VW goes big into the SUV market with Atlas …
There are no awards for being late to the party, but VW is hoping sales are its consolation prize for finally creating a large SUV, the Atlas.
It won’t win any styling awards (can you say big and boxy?), but it’s certainly stout and a bargain!
While every major automaker, including the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, have created a large SUV, it took VW until late this summer to release its Atlas, a 2018 model that is very nearly the same dimensionally as the Dodge Durango I tested a couple weeks back. Both are a pleasure to drive.
What the Atlas has going for it is nimble handling, good acceleration and a ride to match, but it’s also modestly priced. How modest?
The base S model starts at $31,425 including delivery and touts a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 that makes 235 horsepower. That’s with front-wheel drive, naturally, but even the tested SEL model with V6 and 4Motion (AWD) was just $42,690. No options were added either and with a $925 delivery fee the dark Platinum Gray Metallic test ute went for $43,615.
While that still won’t fit into everyone’s household budget, compare that with the tested Durango’s $49,360 price tag. In fact, most large utes roll out of the showroom at roughly $50 grand. Chief competitors are the Honda Pilot, Chevy Tahoe, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Highlander.
Like the Durango this has a third-row seat, although this one is extremely easy to get to, and is a bit roomier. The second row seats slide 7.7 inches and fold flat while you crawl in back, plus once folded, both rows of seats create a huge storage area for when you have hauling on your agenda. A power hatch is standard too, with the power down button inside the tailgate.
Atlas is comfortable too, the ute’s four-wheel independent suspension provides a well-controlled ride that eats up our bumpy Wisconsin roads and keeps passengers happy on a long haul.
There are four driving settings to allow the driver to adjust for sloppy underfoot conditions, including snow and for major off-roading. A dial on the console makes the adjustments that also include four driving modes. Sport firms the wheel substantially, but mostly a driver won’t need to use these much. For the record, ground clearance is 8 inches if you intend to wallow in muck.
I’ve read in various car pubs that the 3.6-liter V6 used in Atlas isn’t as strong as it should be, but I say nay-nay! This V6 felt lively to me. It creates 276 horsepower and 266 lb.-ft. of torque. The large ute jumped to life getting on the freeway and felt much more nimble than the Durango as well as many other large utes I’ve tested. There is some acceleration hesitation from time to time, usually when coming out of a corner and getting on the gas pedal quickly. You adjust to it.
Handling is light and easy and Atlas slips into parking spots with ease. Weighing 4,502 lbs. the Atlas is 480 lbs. lighter than the Durango and you feel that, especially in city driving. Cornering is good and steering feedback positive, as you’d expect in a VW.
Volkswagen’s 8-speed automatic transmission works well too and grip is fine, although I did spin the tires a couple times when starting quickly on slightly damp pavement.
Inside, the test vehicle includes black leather seats with medium-gray stitching while its dash is well laid out and features pewter-look trim, which is not highly reflective. The radio screen is surrounded by a gloss black facing that extends to the climate controls below on the stack and the console too. There’s fake wood trim on the dash face and doors.
Seating was extremely comfortable with power front seats that included three levels of heat, operated by buttons on the lower dash. Bottom seat cushions are soft and wide with moderate contouring while the seat backs are supportive and hold the driver and passenger firmly in place when cornering at higher speeds. The driver’s seat also has a 3-memory function.
Not necessary here, but nice to have, is a flat-bottomed steering wheel. It adds a bit of flare to the interior and provides more legroom for shorter drivers that must sit nearer the steering wheel.
The wheel tilts and telescopes and has a variety of buttons on the hub. But these do not function quite the same as most do these days, so figuring out the trip computer and other info screens is not an easy task. A driver will need to study these a bit and get used to them.
But the overall dash design is clean and functions easily. The touchscreen radio is large enough to see its buttons and tuning it and finding radio channels is not difficult. I could find no navigation system here though, and that seems odd at this price, even with the VW being on the low end of large sport-ute pricing.
Certainly VW does not scrimp overhead where there is a mammoth sunroof that extends well over the second- and third-row seats. Many utes now have panoramic sunroofs, but this one was extraordinarily large. Yes, there’s a power sunscreen to cover it, limiting interior light when needed.
Sun visors slide too and there’s a HomeLink system overhead, plus an SOS type system to automatically notify emergency agencies if you’re in an accident.
Other standard safety features include a rearview camera, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and an automatic braking system that detects pedestrians. Blind-spot detection and lane departure are standard too, with the lane departure system able to be disengaged as needed.
VW also includes parking assist front and rear to avoid curb clunking. While good that it warns you, like many such systems it howls when you’re close to something in front, even as the vehicle is in reverse and the ute is backing away from the curb. That becomes irritating quickly!
Atlas also has push-button and remote start along with all the electronic hookups you’d expect. Most are below the dash’s center stack in an open bin where it’s easy to place a cell phone or two. The armrest between the front seats is soft and large, so you can put a lot of odds and ends (think cell phone chargers, sunglasses, maps, etc.) inside.
Note too that the VW climate system had to be set higher than in most test vehicles to keep the ute warm. I had it on 75-76 degrees when 70-72 will warm most vehicles.
Gas mileage was better than I expected though. I managed 23.7 mpg for the week, which was about 2 mpg better than the trip computer figured. It’s rare to exceed the usually lenient trip computer reading. The EPA says to expect 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, so my figure for mixed city and highway driving really was surprising.
The 2.0-liter turbo I4 models are rated even higher and that base S model comes with cloth seats and standard cruise control, not adaptive. But it does feature power mirrors, six stereo speakers and two-zone climate controls. There’s an SE model between the S and tested SEL, plus an SEL Premium that’s up a notch and adds 20-inch tires, cooled front seats and a Fender 12-speaker stereo and a lot more add-ons.
All Atlas models feature VW’s 6-year, 72,000-mile limited warranty and a 24-hour roadside assistance program for the first three years or 36,000 miles, whichever occurs first.
So VW may be playing catch-up, but Atlas is a strong competitor in an ever-expanding large-SUV market.
FAST STATS: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL w/4Motion
Hits: Large, comfy SUV with third row seating and AWD. Good acceleration, handling and ride too. Light steering, heated seats, giant sunroof, flat-bottomed steering wheel, power hatch, 4 driving modes, simple radio, rearview camera and comfy seats.
Misses: No navigation system, some hesitation in acceleration, cruise and trip computer buttons on steering wheel hub not the usual, so takes time to learn.
Made in: Chattanooga, Tenn.
Engine: 3.6-liter V6, 276 hp
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Weight: 4,502 lbs.
Wheelbase: 117.3 in.
Length: 198.3 in.
Cargo: 21.0 cu. ft. (96.8 cu. ft. rear two rows down)
Tow: 5,000 lbs.
MPG: 17/23 (EPA)
MPG: 23.7 (tested)
Base Price: $42,690
Test vehicle: $43,615
Sources: VW, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage