Since last we met Volkswagen's Atlas, the largest model in VW's fleet has had time to settle into its place among the competition and we've had time to learn more about its strengths and sharpen our nitpicks. Yes, I still miss the rugged and capable the Atlas replaced -- and look back wistfully on those few years VW offered it with a V10 TDI engine -- but the new model feels like a much better, more economical fit for the family-hauling set that it's meant to serve.
And there's a lot to love about the 2019 Volkswagen Atlas. Literally, there's a lot of it. At 78.3 inches wide, the Atlas is about 5 inches wider than the, but still a fraction of an inch narrower than the . Of course, VW's horizontal design language emphasizes and exaggerates the width, giving it a broader appearance than the Honda on the road.
The Atlas' 198.3-inch length leaves decent room for legs in its third row of seats (33.7 inches). I wouldn't call it spacious back there -- it's a squeeze for taller humans, especially with just 38.3 inches of headroom. But, aside from the lack of USB charging ports on the third row, it's not a bad spot for a small adult or child to spend a road trip, and actually quite generous for the class.
And, with both of its rear rows folded flat, the Altas bests the Highlander, Pilot andfor cargo capacity, at 96.8 cubic feet. If you're looking for space in your, ahem, "small sport utility vehicle," the Atlas is a fine choice. (How the EPA counts the Atlas as "small" while the , which is just 1.3 inches longer, is a "standard SUV" is beyond me.)
Solid cabin and safety tech
Overall, the Atlas' technology has proven to be a solid suite, starting in the dashboard with standard App Connect infotainment. Its large, 8-inch screen sits pretty and is very responsive to the touch with a simple, easy-to-learn interface. The optional navigation software got me where I was going without issue and worked well with the voice recognition Volkswagen's running these days. This is the same setup you'll find in the dashboards of nearly every new VW in the automaker's 2019 lineup and I've enjoyed it every time. Phone-basedand are standard, along with MirrorLink, if that's your jam.
The Digital Cockpit instrument cluster looks great and is fairly customizable. It's similar to, but not as flashy or powerful as Audi's Virtual Cockpit digital dashboard. Then again, it's a nice luxury touch in this more affordable class, which is why it's a shame you can only access this particular option by picking the single most expensive trim level, the $48,395 V6 SEL Premium with 4Motion all-wheel drive.
Driver-assistance features are finally up to snuff for this model year. My tester featured an adaptive cruise control system that works in stop-and-go traffic, maintaining a set following distance behind the car ahead. The lane-keeping steering assist and lane-departure alert systems are unobtrusive enough, but there's no lane-centering like you'll get with the upcoming 2020 Toyota Highlander's Lane Tracing Assist.
Why does this work like that?
I promised nitpicks, so here they come. My biggest gripes are with the operation of the parking sensors and camera systems.
When you put the Atlas into reverse, the standard rear-view camera comes on, the audio volume dips and the proximity sensors activate. So far so good, everything is fine. When I put the SUV into drive, however, the sensors and rear camera don't deactivate until I hit well over 10 mph. In a large parking lot, parking deck or neighborhood, that could mean a very long time without audio or infotainment -- just a useless rear view. You could reach up and close the camera view with a virtual button, but who wants to do that every time they find themselves creeping out of a parking lot?
This wouldn't be so bad if it were the optional surround-view camera -- a view of the area ahead of and around the car would be useful in, say, a tightly twisting parking deck situation -- but it doesn't automatically activate in reverse or drive. You have to manually press a console button every time to use it, which is also annoying. Honestly, if I'd paid extra to get the Overhead View Camera, I'd want that to be the default camera view when parking anyway.
Admittedly, these are minor annoyances in the way these features work -- the actual functionality is fine -- but they stood out as rough edges in what felt like an otherwise polished Atlas experience.
Performance and powertrain
A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is the standard power plant for the Atlas S and SE trim levels. It makes 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque -- healthy if not overwhelming numbers for a vehicle of this size.
The optional engine upgrade is a 3.6-liter V6 that steps up to 276 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque. VW calls it a "monster" in its promotional materials, but with only eight more lb-ft than the 2.0T, it doesn't seem so monstrous to me. Still, it's a nice horsepower upgrade and -- perhaps more importantly -- a much smoother, quieter engine in daily operation. The V6 will also allow the Atlas to tow up to 5,000 pounds, making it a solid upgrade should you need to haul a small boat on the weekend.
Either way you go, the Atlas features an eight-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. V6 models have the option for 4Motion AWD, making it (again) perhaps the better choice for inclement weather.
The base engine is good for 22 combined miles per gallon (20 city and 26 highway), according to the EPA. The V6 drops to 19 combined mpg (17 city and 24 highway) losing only a single highway mpg with the addition of all-wheel drive. During my week of testing, I averaged 22 mpg with my 4Motion V6, pretty much bang-on with the estimates.
Off-the-line performance is decent, but even with the V6's eight extra torques, highway acceleration for passing isn't the best. The combination of the Atlas' gearbox -- which seems to be tuned for efficient cruising -- and the physics of a big 4,502-pound SUV encourage a more relaxed driving style, which seems to suit family hauling. There is a Sport mode for the transmission, but it doesn't really help overall performance.
Owners will likely get more use out of the optional terrain- and traction-management systems -- accessible via a knob on the center console -- which offer four different programs for snow, off-road and the like.
Pricing and competition
The Atlas competes with the aforementioned Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander as well asand the Mazda CX-9; it starts at $30,895 with the four-cylinder engine. The VW is more spacious and slightly less expensive to start than much of the competition but, comparably equipped, it's a similar value.
Personally, I think most owners would want to step up to the V6, unlocking the all-wheel-drive option in the process. Then you're looking at a starting price of around $34,095 for the V6 S with 4Motion. (Oddly, there doesn't appear to be a V6 S sans all-wheel-drive.) The sweet spot, I think, is the V6 SEL, which gets you most of the best features starting at $41,395 or $43,195 with 4Motion. At that price, you can roll the slightly larger.
As tested, my top-trim Premium SEL 4Motion rolls in all of the bells and whistles -- including the Digital Cockpit (a nice-to-have, but not strictly required) and the Overhead View Camera (which I've already complained about) for $48,395. All prices exclude a $995 destination charge you'll need to account for.
It's not perfect, but what car is? And, at the very least, my biggest complaints are extremely nitpicky. As a family hauler, the Volkswagen Atlas continues to be a solid choice for the money -- especially for drivers who value a spacious, quiet cabin and a comfortable ride over thrills and dynamics.