2018 Volkswagen Atlas: New 3-row SUV lets VW play with giants

The new midsize SUV offers room for seven and can be had for just a smidge over $30,000.

Emme Hall

Emme Hall

Editor / Cars

I love 2-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, 7-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.

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2018 Volkswagen Atlas


Come spring of this year, Volkswagen finally fills a missing spot in its lineup. Up to now the luxury Touareg has been the company's largest offering. No longer. Welcome the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas, the company's first three-row midsize SUV.

The base model of the Atlas comes with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine, good for 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. However, at a Volkswagen-sponsored press drive outside of San Antonio, Texas, I got to sample the 3.6-liter V6, as the smaller engine will arrive later this year. This larger power plant puts out 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque. Front-wheel drive is standard across the line, with Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel drive system optional on V6 models only. Power defaults to the front wheels, but when slippage is detected up to 50 percent of the torque can be thrown to the rear wheels.


The Volkswagen Atlas: three rows of affordable utility.


I was surprised at the sturdy handling of the Atlas. Its footprint is big and the all-wheel drive version weighs in at just over 4,500 pounds. Still, it handled the twisty back roads of Texas hill country with ease. Although the eight-speed automatic transmission can be a bit hesitant to downshift, I solved that problem by operating it manually from the gearshift.

The Atlas has a few drive modes that adjust engine, transmission and steering response as well as the adaptive cruise control system. Eco keeps things placid for the best fuel economy, but aside from steering, which is frighteningly light and vague in normal mode, it's tough to tell the difference between Normal and Sport. The Sport mode kicks the acceleration up a notch while adaptive cruise control is engaged, arriving to the predetermined following distance quicker. Presumably, this behavior will keep other drivers from cutting in front of you in low-speed situations, but there really wasn't enough traffic on my drive to try it out. There is also a Snow mode that reduces engine power when the sensors detect wheel slip, and both an Offroad and a Custom Offroad setting.

There seemed to be a fair amount of wind noise coming off the side mirrors during my Texas excursion, and in my SE trim tester there was an intermittent rattling from the passenger-side HVAC vent. However, the SEL Premium trim car I drove later displayed no annoying vibration.


Evolved from the CrossBlue concept we first saw in 2013 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Atlas looks quite a bit like its inspiration. Volkswagen added fog lights to the front fascia, a new style line runs down the side (and unfortunately right through the gas-filler door), and the available LED taillights have lost a bit of their verve. Like the concept, it remains a nice-looking, albeit boxy, vehicle. At about 16 and a half feet, the Atlas matches the Ford Explorer in overall length and is a bit more than the Honda Pilot.


Oy, that wood paneling.


The cabin contains some unfortunate plastic-looking wood trim, but if that's the worst thing I can say about it, VW must be doing something right. There is seating for seven adults, although the optional second-row captain's chairs take that capacity down to six. Those second-row seats can tilt and fold for easy access to the third row, and they also slide forward almost 8 inches, giving riders in the way back a bit more room.

Cargo capacity for the Atlas hits the middle for the segment. Behind the first row there is 96.8 cubic feet of space, with 55.5 behind the second row and 20.6 behind the third row. The Chevrolet Traverse, the Atlas' largest competitor, unsurprisingly has the most cargo space, but the Atlas still beats the Ford Explorer, Mazda CX-9 and Toyota Highlander in this regard.

Volkswagen estimates fuel economy on the front-wheel drive V6 to be 18 mpg in the city, 25 mpg on the highway and 20 combined, with numbers a bit lower for all-wheel drive. Fuel economy on the 2.0-liter engine has not yet been announced.

The lowest trim line, the S, comes standard with LED headlights and daytime running lights as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A relatively small 6.5-inch touchscreen is also standard. While the SE trim gets an 8-inch touchscreen and blind spot monitoring, it's not until you get to the SE with Technology that more driver's aids kick in. Here you'll get forward collision warning with brake assist and pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality, and lane keeping assist. The SEL ups the ante with park distance control and a towing package good for 5,000 pounds. The top of the line SEL Premium goes all out with LED taillights, automatic parallel and perpendicular parking, a special Fender 12-speaker premium audio system and the super-cool Volkswagen Digital Cockpit.

2018 Volkswagen Atlas: Big, bold and just a bit boxy

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Inspired by Audi's Virtual Cockpit, the Digital Cockpit on the Atlas is a fully customizable 12.3-inch screen in place of the instrument cluster. It can display a variety of information between each virtual gauge, like audio or fuel economy, or you can go supertechy and display the digital map. Once you experience it, you'll wonder why you ever thought it was OK to avert your eyes to a center infotainment screen to look at the map. Unfortunately, the only way to get it is to shell out $48,490 (gulp!) for the SEL Premium, as this feature is not offered as an option.


Volkswagen Digital Cockpit puts the map front and center.


VW's Car-Net is standard across all trim lines, so even the least expensive Atlas still has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. On the SE and above, VW makes a security and service telematics package standard. This tech gives drivers remote access to their vehicles as well as emergency assistance and a program designed to monitor the speed and location of young drivers. However, it's not quite as robust as GM's OnStar system with its Teen Driver functionality. Those wanting navigation with real time traffic and weather reports from SiriusXM will have to spring for the SEL Premium.

Volkswagen is offering very few options on the Atlas which will only be available on the upper trim lines. You can replace the second-row bench seat with captain's chairs, opt for a sporty R-Line appearance package or throw some 20-inch aluminum-alloy wheels on your Atlas.

The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas will be available in May of this year with the 3.6-liter engine. Availability of the 2.0-liter engine has not been announced, but it will start at $30,500. To be honest I was rooting for this vehicle and it's heartening to see VW swinging the bat. The company is desperate to renew its reputation in the North American market, and the Atlas might just be the vehicle to do it. The weight of the world is indeed on its shoulders.