As it turns out, you can learn a fair bit about an automaker's future at 20 miles per hour.
Volkswagen brought me to Monterey, California to take a spin in its two 2018 New York Auto Show concepts, the Atlas Cross Sport Concept and the Atlas Tanoak. However, since the two vehicles are about as street legal as your weird neighbor's ramshackle "go-kart," my drive was limited to 20 miles per hour on a single public road with a security guard in tow.
But the point of the drive wasn't the behind-the-wheel time itself. Before me were two peeks into the German automaker's future -- one significantly more set in stone than the other -- and it previews a Volkswagen that's more willing to cater to local desires in order to expand its footprint.
Atlas Cross Sport Concept
The Atlas Cross Sport is the concept of the pair that's closest to human consumption. Production is slated to kick off in late 2019, and it should arrive at US dealers in early 2020.
The addition of a two-row, five-seat Atlas shouldn't come as a surprise. The Atlas has been a three-row affair since its inception, and the Tiguan has grown to sprout an optional third row, too. With the Touareg dead and gone in the States, there's a significant amount of white space available for something like the Atlas Cross Sport.
Building off the success of the Atlas makes sense. It was designed with the US as its primary market, and since the Cross Sport is a smaller, ostensibly sportier version of the Atlas, it looks the part. The fenders are a bit beefier and the rear roof has a stronger taper. The headlights are more reminiscent of the 2019 Jetta, signaling that we could reasonably expect a refreshed Atlas with this front fascia to debut in the next couple of years, too.
Those hunky good looks translated to the feeling once I land in the driver's seat. The two-row Atlas concept has pillarless windows, lending a bit of sportiness to the simple act of ingress and egress. Once behind the wheel, I have a commanding view of the road ahead, sitting high above both the ground and even the hood. The glass isn't as tall as it is on the Atlas, so visibility isn't that great, but that's the tradeoff.
The Atlas Cross Sport Concept packs a plug-in hybrid powertrain based on the current Atlas' 3.5-liter V6, augmented with two electric motors. It probably won't sport the full (claimed) 355 horsepower, but the concept does show that electrifying Volkswagen's current slate of engines isn't just possible, it's possible without requiring a reinvention of the wheel.
And then there's the interior. Sure, the weird immutable vents probably won't make it to dealers, but it reinforces one major design trend that was first seen on Porsche and Audi before slowly moving down to the mass-market VW brand: replacing most of the dashboard with screens. Climate controls? That's a screen now. Gauges? That's a screen now. Infotainment? That's been a screen. There's a good bit of Audi A8 styling in here, and that's hopefully something that we'll see on not just the production two-row Atlas, but future new VWs of all shapes and sizes.
Atlas Tanoak Concept
Compared to the Atlas Cross Sport, which had a mostly nonfunctional interior and rattled like an old home in a nor'easter, the Atlas Tanoak drove like a dream. There were no rattles, just about every bit on the car was functional and the ride quality was pretty smooth. The seating position was equally strong, making me feel like the king of the mountain as soon as I close the concept's heavy door. It's strangely well put together, considering how the Tanoak is a "maybe" at best right now in terms of production possibility.
Volkswagen is no stranger to pickup trucks, having sold the Amarok overseas for years, but the Tanoak would need to carve a niche space for itself in the US. As a unibody pickup, it would compete primarily against the Honda Ridgeline, though its size is similar to that of other midsize trucks like the Chevy Colorado, GMC Canyon and Toyota Tacoma.
Thus, the Tanoak (pronounced "tan-oak," not "tan-oh-ack") exists in a strange limbo right now. It's already passed the pedestrian taste test -- people loved it when it debuted in New York, and against the backdrop of the hifalutin' Monterey Car Week, it garnered a ton of praise. I'm personally a huge fan of the visual split between the bed and cab that, while only meant to mimic a body-on-frame truck's visual delineation, looks awfully handsome. But liking a car's looks and actually dropping $30,000 or more on one is a different story.
Should the Tanoak actually enter production,, it seems like VW has really nailed the aesthetic, both inside and out. Liberal use of brown leather and deviated stitching feels right at home -- it's similar to what you'll find in the luxe trims of other midsize trucks. In fact, it feels closer to the premium nature of a higher-end full-size pickup, which should also help it resonate with US truck buyers. It, too, is positively riddled with screens, so I hope you're into that.
Down to brass tacks
The primary takeaway from driving VW's two Atlas-based concepts is that the company is willing to pay more attention to the needs of specific large markets, namely, the US. Some ideas are more feasible (read: more guaranteed to make money) than others, but this Atlas expansion certainly shows Volkswagen is always listening.
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