When a 24 Hours of Lemons team offered me a free Volkswagen Type 4—the largest air-cooled car VW ever made—I had to haul it more than 2,000 miles from California to Texas. Seemed like a perfect opportunity to find out if the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas can haul families and one of its ancestors, right?
[Full disclosure: Volkswagen wanted us to drive the Atlas so bad that they dropped one off for me with a full tank of gas and a tow hitch in Los Angeles and actually let me haul another Volkswagen home to Texas with it.]
It can, by the way. In fact the Atlas really stole the show on this adventure, as it’s a supremely comfortable road tripper’s dream and absolutely up to the challenge of pulling another car a very long way.
My new-to-me 1971 Volkswagen 411 wasn’t anywhere close to street legal, especially after it started marking its territory with oil. The previous owner hadn’t had time to track down the necessary cooling tins, so it overheated badly, leaving a trail of lubricant and sadness wherever it went. The only way it was coming home to Austin, Texas from California’s Buttonwillow Raceway was on the back of a U-Haul trailer.
That trailer was about to embark on a 2,150ish-mile trip, making it a good test of the Atlas’ 5,000-pound towing capacity. While it wasn’t as effortless at towing as a half-ton pickup would be, the Atlas’ tow rating theoretically gives it enough pull-power to handle all manner of boats, small camper trailers, and yes, most classic VWs.
I see Porsche’s family-friendly Cayenne hauling other Porsches to the track in my usual circle of Porsche dorks all the time. So despite all its kid-centric marketing, the Atlas feels like it was made to do the same for VW fans. It held all my stuff comfortably for the tow home, and was even far more appealing to sleep in than it had any right to be. Both back rows of seats fold completely flat if you need them to, offering a vast expanse for stuff and/or snoozing, depending on your needs.
I picked up friend of Jalopnik and rally co-driver-for-hire Steven Harrell in Los Angeles the morning after the race and we headed east with the car. Part of me really likes having a smaller tow vehicle as opposed to a larger pickup, as even navigating the Atlas and trailer through the Los Angeles Airport’s arrival pick-up zone was fairly easy.
From there, we headed northeast towards Las Vegas, up into the mountains and through the great sandy expanses south of Death Valley. You definitely feel the weight of the trailer pulling back on the car as you climb, and pushing you forward slightly on downhills and shorter stops, but it’s all very manageable. The Atlas even shows you your elevation on the nav screen, which is fun to watch as you ascend and descend mountain passes.
The Atlas’ engine oil temperature never even got hot on steep climbs. Its 3.6-liter VR6 engine is rated to 276 horsepower and 266 ft-lbs of torque, which was more than adequate on all but the steepest grades. It did come with a +/- gear selector, though, which helped engine brake on downhill legs—and spare the brakes.
Start-stop and blind spot assist are automatically disabled when a trailer is on the back, but other driver assists seemed to err on the side of caution. Sometimes the Atlas flagged things that weren’t a danger at all as risks in the overhead camera view of the car, but for the most part, it was a brilliant way to see what was around the car. The automatic bright lights were also slightly paranoid, sometimes dimming for reflections that weren’t actually oncoming traffic.
Less than 100 miles east of LA, parts of the southwest start getting delightfully weird. Passing by the Mojave Spaceport and Edwards Air Force Base brought up several cool planes in the sky that none of the usual plane-tracking apps would identify. Primm, Nevada, glimmered like a weird little jewel from afar, with a collection of casinos there to catch traffic coming in from California. We stopped and poked around a defunct off-road track behind one casino there.
We did have to hypermile the Atlas a bit every now and then, but it didn’t do too badly gas mileage wise. We saw between 12 and 18 mpg on the trip, depending on the terrain, with mileage usually closer to 14 mpg—on normal unleaded fuel, no less.
All things considered, that’s not bad mileage for a tow vehicle. It had various drive modes for different conditions and terrain, including a “Sport” drive mode that made everything just a bit sharper and more responsive when we needed to get places faster.
On the flip side, the “Economy and Range” display mode for the customizable digital dashboard helped us squeeze fuel along to the next gas station we could find by showing us all the information relevant to when you encounter the dreaded “Next Gas Station 107 Miles” sign. When the tank got so low, the Atlas even offered to find us gas.
The Atlas’ cruise control is very smart—adding brakes and throttle automatically to match your chosen speed—but that wasn’t ideal for stretching fuel. That was best managed by your own sentient foot. It had perhaps the smoothest adaptive cruise control I’ve ever used, though, gently applying the brakes to maintain your desired distance from the car in front of you.
Our stop for the night was Las Vegas, where we were set to check out the Vegas Off-Road Experience (or VORE, for short—yes, really) the next day, and then hit the road a day later. It was somewhat scary timing on our part—the deadliest mass shooting in the United States had just happened at a music festival along the Vegas Strip the day before we arrived.
Some areas were still closed when we arrived. Signs were lit up with hotlines for help, tips and missing loved ones, and words of thanks to first responders and the Vegas community. More police lined the Strip than usual, which was both reassuring as well as a reminder of the horrors that had just occurred. Several makeshift memorials for those who were lost had been set up in front of the big Bellagio fountain. Someone from NPR even came to the gun club next to VORE for an interview.
VORE’s off-road school was great, despite the timing. I couldn’t hoon my own 411 on this trip, but I was more than willing to rip around in someone else’s car. I’ll save the full review for a later write-up, but if you go to Las Vegas and don’t jump desert trucks, you’re doing it wrong.
We opted to leave the 411 back at the hotel for that day trip, which really wasn’t a huge deal because the back-up/overhead view camera made it super easy to line up with the trailer behind us when it was time to hook up the car again.
The next day, we were back on the road, bound for the Grand Canyon. The scenery is beautiful, but a combination of needing to write some articles for this very site and the repetition of scrubby mountain after scrubby mountain meant that it was time to test out the 115-volt electrical plug that comes in the Atlas’ center console. Not just a cigarette lighter hole–there’s a regular wall-style plug on the back of the console. It was ridiculously great, and I was able to get stuff done whenever I wasn’t driving.
What wasn’t so great about the electronic situation was how the Atlas prevented you from using some of its infotainment functions while the car was in motion. The clock was stuck in Pacific time the whole trip because we only thought to change it when it was in motion, and the system wouldn’t even let a passenger access that function then. Several more advanced stereo settings, too, were unreachable while the car was moving.
But there were plenty of other toys to keep you busy and comfortable. The heated and cooled front seats were soft and supportive, and great for naps on the passenger side. Dual-zone climate control kept the peace between a Texan and a Northeasterner with wildly different temperature needs. Programmable seat positions did the same, as we’re also vastly different heights. Zillions of good little storage bins made organizing snacks, reading materials, pillows, drinks and other things easy. The center console could even hold full liter-sized bottles.
The Grand Canyon is, believe it or not, even bigger in person than you could ever imagine. We spent a while before turning into the campsite for the evening hiking out on a high point that stuck out into the canyon and just staring at it all.
Even in October, the campsite at the Grand Canyon was busy and noisy well into the evening. But the next morning, we drove out along the edge of the canyon for even more views. Once again, the smaller size of the Atlas seemed perfect: it held all our camping gear but wasn’t particularly huge and unwieldy when we had to dodge big motorhomes and other tow rigs in the national park.
The next night’s campsite felt like the opposite of the Grand Canyon. We’d planned to stay in the Gila National Forest’s Juniper Campground near Quemado, New Mexico, but it was closed already for the winter. It was going to be hard to turn around with the car behind us on the narrow road, so we went further down it—and soon the pavement gave way to a washboarded gravel road.
It was on this molar-shatteringly bumpy road that the Atlas shined yet again. Its off-road mode obviously didn’t completely smooth out the bumps like VORE’s desert race trucks did, but it did an admirable job of making things more comfortable, even with a trailer behind us. Ratcheting down both ends of the softly sprung 411 (and compressing its bouncy springs) helped a lot on bumpy roads, even if we did have to periodically re-strap everything down.
Soon we found the El Caso Campground—one of the remote ones where you just drive in and drive out at your leisure. Everything was pitch black aside from a light near the campsite entrance and the moon. It was an even more primitive campsite that apparently hadn’t shut down for the winter yet.
It was pretty chilly at the remote campsite, so I changed in the back of the Atlas while Steve was using the bathroom and used the rear HVAC controls to blast heat in my general direction. The Atlas’ side sunshades provided an extra bit of privacy, even though there really wasn’t anyone else around out there to accidentally moon.
There were some coyotes howling off in the distance, but once I reminded myself that they weren’t likely to disturb a tent that didn’t disturb them first, this may have been the most peaceful night of sleep I’ve had all year. The mountain air was as crisp and clean, and enveloping myself in the pillowy sleeping bag felt great.
Many of the detours we made on the trip emphasized how small our “biggest Volkswagens ever” actually were. Arizona’s one-mile-across, 550-foot-deep Meteor Crater was humbling enough. Just one antenna dish of the 27 that make up the Very Large Array in New Mexico dwarfed our so-called very large Volkswagen.
Further down the road, the White Sands National Monument provided miles of pristine dunes that didn’t just make us feel bad that we didn’t think to camp out there, but also towered over the big VWs. Carlsbad Caverns made us feel tiny, even underground. And last of all, there was West Texas, which takes forever and ever just to cross. I will never tire of the grandiose scale of the weird and wonderful sights of the western U.S.
The Volkswagen 411 made it home safe and sound, and the Atlas was the perfect match for this trip. It was large enough to hold all of our stuff with ample room to spare without feeling too huge and unwieldy. If you want a tow vehicle that drives like a regular car, this is a solid option that really feels like a Cayenne-lite on the inside for far, far less money. Our tester, which was an all-wheel-drive version didn’t have any additional-cost add-ons on top of the SEL Premium trim package, was only $49,415 including destination fees.
Most of all, the Atlas is the perfect excuse to go outside. Unless you’re in charge of a carpool or a large family on a regular basis, there are better city cars to be had. For everyone else, the Atlas really follows in the great tradition of VW Buses and Eurovans, as it’s perfect for getting out of civilization. What’s the point in getting something that can easily be loaded down with camping gear if you don’t use it for that purpose?