Think Volkswagen, you think sporty driving: What VW in the ’90s called Fahrvergnügen (“driving enjoyment”). Fast forward to today and Volkswagen has built a nicely Americanized land cruiser in the VW Atlas with three rows of seating, 17 cupholders, and very good technology offerings. It’s the same size as the Ford Explorer, 198 inches long and 78 inches wide, a midsize SUV just shy of being full-size. Unable to offer diesels (because VW put the D in Dieselgate), the four- and six-cylinder gasoline engines are barely adequate and adequate, respectively. But the 276-hp V6 can tow 5,000 pounds, 500 pounds more than its weight.
The outside is beefy while inside the cockpit is clean and spare – Euro style – where US competitors are more showy. And there’s still reasonable road feel for a vehicle weighing as much as 4,500 pounds (or 4,700-plus when measured by Car and Driver). There are a lot of standard features and some decent safety tech on the $32,000 entry model. But additional driver assists and safety features are doled out across the six trim levels. Want adaptive cruise control? That’s on a model $6,400 more costly. Marketing miscues like that make the Atlas a tougher sell against Honda Pilot, which has a full safety suite on every Pilot it sells.
Spacious, Drives Well for Its Weight
Climb up and into the Atlas. Your first impression will be: wow, roomy. The second may be that the designers showed less-is-more restraint in the cockpit. (Or you could decide the cabin is too Spartan and find something with overdone plastic wood trim.) Work you way back to the second row, it’s roomy, too, heated on some trim lines, and you’ll find the second row seat folds completely forward without having to remove the child seat. The access lever to the third row is a model of simplicity and once in that final row you’ll find – surprise – the third row is adequate for adults (who aren’t too tall). It’s like owning a minivan without the soccer-mom-and-dad shame.
On the road, the ride is composed and VW’s European DNA shows through with reasonable steering feel and decent handling for something so big. That’s good because this is the only mid-price, midsize-almost-full-size German SUV on the market. (It’s manufactured in Chattanooga, TN.) It scoots to 60 mph in 7-8 seconds in timed runs, but in everyday driving you have to press hard on the throttle.
If you switch to Sport mode, there’s quicker downshifts, more giddy-up from the engine room, and more nattering from the horses. The ACC on higher trim lines worked well and made long-distance driving less of a chore, along with blind spot detection that nudges you back into lane if you try to steer into a lane occupied by another vehicle.
‘Modularer Querbaukasten’ and the Electric Future
All this was done on the cheap, relatively speaking. The Atlas uses the MQB platform, Modularer Querbaukasten (“modular transversal toolkit”), which underpins 10 and counting vehicles across the dozen VW Group brands (Volkswagen Passenger Cars, Audi, Seat, Škoda, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Porsche, Ducati, VW Commercial Vehicles, Scania and MAN) as VW Group “realign[s] to become a globally leading provider of sustainable mobility … transforming its automotive core business … among other things be launching a further 30-plus fully electric cars by 2025, as well as expanding battery technology and autonomous driving as new core competences.” Among other things, VW’s mission statement is nicely aligned with your need to fill in the remaining blanks on your Buzzword Bingo card.
In English, what VW Group is doing is creating an architecture for its factories built around a transverse engine layout (cylinders running sideways, from wheel to wheel) for front-wheel drive and optionally front-engine, all-wheel-drive. The mid-engine Lamborghinis and Bugattis get a reprieve. It allows VW to produce multiple cars in the same factories, from minicars up to, currently, the VW Atlas. MQB and MLB (for longitudinal engines with cylinders running front to back) constitute what VW calls a “strategic weapon.”
The Trim Walk
The 2018 VW Atlas began selling in spring 2017. The 2019 Atlas is similar in specs and features but now only one of the seven trim lines has the four-cylinder engine. VW’s site shows 13 trim lines but they’re actually seven with front and all-wheel-drive variants.
Atlas S. It’s $31,890 including $995 freight, with a 235-hp turbo four-cylinder engine, eight-speed automatic, and front-drive. Your only buying choice is the exterior color. It does come nicely equipped for an entry model: color multi-information display in the instrument panel, 6.5-inch color center stack display, Bluetooth with audio streaming, a USB port (one port to be shared among the seven possible passengers). Safety features include blind sport monitor and rear cross-traffic alert; forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking (“Front Assist”), front pedestrian monitoring; auto-on front LED headlamps; rain-sensing wipers and heated side mirrors. The S gets VW’s basic Car-Net App-Connect smartphone integration that lets you run select smartphone apps through Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and MirrorLink.
That’s a lot for an entry trim level and the Atlas S features have been beefed up from the 2018 Model S. Missing from the entry model are lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control. The alloy wheels are 18 inches with 60-series tires, the better to deal with American potholes. There is no V6 Atlas S for 2019, nor are there four-cylinder Atlases with upmarket interiors.
Atlas SE, $36,490 front-drive, $38,90 with all-wheel-drive (“4Motion”). It adds the V6 engine, a total of four USB jacks, three-zone climate control, and an 8-inch color touchscreen. Tail lights are LED. Seating is vinyl. SE and above get an 8-inch color screen with Car-Net Security Service telematics (on the Verizon network) with crash notification, manual emergency calling, roadside assistance, stolen vehicle assistance, remote lock/unlock and rat-out-your-teen driver tools, all from a smartphone or web browser. The service runs $200, in line with with most automaker pricing. Options are second-row captain’s chairs ($695) and a tow hitch ($550).
Atlas SE with Technology, $38,290 FWD / $40,090 AWD. It gets adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, an auto-dimming inside mirror, and a power tailgate. Blind spot detection here and above will countersteer you back into lane to avoid an accident, provided you have the turn signal on. A panoramic sunroof and garage door opener are a $1,200 option. Wheels are 20 inches with 50-series tires, with 260/45R-21s optional.
Atlas SE with Tech and R-Line, $40,240 / $42,040. It gets ACC, remote start, and sporty R-Line bumpers, air scoops, and badging.
Atlas SEL, $42,390 / $43,190. It gets an 8-display with navigation, front and rear parking sonar, panoramic sunroof, and auto-open tailgate (swipe your toe under the back bumper). It gets the VW Digital Cockpit, VW’s take on Audi’s well-regarded LCD (“glass cockpit”) instrument panel, and the
Atlas SEL R-Line. $44,340 / $45,240. To SEL it adds the R-Line trim pieces.
Atlas SEL Premium 4Motion, $49,390. Parceling out the last driver assist technologies, there’s a standard automatic high-beam control, a surround-view camera system, and semi-automated parking (head-in or parallel parking).
By the time you get to the top of the Atlas line, you’ve got a car with a lot of driver assists and safety technology. VW may however have head-to-head competitive challenges when a competitor offers, say, adaptive cruise control on trim lines costing $10,000 less. Nissan, for instance, has surround view cameras on vehicles costing $25,000.
Should You Buy?
The 2019 Volkswagen Atlas is for the buyer who wants the best European-style, mainstream, midsize, three-row crossover. It’s also the only vehicle that fits the European-flair description. Within the group of all three-row SUVs of 190 to 200 inches in length, meaning the midsize SUVs, there is strong competition from the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, the two best vehicles currently. The new Subaru Ascent has been well-received.
Because it has some the big-tall-solid-roomy attributes of US-brand SUVs, the competition also includes the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Dodge Durango. The top-selling midsize crossover is the Ford Explorer, on track to sell 210,000-215,000 units in 2018. VW will appeal to those who want cleaner interior designs. Several of the US brands will have an advantage on VW when it comes to base price plus incentives and rebates. Several of the competitors have more safety technology across more of the line. They may do better of fuel economy, too. The Atlas gets 19 mpg combined for both six-cylinder versions, 24 mpg combined for one remaining four-cylinder, front-drive Atlas. (All run on regular fuel but the horsepower numbers are with premium). If you want the four-cylinder in a higher trim level, look to the 2018s still on dealer lots.
If you want the sportiest midsize SUV, that’s the Mazda CX-9. It’s two inches longer but it’s not quite in VW’s league for third-row comfort and cargo capacity.
If you’re shopping Explorer, Pilot or Highlander, you should also drive the VW Atlas. What the Atlas does best – carry up to seven passengers in comfort – it does quite well. VW’s line has not been at the top of reliability ratings the last couple years, but VW makes up for it with a very good warranty: six years, 72,000 miles, fully transferable to the next owner.
The VW Atlas’ near-term mission in life is to help hold VW sales steady as the US operation moves to embrace SUVs and crossovers that are taking over the American market. VW will likely sell 58,000 Atlases in 2018. The compact VW Tiguan will sell about 105,000 units this year. The in-between Volkswagen Touareg SUV that has never sold more than 18,000 units a year in 15 years here stateside will depart after the 2019 model. (2018 sales were likely to be under 5,000.) Among VW sedan models, sales were down 24 percent to 50 percent for the first 11 months.
VW plans to reinforce the US lineup with a two-row Atlas probably called the VW Cross Sport with the same wheelbase but 8 inches chopped from the back end. It may also bring in a midsize pickup, called the Atlas Tanoak, if VW believes there’s a market. Pickups sell well in the US, with the biggest sales to the companies that have been traditionally US-based. Ford, Chevrolet and Ram full-size pickups all sell 500,000-plus units a year. If VW can translate the Atlas’ built-for-America attributes into pickup form, it could do well, too.
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