Comparing the the new 2018 Volkswagen Atlas with the former largest SUV Volkswagen made, the Touareg, is sort of like finding an old picture of your dad back when he was cool. Wow, dad, you might say, was that really you? When did you have that sweet neck tattoo removed? And why are you so boring now? Deep down, though, you’re probably aware that he’s a better dad the way he is now, just as the Atlas is probably better for VW right now.
(Full disclosure: VW needed us to drive the all-new Atlas so badly they gave me one for a week. Nobody mistook it for my Beetle.)
See, the Atlas is very much the anti-Touareg. Where the Touareg was a joint project between VW, Porsche, and Audi with the goal of making an expensive, high-tech luxury SUV that handled like a sports car and could also off-road pretty decently, I don’t get the impression anyone really gave a shit about how the Atlas handled, as long as it’s predictable and safe.
The Atlas is very clearly a car built to meet a focus-group-generated list of what Americans look for in large, three-row SUVs. Well, Americans and Chinese, since this same basic vehicle will be sold there as well, under the name Teremont.
It’s built on VW’s new modular MQB platform, which is used on everything from the Audi TT to the SEAT Léon to the Skoda Kodiak to the Passat and Golf. It’s just one of the biggest, most stretched versions of the platform.
As something designed to check a bunch of boxes on American SUV shoppers’ lists, it does a credible job. It’s roomy, it’s comfortable, the interior is decent, it’s pretty flexible for people or cargo, and it looks pretty good.
VW needs this. It’s had a rough period recently, what with all the goings-on, and the Atlas feels like an easy, get-back-in-the-game rebound effort. VW really, really wants us to like them again, so they made the Atlas as tailor-made as possible to fit what they think the biggest group of Americans want in a car, which turns out to be a big-ass SUV that sort of looks expensive-ish but really isn’t.
If you want to know what VW thinks of America in vehicular terms, this is it.
What Is It?
You know exactly what this is. It’s what the station wagon has become in mainstream automotive culture: a long, boxy vehicle with a big hood on big tires, sporting an all-wheel drive system that will likely find its greatest challenge on a slightly rain-slick’d driveway, or possibly by driving through some icy slush, slowly.
The Atlas is a true three-row vehicle, capable of seating six quite comfortably and eight with a bit of squeezing.
How’s It Look?
I think VW did a solid job on the exterior design of the Atlas; it’s handsome and crisp, and has some nice visual details and tailoring without falling into the easy trap of becoming too fussy or overdone, like so many modern full-size SUVs.
From a distance, the profile is a bit anonymous, and could be any of a number of similar cars, but on closer scrutiny, it gains some distinction. The sharp character line that goes from wheelarch-to-wheelarch is nice, and the wide half-octagon design motif that shows up in the grille and lights feels modern and sophisticated.
It’s not a design that’s going to make you do a comic, sitcom-style double-take, but I think it looks better than most similar full-size SUVs. I also want to donate props to Volkswagen for offering some decent colors, including a real yellow, my favorite car color.
I hope people actually buy these things in yellow; the car takes on a much more engaging feeling when you see it in something other than the expected and drab grays and whites and blacks.
Oh, I also want to point out that the cool-looking trapezodial chrome exhaust pipes you see on the rear are just a dirty, filthy lie; the actual exhaust pipes, boring and cylindrical, exit below and behind the bumper skin, in shame.
The interior, housed in the inner volume of the vehicle, looks good, especially in the lighter color option my test car had. The dash has inserts of what may or may not be real wood in a pattern that reminded me of the Sears-rebadged version of the Atari 2600; I’m guessing this was a very deliberate choice.
The design is good, clean, and modern, but does look and feel—both conceptually and in a tactile sense—very different from what I’ve come to associate with Volkswagen.
For all their willingness to bathe your face in the sickly yellow glow of a check engine light, early and mid-2000s VWs consistently had some of the best-feeling interiors of any carmaker. Materials felt substantial and well-chosen, switchgear was satisfying to use, and everything just seemed to be of a slightly higher quality than you’d expect.
In the Atlas, though, that feeling is gone. Things look good, generally, and the ergonomics aren’t bad, but VW has lost that feeling of unexpected quality. The materials and controls just feel okay now, sometimes even a bit cheap, like the premium look is just a veneer. We’ve seen this trend on other ‘Americanized’ Volkswagens starting with the redesigned-for-the-U.S. Passat.
Also, sometimes the vents whistle like little flutes:
It’s not really worse than any of their competitors, but it does feel a step down from what a high-end VW once was.
How Does The Inside Work, Then?
The car is comfortable to sit in and drive in, and the interior is roomy and flexible. I tried hauling both people and cargo, and the Atlas swallowed both with ease.
I even made my octogenarian mother clamber into the third row just to see how difficult it was, since she always seems to have issues folding seats in cars. She managed it just fine, and the access to the back-est row is actually pretty good, thanks to the way the middle-est row seats cant forward as a unit, instead of just the backrest folding forward.
The third-row was plenty roomy and comfortable for her, though, she’s only 4'11" and really more of a sample-sized version of a modern American.
I also crammed the back full of stuff my mom was moving out of her house, and with the third and half of the second row down, the Atlas was able to accomodate a long side table and a 7-foot-tall screen, among a bunch of other crap.
Once Volkswagen finally gets their new take on the Microbus built, it should put the Atlas to shame people-and-stuff-hauling-wise, but until then, this is VW’s best tool for moving people and their crap.
What’s It Like To Drive
Eh, it’s fine, I guess. It’s comfortable, sure, and the 276 horsepower 3.6-liter V6 engine my test vehicle had gives adequate thrust, but make no mistake, the Atlas is no Touareg. It’s sort of a big, wallowy sleeping pill to drive, if we’re honest.
The handling is... there, in that it’s predictable and safe and the car generally goes right where you point it, but there’s almost zero feel through the steering wheel and you’re always aware that it’s a pretty heavy thing—about 4500 pounds.
The good part of the eight-speed automatic is that it’s pretty ignorable, which, I suppose, is better than the alternative, but, again, it’s not especially engaging.
I drove the Atlas on a little trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most beautiful and engaging roads to drive on, in the right car. This was by no means the right car.
Since we’re talking about money, I should first mention what the fuel economy of the Atlas is like: on city road driving, I seemed to average about 17 or 18 MPG, and on the highway around 23.5 to 24 MPG or so. The EPA says it should get 17 city/23 highway, so that’s close. It’s just barely fine, but by no means amazing.
You know, a vehicle like the Atlas would actually be a great candidate for a diesel engine! I wonder if VW is think—
Oh, wait. Shit. Right. Never mind.
The Atlas I was testing was the SEL 4Motion one; the most expensive one you can get. It has an instrument cluster that’s a full-color LCD screen, the nice panoramic sunroof, all the driver’s aids like blind-spot warning and adaptive cruise control and the fancy heated and cooled seats and nav and all the usual, expected-premium candy.
All this brings the price up to $48,490 on my tester. That’s kind of a lot. It’s on par with its competitors, sure, but I’m just not sure I would want to spend that much on something I was this indifferent to driving, though that’s likely a charge I could level at most of the Atlas’ competitors, too.
Now, when we consider the base model, things are a bit different. The Atlas starts at $30,500 for the (not yet available) version with the 2.0-liter turbo four making 235 HP and with FWD. At that price, I think the Atlas starts to make a lot of sense. That’s a very solid value.
For around $30 grand, the Atlas becomes a pretty decent general-purpose family car, with plenty of flexibility and room, comfortable and attractive. It doesn’t really look any different than the one that costs over 50% more, and I can’t imagine the driving experience would be much different, either.
The entry-level Atlas should weigh less, which should offset the loss of those 40 horses, and I don’t really see the lack of AWD as that big a deal for how these cars will actually get used. If you live somewhere with crappy winters, I suspect a good set of winter tires would be as useful as the AWD, anyway.
Volkswagen is building the Atlas in Tennessee, and that’s about the level of German-ness the Atlas is, too. It’s made for American’s tastes and needs, good and bad. With that goal in mind, VW’s done a decent job.
It’s comfortable, flexible, useful, and looks pretty good. It’s also the driving experience equivalent of attending a lecture about the history of long-term records storage in a room that’s just slightly too warm.
I think the Atlas is one of those cars that makes the most sense in its base trim, where it’s actually a pretty good deal.
Plus, you can get it in yellow, which you should.