2021 Volkswagen Atlas review: Sense and sensibility
Vanity may come into play, but by and large, most people shopping for three-row crossovers want something versatile, sensible and affordable. A car in this segment needs to be able to do it all, from hauling hockey equipment to taking the whole family on a long road trip. These Swiss Army knives are immensely popular, even if they aren't the most exciting things on the block. The VW Atlas has always stuck to the no-nonsense side of things, and its 2021-model-year refresh helps it stand apart in an ever-growing crowd.
Familiar face, just fresher
The prerefresh VW Atlas had a bit of an Isuzu Axiom look going with its blocky features and squarish headlights. But now that there's a new two-row Atlas Cross Sport in town, the O.G. got a nip-tuck to bring it up to date. It's most obvious up front, where the Cross Sport's face has been grafted onto the regular Atlas with great effect. The rear bumper is a little different, too, but it's harder to notice. My SEL-trim tester sports the $1,700 R-Line package, which ramps things up further with sportier bumpers, side skirts and honkin' 21-inch wheels. It's a good look, even if 21s seem kind of large for a mass-market crossover. The prerefresh Atlas' key design staples carry over, and I'm glad they do -- I don't know why, but I am obsessed with how aggressive its fenders are.
If you've been inside any other Volkswagen in the last five years, the refreshed Atlas' cabin will be immediately familiar. From the HVAC switchgear to, uh, all the other switchgear, VW relies heavily on its parts bin inside, which has benefits from a familiarity standpoint but can feel a little stale at the same time. There's a new steering wheel (with VW's new logo), and I appreciate the fact that the switches feel premium. Plus, the heated steering wheel finally receives its own button, breaking free from the shackles of the heated-seat controls. The leatherette seats are supportive, and the Atlas' upright silhouette means there's plenty of visibility on all sides.
An upright design means there's loads of space inside the 2021 Atlas. The second row's tilt-and-slide function lets smaller passengers offer up a bit more legroom to the third row, but even in its default position, my 6-foot frame is decently comfortable way back there, with both headroom and legroom that would make longer trips tolerable. There's suitable cargo space behind the third row, thanks to the fact that the Atlas is about 3 inches longer than before, but lowering the seats when they aren't needed offers up positively cavernous amounts of storage for suitcases, sports equipment, you name it. Junk storage is ample, too, thanks to a deep center console and multiple cubbies scattered about the cabin.
The 2021 Atlas' focus on sense and sensibility also shines through in the way it drives. And, like many other cars in this segment and beyond, much of it will depend on the wheels and tires that come with your trim. Take my SEL R-Line tester, for example: Its 21-inch wheels are the largest on offer, and while they fill the wells nicely, they also contribute to a ride that's a smidge more brittle than I'd like over harsh bits like expansion joints. The 265/45R21 Pirelli Scorpion Zero all-season tires have suitable sidewall, so the ride could be worse, but it feels just a bit too aggressive for a family vehicle in this spec. I bounce around more than I'd like, but fatter tires and smaller wheels on lower trims will probably remedy that.
VW's Atlas also exhibits the same weirdness that I remember from the Subaru Ascent . Specifically, its throttle is entirely too touchy. I don't know if automakers spice up the gas pedal's response for a specific reason, but it's getting annoying. Smooth driving is a great thing to have in a family car, and it's hard to avoid head bobs when 15% throttle feels like 75%. The brake pedal doesn't have this; it's much easier to stop smoothly than it is to start smoothly.
Some of that likely comes from my tester's powertrain. While a 235-horsepower, 2.0-liter I4 is the base engine, this Atlas carries the upgraded 3.6-liter V6 that produces 276 hp. An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard across the board, while buyers get the choice of two or four driven wheels. The 3.6 is happy to accelerate, but only in the corners of the tachometer where it actually generates motive force. Catch the V6 in one of its flat spots and it'll just putt about idly until you provide enough throttle for a downshift to kick in. The transmission is smooth, but gear changes show up a little later than I'd like, especially in conjunction with this specific engine.
No matter the powertrain, the Atlas doesn't exactly have stellar fuel economy. The four-cylinder models achieve 20-21 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg highway, while the V6 variants see 16-17 mpg in the city and 22-23 mpg on the highway. It's nice that the parasitic loss from the AWD system isn't very large, but those numbers are not magna cum laude territory. Thankfully, my V6-toting tester is an overachiever on the highway, showing closer to 24-26 mpg at the flow of traffic (75-80 mph). Real-world city economy remains as mediocre as the feds' best efforts.
Familiar, friendly tech
While the base S trim might only receive a 6-inch touchscreen, every other 2021 Atlas variant ramps it up to an 8-inch unit. While the graphics and responsiveness have been freshened up over the years, it's still largely the same telematics getup that I have in my personal 2016 VW Golf SportWagen . It's a bit austere in design, but it's suitably fast and it looks slick with the quick-navigation buttons on either side of the screen. Satellite radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are on board, and the system can be optioned further on SEL trims with factory navigation and, on the SEL Premium, a Fender audio system. It's a pleasant little screen that never distracts in a major way.
Charging options abound for most passengers. Again, the S trim gets the shaft with just two USB-A ports, but every other trim ramps that up to five. USB-A ports double up in the center console cubby, with another under the armrest and two more for second-row occupants. A third-row USB is nowhere to be found, which isn't exactly keeping up with the Joneses. It also doesn't have USB-C, so hopefully your old cables are still kickin' around. You can wirelessly charge your device with the Qi charger that appears on SE trims and up.
There are some other clever tricks in here, depending on how much you want to spend. The SE/Tech trim adds creature comforts like three-zone climate control, keyless entry, remote start and the Car-Net 2.0 connected-car system that lets you use your phone to do things like lock and unlock the doors or start the engine from afar. The SEL trim adds Digital Cockpit, replacing the gauge cluster with a screen that offers a wide variety of data, from basic fuel economy info to a full map.
While plenty of safety systems come standard, the loadout only gets better as you throw down more dough. The Atlas S starts with automatic emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring, while the SE/Tech trim picks up full-speed adaptive cruise control and parking sensors. The SEL trim adds lane-keep assist and traffic jam assistant and it will also display road signs in the cabin. At the tippy-top, the SEL Premium tacks on a surround-view camera and automatic parking assist. The traffic jam assistant works smoothly, as does the adaptive cruise control at highway speeds, making for quite the smooth journey with everything enabled.
How I'd spec it
The 2021 VW Atlas starts out at an affordable $32,565 before destination (for FWD; AWD adds $1,900 to the bottom line), but things get more extreme in a hurry, with the highest I4 trim costing $48,215 and V6 models ranging from $39,315 to $51,715. I'd avoid the R-Line stuff for the sake of cabin comfort, and I think the SEL is the real sweet spot here, with the right kind of features available at a price that isn't too wonky. Stick with an AWD 2.0 model and it'll set you back $43,415 (AWD is mandatory here), or you can sort of game the system and get the SEL V6 with FWD for $100 less than that.
Down to brass tacks
If you want a three-row crossover from a mass-market brand, you have almost too much choice. The Toyota Highlander is newer and rides nicer, and it's available as a hybrid, but its infotainment is not that great. The Mazda CX-9 prioritizes the driver a bit more, but the third row is tight and again, I don't like the infotainment. The Honda Pilot is an all-around dependable family-hauler, and if you want to treat yourself, the kissin' cousins of Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade really ramp up the fanciness. Quilted leather? Sure, why the hell not.
Perhaps you and your family prefer a three-row crossover that has just a little bit of visual punch, with standard tech that doesn't suck and an interior that prioritizes space and sensibility over flashy materials and angles. If that's more your speed than anything, the 2021 VW Atlas will make a very nice addition on your driveway.