Charting a New Course

Volkswagen joins the midsize-SUV class with Atlas SE
Barry Spyker

The Volkswagen Atlas may have arrived late to the midsize crossover-SUV party, but the other folks have taken notice. The family tourer is ultra-roomy all the way back to the third row, smooth and steady on the open road, and offers great visibility for everyone.

The Atlas marked VW’s first shot at a three-row SUV when it was introduced for 2018 and it’s apparent that the German maker took the challenge seriously. After limited success with its Touareg and Tiguan crossovers, Volkswagen now has a capable challenger to midsize class leaders like Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, Nissan Pathfinder and Honda Pilot.

With its boxy shape and narrow pillars, passengers can enjoy great views out the large windows and optional panoramic sunroof. Plus, there’s tons of room and comfort for all the body parts – head, shoulders, legs and feet. Front seats are large with a broad range of adjustments, and a second-row bench seat slides 7.7 inches fore and aft for flexibility and easier access to the third row. Captain’s chairs are available in the second row but reduce capacity from seven to six.

The unusually roomy third row is the best in class. It isn’t just for kids and can accommodate two adults comfortably, with good thigh support, even on a reasonably-long trip.

Atlas also excels in its cargo area, with plenty of room behind the third row – 21 cubic feet – for groceries and packages. Fold down row-three and it opens 56 cubic feet of space. And, with both the second and third rows folded flat, a gargantuan 97 cubic feet of space is available.

Up front, the dashboard is accented with distinctive stitched seams. The top-line Premium trim offers an LCD instrument cluster which replaces standard gauges and can be configured personally. A 6.5- or 8-inch touchscreen infotainment center is user friendly and includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A 12.3-inch digital display is available, too.

While Atlas offers a quiet cabin and comfortable ride, drive performance comes up a little short, especially by German standards. It gets the job done but without any real spirit.

Standard is a familiar 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, good for 235 horsepower. It’s essentially the same engine found on other VWs like the Golf GTI and some Audis. But most folks will opt for the stronger 3.6-liter V-6 that produces 276 hp and 266 pound-feet of torque.

Problem is, the V-6 feels underpowered at times, too, especially when loaded or climbing hills. Even with only a couple of folks aboard, the 4,728-pound Atlas takes nearly 8 seconds to get itself to 60 mph.

Both engines are mated to a smooth eight-speed transmission, which sends power to the front wheels. All-wheel-drive is available but only with the V-6.

Steering is rather numb and there is little road feel. Still, it does handle various road conditions competently. Corners are taken with only moderate lean, and bumps and holes are gobbled up nicely by the suspension.

Plus, four driving modes can tailor the ride to your desires: Eco, Normal, Sport and Individual. Sport mode improves steering and transmission response, while Individual lets you customize responses even further.

The Eco mode helps boost fuel economy, but not enough. EPA estimates give the V-6 version (with AWD) an unimpressive 17 mpg around town, 23 on the highway for a combined 19. The FWD does only a tad better with 20 mpg combined. Those figures lag behind segment leaders.

Advanced safety features are available as part of an optional tech package ($2,000) but VW has added some driver-assist features as standard for 2019 on all Atlas models, including emergency braking and blind spot monitor. The optional package includes adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning.

The base version, the Atlas S, starts at $32,400 and has the basics: 6-speaker sound, cruise control, power windows. The top-line SEL gets you into the $41,000 range and adds the tech package, giant sunroof, power tailgate and a trailer hitch (Atlas has a 5000-pound towing capacity).

VW also includes an impressive 6-year, 72,000-mile warranty on every Atlas. As comfy as the Atlas cabin is, the mind deserves a little comfort, too. 

Volkswagen Atlas SE

Base price: Around $32,000

As tested: $37,750 (2018 model with V-6 engine and Tech package)

What’s all the excitement about? Atlas surprisingly roomy with a third row that even adults can enjoy

Powertrain: 3.6-liter V-6 good for 276 hp with 8-speed automatic transmission

How’s the performance? Not a spirited ride but smooth, comfy and great for road trips

What about fuel economy? Not a high point here: EPA-rated at 19 mph combined (17 city, 23 highway) with the all-wheel-drive version; 20 mpg combined for the FWD


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