Mountain Wheels: Volkswagen’s Southwest SUV road trip offers glimpse of Atlas (review)
Many years ago, I made a voyage to the Grand Canyon and across the Navajo Nation of northeastern Arizona that, for a variety of reasons, was perhaps not the best chance to see the nature and beauty of that part of the Southwest.
Luckily, I got a chance to entirely remedy that with a trip this week organized by Volkswagen, offering unending opportunities to see and feel the company’s two new SUVs in some long-term, on- and off-road driving excursions.
In a typical automotive launch event — you’ve read about dozens of them here in my column over the past decade — journalists are plunked down at a swanky hotel, wined and dined to capacity, and then carefully steered on a well-planned and mapped route, to see the automobile du jour in action.
Volkswagen opted to turn that on its head in our Arizona stint (as they did with similar, recent SUV Roadtrip adventures in Maine and Yellowstone) by handing us the keys, a gas card and a gigantic bag of snacks — and letting us roam where we wanted to, for the most part.
So myself and a fellow writer got two nine-hour days behind the wheel of both the new VW Tiguan and, more interestingly, the absolutely gigantic VW Atlas, the company’s new full-sized SUV, which recently debuted.
And true to the great American road-trip tradition, we started and ended the two-day voyage at a pleasant chain hotel in Flagstaff, our only real destination for the trip being the second night’s stay at an equally pleasant chain hotel in Kayenta, Arizona, in the absolute middle of the West Virginia-sized Navajo Nation.
All of this actually turned into a refreshing experience, as the constant anxiety of hitting waypoints, hustling to overwhelming catered lunches or the usual chaos of a Gumball Rally-styled frenzy of leadfooted car journalists was totally not a factor in any way.
We immediately headed northwest through the San Francisco Peaks and out to the edge of Grand Canyon National Park, visiting the Planes of Fame exhibit and skipping the kitsch of Flintstone’s Bedrock City (maybe you visited the latter as a kid).
The new Atlas certainly reconfigures any thought you might have of the Europeans being incapable of (or, perhaps, having the wisdom to avoid) creating an absolutely American-sized SUV, big enough to tow 5,000 pounds of trailer.
The looks are rather stunning — brain-twisting, in a way, with such enormous wheels, such extensive use of character lines, and so much metal — that Atlas seems poised on Chevy Tahoe kind of territory.
That means a mass and a three-row capacity that’s absolutely full-sized. The overall scale is so unusually large for a VW (or, by connection, related Porsche or Audi) product that capacity is measured in both cubic feet of storage (96.8) and cupholders (17 total), just like the big Yankee machines.
You can order a more austere 235-horsepower 2.0-liter version for as little as $30,500, or go high up the food chain with the full-blown 3.6-liter V-6 version, offering 276 horses and available in trims up to a $48,490 SEL Premium with four-wheel-drive and all the various trappings. There are 12 varieties total, mixing engine, 4WD and interior choices.
Atlas prides itself on American-sized interior comfort and the ability to put three child safety seats in the second row certainly speaks to that. We just had a couple of suitcase-sized bags of non-GMO snack foods, which I supplemented with both kinds of Cheetos during a rest stop.
But Atlas is no lummox. Steering and handling-feel seemed composed and that big German (made in Chattanooga, Tennessee) took corners, roared along and generally cruised with the same sophistication as its smaller cousins.
I also learned to love the new Tiguan more than I did on a summertime drive in Colorado. We spent much of the second day on gravel (or not even gravel) roads at the Monument Valley Visitor Center and Museum’s bouncy off-road course, as well as an extended run along the Valley of the Gods route in southeastern Utah.
There, Tiguan also demonstrated some admirable composure and easy ability to scuttle up and over the red rocks; during a very long highway jaunt heading to and from the Four Corners Monument, it also proved itself to be a comfortable, speedy and precise-handling machine.
In the end, its was a pretty unique experience, with plenty of time for pictures and those never-ending vistas and “Road Runner”-styled scenery. I’ll pass along notes about a longer, at-home drive with the Atlas in the coming months.
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