VW’s attempt to ride the three-row crossover wave

Volkswagen has had it rough over the last two years. The Dieselgate debacle has purged the automaker’s coffers of expendable capital, pulled engineering teams from regular tasks, and put corporate executives under arrest. Despite the gloom, the horizon is clearing as the German automaker begins selling refurbished TDI models and its first-ever seven-passenger, three-row SUV rolling off the assembly line in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The 2018 VW Atlas fills a huge gap in the automaker’s lineup and competes with segment stalwarts like the Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Traverse.

I got behind the Atlas’ wheel at the 2017 Texas Auto Writers Association’s Springtime Auto Roundup at the Circuit of the Americas outside Austin, Texas. Skipping the high-speed Formula One racetrack, I pummeled the Atlas over the broken service roads surrounding the complex. Large potholes and undulating dips combined with twisty corners and hilly terrain to give a decent impression of the Atlas’ driving characteristics.

Continue reading for our first impressions of the 2018 VW Atlas.

First Impressions

First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Exterior
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First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Exterior
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In reality, the Atlas boasts a full eight inches of clearance.

The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas has an imposing stance. Its squared shoulders give it a low and wide appearance, while the black body cladding along the bottom tricks the eye into seeing more ground clearance. In reality, the Atlas boasts a full eight inches of clearance. That’s only two inches less than the 2017 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.

The Atlas’ design is unmistakably Volkswagen. Clean lines with minimal flair or funkiness make the Atlas a straight-laced family hauler. Chrome bars on the grille match up with detailing inside the headlights and the character lines running along the doors. Even the LED taillights and chrome trim on the tailgate play off the same character line. More chrome is found scattered on the bumpers to help brighten up the dark plastic. Chrome around the side windows and on the roof rack brings a premium vibe to upper trim levels. Black trim is standard on lower trims.

First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Exterior
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First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Exterior
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First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Exterior
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First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Exterior
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Speaking of trims, Volkswagen is offering nine versions for 2018. Broken down, the trims are based on three main ones: Launch Edition, SE, and SEL. Each is available with and without 4Motion AWD. The SE is upgradable with the Technology Package and the SEL can be had with the Premium Package. Pricing ranges from $33,500 to $48,490 before options and fees. Tested here is the SEL Premium with 4Motion.

Opening the chunky German-engineered doors reveals a cabin that’s equally clean-cut and straight-laced. Traditional materials like leather, wood, satin chrome, and piano black plastic make for a reserved yet tasteful appearance. Thankfully, the Atlas’ in-dash technologies are state-of-the-art. The SEL Premium trim brings Volkswagen’s 12.3-inch Digital Cockpit. The fully digital gauges are configurable and programmable profiles allow for saved preferences across multiple drivers. A 6.5-inch infotainment system comes standard and includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Upper trims get an 8.0-inch screen with available navigation. Audiophiles will like the 480-watt sound system from Fender. Of course, things like Bluetooth connectivity and SiriusXM satellite radio are all present.

First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Interior
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First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Interior
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First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Interior
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First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Interior
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The Digital Cockpit looks and operates just a well as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit on which it’s based

I found the 8.0-inch infotainment system to work rather well and respond quickly to the touch. The Digital Cockpit looks and operates just a well as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit on which it’s based. A three-position memory setting for the driver’s seat is nice, but the buttons are impossible to see without taking eyes off the road. Other controls are much easier to use. The familiar three-knob HVAC system couldn’t be more intuitive. Heated and vented seats make for comfortable buns and a heated steering wheel keeps fingers defrosted on cold mornings.

Sitting behind the wheel, the Atlas’ ergonomics are good. Between the power driver seat and tilt/telescoping steering column, anybody should be able to get comfortable. The infotainment system and HVAC controls are all within easy reach, as are the buttons and knobs on the center console. It’s no surprise, but the Atlas has the typical Volkswagen feel and smart layout.

Rear passengers will enjoy plenty of legroom in the second-row bench. The seatbacks recline, too, adding to the long-distance comfort level. A copious number of HVAC vents keep rear passengers happy. The rear rows have separate temperature and fan controls from the front, meaning dad can keep cool, mom can stay warm, and the kids can do whatever they want in the back seats. Volkswagen even includes two USB ports and an 115-volt household outlet in the second row. There’s a total of seven USB ports throughout the Atlas.

First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Interior
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The Atlas’ rear seats fold flat to make 96.8 cubic feet of cargo room

Getting into the third row is a snap. Simply pull the release handle atop the outboard second-row seats, and they tilt and slide forward. This gives plenty of access room to the third row while allowing a child seat (empty, of course) to remain strapped in. The second row also slides fore and aft 7.7 inches to add legroom wherever it’s needed. Captain’s chairs are optional in the second row for those not needing seven seats. And when you’re not hauling people, the Atlas’ rear seats fold flat to make 96.8 cubic feet of cargo room.

Behind the Wheel

Sit in the driver’s seat and you’ll be greeted with a thin-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel that’s familiar to any Volkswagen owner. Push the satin chrome Start/Stop button on the center console, and the 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder or optional 3.6-liter V-6 fire up as the dashboard comes to life. Slip the shifter into drive, release the brake, and the Atlas rolls off with nary a squeak. Immediately noticeable is the quiet interior and soft ride. Volkswagen engineers certainly tuned the four-wheel independent suspension for comfort.

First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Drivetrain
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VW estimates the V-6 and AWD-equipped models will get 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, and 19 mpg combined

My tester’s 3.6-liter V-6 feels rather peppy thanks to its 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque. The eight-speed automatic’s shifts go almost unnoticed and the 4,500-pound SUV accelerates. I perform a scientific sprint to 60 mph, but I’d guesstimate it could finish the run in roughly eight seconds. Volkswagen says the top speed is 115 mph. Though the EPA has not evaluated the 2018 Atlas, VW estimates the V-6 and AWD-equipped models will get 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, and 19 mpg combined. That’s certainly not great, but not much worse than the all-new 2018 Chevrolet Traverse with its V-6 and AWD. Chevy says its three-row crossover will get 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. Let’s just hope gas stays cheap.

Ride wise, suspension damping and body motions are kept in check on the rough pavement. The Atlas is smooth on all but the roughest potholes I rumbled over, leading me to suspect it would make a great road-tripper. Visibility is also pretty good for a long SUV. Blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, Lane Assist, and Adaptive Cruise Control help out when needed.

First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Exterior
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Along with its eight inches of ground clearance the VW Atlas boasts a 20.4-degree approach angle and 22.4-degree departure angle

I didn’t have the opportunity to try off-road driving in the Atlas, but I suspect it would hold its own against the 2018 Chevy Traverse and Ford Explorer. Along with its eight inches of ground clearance the VW Atlas boasts a 20.4-degree approach angle and 22.4-degree departure angle. Its 17.5-degree breakover angle is its downfall for any serious off-roading. Nevertheless, its available 4Motion full-time AWD system sends power to all four wheels. Four drive modes allow the driver to select the best setting for the job. These include Dry, Rainy, Snow, and Rough. And like its unibody-based competition, the Atlas comes standard with front-wheel drive.

Conclusion

First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas High Resolution Exterior
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The 2018 Atlas appears to be a well-executed attempt for Volkswagen to break into America’s medium to full-size SUV market. Sales of sedans and hatchbacks are dwindling as shoppers choose crossovers and SUVs, so the Atlas couldn’t have come at a better time. Add to that Volkswagen’s need for a winning hand after the last two years. It will be interesting to see how the Atlas does against its competition in terms of sales. Will the U.S. public trust Volkswagen after the Dieselgate scandal? It seems VW is at least doing its part by offering an impressive six-year/72,000-mile transferable warranty on the Atlas, so there’s that.

I look forward to spending more time behind the wheel and putting this three-row family hauler to the test. I’ll keep you updated should Volkswagen send me one.

  • Leave it
    • * Some say it’s borning
    • * Fuel economy not the greatest
    • * Digital Cockpit only on SEL Premium
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