strong point. The look is unmistakably Volkswagen, and while the boxy shape, with its exaggerated fender creases, isn't exactly forgettable, it isn't terribly memorable, either. Much the same can be said of the dashboard: The layout will be familiar to anyone who's driven any Volkswagen model made in the last decade or so. Don't misunderstand: We like the everything-in-its-place design ethic of the dashboard, because anyone can sit down behind the Atlas' wheel and find all the controls instantly. Such a straightforward layout minimizes distraction and contributes to safety, because it keeps the driver's eyes on the road and not on the dashboard searching for the defroster switch. But must the whole thing be so somber? The materials are of high quality and the metal-and-wood trim on the dash is a nice enough touch, but a look inside the upcoming 2018 Chevrolet Traverse reminds us (and ought to remind Volkswagen) that simplicity and style are not mutually exclusive.

One innovative feature, found in the top-of-the-line SEL Premium model, is the Digital Cockpit instrument panel. It replaces the lower level Atlas' traditional analog gauges with an LCD screen showing -- brace yourself -- a video image of the lower-level Atlas' traditional analog gauges. The animation of the needles is remarkably smooth; in fact the effect is so realistic that the Digital Cockpit seems to defeat its own purpose. That said, we do like the moving map that can be displayed between the speedometer and the tachometer.

On the Road: Good Chassis, but the Engines Have Their Work Cut Out

For power, the Atlas relies on Volkswagen's 235-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbo engine, as well as their 276-hp 3.6-liter V6, both paired to an 8-speed automatic transmission. EPA fuel economy estimates had not been released at the time of writing, but VW expects the V6-powered models to score 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway with front-wheel drive and 17 mpg city/23 mpg hwy with all-wheel drive.

The 4-cylinder cars are only available with front-wheel drive, but we didn't get to sample the 2.0T engine at the press preview; Volkswagen only had V6-powered vehicles available, and after test-driving it, we can understand why. The 3.6-liter engine provides adequate power with front-wheel drive, but the added weight of the all-wheel-drive system drags it down, putting a damper on passing power. What's worrisome is that the all-wheel-drive system, according to Volkswagen, only adds 166 lbs. We drove the Atlas with two adults on board, and we imagine a full load will tax acceleration even further. We can't imagine what the same load would do to the 4-cylinder version. That said, in terms of torque (pulling power), the 2.0T engine delivers 258 lb-ft, not much less than the 266 lb-ft of the V6, so perhaps it won't be so badly bogged down. We'll try the 2.0T-powered version when it becomes available, but for now we'd recommend our readers stick with the V6.

The Atlas' ride is unexpectedly soft and its steering is unexpectedly light, putting us in the mind of Detroit boulevard cruisers from the 1970s -- what do those German engineers think of American drivers? But the handling did not disappoint: Despite its two-ton-plus weight and soft springs, the Atlas steers accurately and stays well-composed in the turns. Driving satisfaction is not high on the priority list for big crossovers, but the Atlas is about as good as we expect from this class of vehicle -- and we would expect no less from Volkswagen.

A Credible Competitor

Pricing for the Atlas will start at $31,425 (including destination fee), though until the 2.0T engines arrive in showrooms, the least expensive Atlas will be the $34,425 Atlas S Launch Edition with V6 power. All-wheel drive adds $1,800, and the most expensive Atlas configuration, the SEL Premium with optional 20-inch black-painted wheels, lists for $49,650. For comparison, the 2017 Honda Pilot ranges from $31,085 to $48,160, while the Ford Explorer -- which offers more extra-cost features and options -- can be optioned to well over $55,000. That puts the Atlas in a good spot price-wise.

So is the new VW Atlas worthy of your consideration? We think it is. We like the Atlas' ride and handling, and its pricing is competitive. Styling and power could both be more exciting, but when it comes to passenger and cargo space, the Atlas does an exceptionally good job -- and that, to us, is what counts most. If Volkswagen wants to rebuild their image among American consumers, a useful vehicle like the Atlas is a big step in the right direction.

 To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2018 Volkswagen Atlas: First Drive Review - Autotrader