If you go by sales, VW SUVs have always been the scrawny kid on the beach getting sand kicked in his face.
But, as if answering one of those mail-order bodybuilding courses, a new, big, powerful and buff VW Atlas is giving those other bullies a roundhouse to the jaw, and claiming its rightful place in the sun.
Behold: the VW Atlas.
Or as we named out tester, Charles Atlas.
If you don’t remember Charles Atlas, you can still appreciate that the U.S. is big SUV country, and up until now VW hasn’t really courted the buyer who needs three rows of seats and 7 passenger capacity. We recently tested the all new Tiguan – much larger than the model it replaces, but that 3rd row was smallish, and best for kids. It’s a perfect vehicle to compete with the other occasional 3-rowers, and an impressive new product.
But there’s also a larger segment that has gone under-served by VW, with competitors like the GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot and Mazda CX-9.
Get the body you’ve always wanted.
The Atlas passes the first test – it looks big and strong.
The largest vehicle ever sold (and built) by VW in the U.S., it’s hard to believe the Atlas shares the same platform as the Golf hatchback, but it does. That must be a pretty flexible setup, as the Atlas is 198.3 inches long, 78.3 inches wide and 70.0 inches high.
With the large proportions, it’s clear that VW wants you to know this is a 3-row vehicle aimed at American tastes. But rolling on 20” wheels, and with 8.0-inches of ground clearance, the crisp, blocked-off lines and tasteful Pure White color gave our tester loads of presence. It could have just as easily been mistaken for a large Audi. Or at least an upscale Explorer or Grander-than-Grand Cherokee.
Broad shoulders and a strong core.
Buyer of this segment want room more than anything else, and here the Atlas really shines.
It starts with impressive passenger space, with room for 7 (2 up front, 3 in the middle and 2 in the back row). VW makes great use of the large dimensions, with a 3rd row that not only has room for adults, (best in class, we might add) it also provides 2nd row seats that tilt up (even with a car seat attached) for easy access.
The wide dimensions also mean that the 2nd row easily handles 3 children’s car seats, making the Atlas one of the few in its class that can be a true minivan competitor. While 2nd row Captain’s chairs are available, the bench seat is so comfortable, especially pushed back – you don’t miss it.
That big space also means huge cargo carrying ability, VW says it is best in class (or close) in all permutations. With all three rows up, you have a useful 21 cubic feet. Dropping the third row gives you a massive 56 cubes, and dropping the second row, a gargantuan 97 cubic feet.
And powerful legs.
While the size and comfort show that VW is serious about competing, it’s the drive that sets it apart – and above – most SUV’s. Under the hood is VW’s familiar 3.6-liter VR6 engine (a turbo 2.0-liter four is available on lower trim levels).
Pushing out 276 hp, and 266 lb.-ft. of torque and teamed to an 8-speed automatic (we loved Sport Mode) it may not be the quickest in class – big vehicle + 4WD = heavy – but it is very responsive, and creamy, buttery, luxury smooth. For those that tow, a maximum capacity of 5,000 lbs., should be enough to bring most of the toys. Considering the weight, our 20-mpg average seems quite reasonable.
The suspension picks up on the powertrain slickness and delivers a glorious ride. While it still has that crisp, well-controlled feeling we love in German vehicles, it is also velvety, and driving an Atlas always feels like a first-class experience. The optional 4Motion all-wheel-drive normally operates in front wheel drive, and calls upon the rear wheels for added grip when conditions require. 4-different modes; Dry Rainy, Snowy and Rough let you maximize the system for specific conditions.
While 4Motion adds confidence in poor weather, the Atlas makes any drive enjoyable with light, but feelsome steering, and good handling. This isn’t a canyon carver, mind you, but it’s comfortable, predictable, and feels much smaller from behind the wheel. Easily one of the best overall driving SUVs in its class.
Opt for the SEL Premium model like our tester, and you’ll feel positively cosseted all the time. The Atlas wows you with the Volkswagen Digital Cockpit – tech that first appeared on Audi – that makes the 12.3-inch instrument display a thing of wonder, with large tach and speedo (well, actually, digital renderings), and a host of info in between that you can even personally configure to remember your name. Up to 4 different names and stored settings for a variety of systems.
Yes, you too, Alice.
Also available to display is the Wide Map Navigation View, which reads out in the instrument panel, and cleverly reduces the size of the gauges to make it easier to read. In the center stack, an 8-inch touchscreen easily handles all the rest of the duties. Neat stuff.
Infotainment is what you’d expect with VW’s smart App-Connect that includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Whatever the source, the available 480-watt, 12-speaker Fender audio system fills the cabin with sweet sound.
Other goodies include a Climatronic 3-zone climate control, and an overhead 360-degree view camera system that makes parking the big ‘Dub a piece of cake.
A family vehicle should look out for you and your loved ones, and the Atlas brings loads of safety tech, including Front Assist including Pedestrian Monitoring, Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Traffic Alert, and driver helper features including Lane Assist, Park Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control, Park Pilot, Area View and Light Assist. All this and a 5-star safety rating from NHTSA. You’ll feel safe.
Getting big needn’t mean spending big.
If you need space on a budget, the Atlas S with turbo 4-cylinder and front wheel drive starts at $30,750. That’s bargain pricing for this class of vehicle. Like most European brands, you can ladder up from there, based on equipment level. The V6 model starts at $32,150. Add $1,800 for 4Motion all-wheel drive.
There’s a total of 12 models in the Atlas pantheon, including our top-of-the-line V6 SEL Premium w 4Motion, which stickered in at $48,490. Our tester had neither of the two options – 2nd row captain’s chairs ($625) or 20” Black Mejorada Wheels ($235).
While the smaller Mazda CX-9 comes in less at $45,290, and the Honda Pilot at slightly less $47,470, a loaded Audi Q7 is well over $65,000. So, the Atlas is competitive in its set, and a bargain if you prefer pedigreed European performance.
Plus, we have to add that VW now provides a 6-year/72,000-mile New Vehicle Limited Warranty. And that warranty period holds even when you sell it to the next owner. Class leading, and good value.
The Atlas is a bold, strong step for VW.
And a smart one too. Handsome, exceptionally spacious, well-equipped and an excellent drive, the largest VW you can buy is also one of the best.
Muscled up, athletic and handsome, the VW Atlas is ready to be King of the Beach. And everywhere else.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.