Mountain Wheels: VW’s upsized Atlas SUV aims for a friendlier American reception
2018 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL Premium 4Motion
MSRP: $48,490; as tested: $49,415
Powertrain: 276-HP 3.6-liter V6 with eight-speed automatic transmission
EPA figures: 26 combined (17 city/23 highway)
Those who’ve fallen in love with Volkswagen’s initial attempts to bring SUV-sized business to the U.S. market are a bit like the Marines — the few, and the proud, mostly.
If you’ve done any cross-shopping over the years, you’re well aware that VW’s first wave of SUVs, the first Tiguan and the Touareg, featured very European-styled features and handling.
And pricing, as well. As a result, they also sold just 400,000 copies in over a decade, as everyone and his or her dog was purchasing similar vehicles in the American market.
Enter the Atlas, now assembled at VW’s state-of-the-art plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While I have said for months that it’s something like a German Tahoe, the truck is more appropriately staged against the Honda Pilot, the Toyota Highlander and — perhaps most closely, the Ford Explorer, which it looks a lot like.
Atlas seems positively gigantic compared to previous VW or even Audi models, but it’s not like it’s twice as big as the Touareg. Yes, it is 10 inches longer, overall (198.3), but Atlas does an impressive job of using the space that its 70-inch-tall, 78.3-inch-wide body allows, and offer pretty comfortable three-row seating for seven adults, with 17 cupholders.
If you flatten all of those seats out, you get an accessible 96.8 cubic feet of storage, or a 55- or 20.6-cubic foot space if you leave the second- or third-row seats up for passengers.
Atlas is indeed a substantial vehicle but I found that a comfortable asset on a drive over the passes a few weeks back, with my SEL Premium-level tester’s optional 4Matic all-wheel-drive doing a very impressive job of keeping the vehicle grounded, even with very average all-season tires.
It was also my first Colorado test for the larger engine choice, a 3.6-liter VR6 that’s rated for 276 horsepower. The full-blown AWD version and that engine bring the overall weight to 4,502 pounds, and while it would be awesome to see about 50 more horsepower for full boost on the steepest grades, I think the combo worked out pretty well — and is rated for 23 MPG on the highway, though my combined numbers were closer to 20 MPG.
I did feel poised and grounded, and the vehicle’s additional size added the requisite confidence when facing off against the masses (or weekday tractor-trailer rigs) on the interstate.
The money issue is also part of the deciding factor for those who might be interested but know how spendy things can be with even mass-market European cars. A front-wheel-drive and very basic version of the Atlas is available for $30,750 — complete with the 235-horsepower, 26-MPG, 2.0-liter engine — whereas the largely loaded SEL Premium I drove was just a few bucks short of $50K.
Volkswagen still positions the Touareg as a more premium-minded vehicle; when asked recently what I thought about those various opportunities, I told a friend to look into the Audi Q7, frankly.
And that’s largely because Atlas exhibits a lot of signs of being a very expensive $30,000 vehicle, despite the ultra-gigantic sunroof, leather seating surfaces, a fancy multi-modal digital dash and even the 480-watt, 12-speaker Fender/Panasonic stereo system.
Surfaces are certainly pleasant and design is attractive, but nothing is particularly splashy, as is the wont of VW in general. It is as usual a black-on-black affair in the cabin, with simplified controls and a lot of the action moved into one of two sizes of touchscreens.
The car’s biggest gesture at mechanical versatility is its active control system, one of those now-popular spinning knobs to select on-road, snow or off-road programming, plus an additional four modes of eco-to-sporty on-road driving.
Safety features are also abundant, including parking assistance and collision-avoidance systems, plus a new post-collision braking feature that will help the car from rolling out of control after a crash.
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