The Volkswagen Atlas is a vehicle that rides, drives and handles much smaller than it actually is.
For 2019, it has been updated to include more standard features across the lineup, including forward collision warning, blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert.
Our test vehicle was the SE w/ Technology R-line model equipped with the 3.6 liter V6 and 8-speed automatic.
Mid-size SUVs have been gaining in popularity for quite some time now, which is a great thing for buyers in this segment. Being in a profitable segment means that there is a lot of R&D put into these vehicles, and the Atlas is no different. It drives and handles much better than one would expect from a seven-seat SUV. The ride is smooth, but not floaty, and the handling is more on part with a large sedan than a seven-seat SUV. Even at highway speeds, the cabin is noticeably quiet.
While a 235 hp four-cylinder engine is standard, our test model came with the V6 that puts out 276 hp and 266 ft-lb of torque. While this isn’t a lot by today’s standards, having an 8-speed automatic makes this vehicle feel more lively than it really is. If it can predict what the driver is going to do, the transmission is great. For times when your rate of acceleration changes significantly, like slowly taking the sharp curve before entering a freeway onramp then accelerating to get up to freeway speed, it can take the transmission a noticeable amount of time to find the right gear before taking off. This can be avoided by putting the transmission in sport mode, which holds onto gears a little longer, but this reduces gas mileage.
For those hoping to have a fun time by turning off all the electronic traction and stability control systems, you can’t. You can, however, reduce them significantly, which will allow you to get a little sideways, or understeer, which is more likely. Volkswagen does this for safety reasons. The Atlas is the tallest vehicle made by VW and has the highest center of gravity, which means it is more likely to roll over than any other VW. In our testing, there wasn’t the slightest hint of instability in the Atlas, but we will trust VW on this one.
The interior on the SE is expansive and comfortable, with leather all around and heated seats up front. The infotainment system is great, but mostly while you’re stopped. Continuing with the theme of safety, when driving, many features of the infotainment system are locked out. To access all the infotainment features, the Atlas must be turned on and in park. The 8-speaker sound system was adequate, no lacking, nor impressive. All three rows get adjustable air vents, which is great for rear seat passengers who sometimes don’t have this option. There are plenty of cupholders to go around and plenty of room for adults to sit in the third row.
With all the seats folded flat, there is nearly 100 cubic feet of storage space, which can be very useful for households that don’t have access to a pickup truck. With a towing capacity of up to 5,000 pounds, the Atlas can also tow small camping trailers, thus increasing its utility for a suburban family. While we have no doubt that the Atlas can tow 5,000 pounds, it could definitely use a stronger, torqueier engine for those who will be towing.
Fuel economy isn’t the best in the segment, but it’s not terrible either. The EPA rates the front wheel drive model we tested at 17 city, 24 highway and 19 combined. We averaged 20.4 mpg over mixed city and highway driving. Many competitors get better gas mileage and have more power, but barring performance models like the SRT Durango, this is the best handling vehicle in the class. It is front wheel drive (and the AWD models are FWD biased) which creates some torque steer.
The Atlas is available with VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive. 4Motion uses hydraulic pumps to add pressure to clutches near the rear differential. This allows the Atlas to transfer power between the front and rear wheels up to a 50/50 split. Despite being the largest SUV VW makes, the Atlas doesn’t get the better mechanical 4Motion system that the Touareg uses, but it also isn’t designed to be as capable of an off-roader as the Touareg is either. Yes, we know that the Touareg is no longer for sale in the U.S., but it still has the best off-road four-wheel drive system VW makes and is available in other countries.
IIHS gives the Atlas a five stars overall safety rating, with a superior rating (highest possible) in forward collision prevention. It scores either four or five stars in every category. There is a suite of safety features included across the lineup with more things like adaptive cruise control and high beam assist for the higher models. The Atlas is one of the safest seven-seat SUVs you can buy.
Overall, the Volkswagen Atlas is a very competitive vehicle. It’s not an old school SUV that can handle significant towing or moderate off highway driving. There are tradeoffs to everything, and what it lacks in fuel economy and power it makes up with its superb on-road driving dynamics that make it feel much smaller than it is. Whether being used as a daily commuter or for long trips down the highway, it is a comfortable and composed vehicle and is well-suited as a family hauler.
Matthew Barnes is an experienced towing expert. He works as a mechanical engineer and his day job involves testing a variety of vehicles while towing trailers of all types and sizes. Matt shares his knowledge by writing for automotive news outlets in the evenings. When he’s not working he can be found spending time in the great outdoors with his family. He enjoys camping, hiking, canyoneering, and backpacking. Whenever possible he spends time riding in or on any power sports vehicle he can find and claims he can drive anything with a motor, which probably isn’t true.