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Volkswagen finally filled a missing spot in its lineup, building an SUV larger than its luxury-tilted Touareg. The all-new 2018 Volkswagen Atlas is the company's first three-row SUV.
Offered in a base S, mid SE or SE with Technology, or tippy top SEL and SEL Premium trims, the Atlas is available in front-wheel or all-wheel drive. It comes standard with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine, good for 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, but a larger V6 engine is also on tap.
The Atlas evolved from the Crossblue concept we first saw in 2013 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It's still pretty close to that inspiration, though 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 16.5 feet, the Atlas matches the Ford Explorer in overall length and is a bit longer than the Honda Pilot.
VW makes the Car-Net infotainment system standard across all trim lines, so even the least expensive Atlas still has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which mirrors phone functions such as navigation and music playback on the dashboard LCD. The base S trim has a 6.5-inch color touchscreen while upper trims get an eight-inch display. On the SE and above, VW 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 the Teen Driver feature of GM's OnStar system.
Up to four USB ports can be had in the Atlas, and its Bluetooth hands-free system can pair two phones simultaneously. Native navigation is only available on the SEL Premium trim line, not on the SE with Technology trim that Volkswagen had sent me. That lack of navigation became a problem on a dark night when my phone died and I didn't have a charging cable handy.
Although my SE with Technology tester did not have Digital Cockpit, it's worth a mention here. Inspired by Audi's Virtual Cockpit, a fully customizable 12.3-inch screen sits 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 super-techy 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. 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 on lower trims.
Most driver's aids are standard on the Atlas SE with Technology trim and above, including adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist. A blind-spot monitoring system kicks in at the SE trim, and a rear-view camera is standard across the board
If I strayed out of my lane, the lane-keeping assist brought me back in with a bit of automatic steering. It only works above 40 miles per hour, and I could easily override it with a bit of force applied to the steering wheel. The system easily recognized lane markings at night, and when it all got to be a bit too much for me, a simple press of a button turns it off.
The lane-keeping assist also works with blind-spot monitoring. At times I am guilty of signaling and ignoring the visual blind-spot alert, essentially cutting off the unlucky driver in the next lane. However, the Atlas not only pulsed the steering wheel when I attempted such asshattery, it also counter-steered to bring me back to my senses. Seems my days of unsafe lane-hopping are numbered.
As a heavy-traffic commuter, adaptive cruise control is my sanity saviour. The technology keeps the Atlas at a pre-determined distance behind a lead car and can bring the vehicle to a full stop. The system will even pause for about three seconds, but longer than that requires a tap of the throttle or a flick of the "resume" button on the steering wheel to get going again. While I appreciate the stop-and-go capabilities, the Atlas was not very smooth. Occasionally it would glide to a stop, but most of the time it was pretty herky-jerky.
Volkswagen sent me at Atlas with the 3.6-liter V6 powerplant in front-wheel drive. This larger engine puts out 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque and offers strong acceleration. Freeway merging was a breeze and I appreciated the quick power delivery. The Atlas weighs in at over 4,300 pounds and the suspension is tuned pretty soft. It feels a bit floaty over rolling pavement, but I was glad for the cushy ride on pothole-filled city streets. 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 all-wheel drive Atlas has a few drive modes that are not present in the front-wheel drive version. These modes 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. 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.
EPA fuel ratings for the larger V6 are 18 miles per gallon in the city, 25 on the highway and 20 combined. That's a bit better than the non-eco boost Ford Explorer but much less than the 22 city/28 highway of the Mazda CX-9. The smaller 2.0-liter turbo engine is closer to those Mazda numbers.
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 eight 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 is offering very few options on the Atlas, and those are only 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.
Overall, the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas is just what it appears to be: a well-executed three-row SUV. It just didn't stir up any emotion in me. The driving dynamics are what I expected, the looks aren't offensive or polarizing, the cargo capacity is middle of the road. It's a fine SUV, but it never made me smile. My brain was satisfied but my heart was left behind.
If your purchases aren't driven by emotion, you'll be eminently satisfied with the Atlas. If, however, you want a little soul in your three-row SUV, I would look at the similarly priced Mazda CX-9 for its great looks and lithe handling or the upcoming -- and much more spendy -- Dodge Durango SRT for more horsepower than a six-passenger SUV should legally have.
The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas starts at $30,500 for a base 2.0-liter model, but my mid-trim SE with Technology and the 3.6-liter V6 will set you back just a smidge over $37,000. If you are the type to go big or go home, the V6 with all-wheel drive in SEL Premium trim is $48,490.