SAN ANTONIO, Texas — It was an inevitable question from a colleague of mine at the launch of the all-new 2018 Volkswagen Atlas, the brand’s first three-row SUV that takes aim at such industry standards as the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander: “Was the Atlas originally planned to have a diesel engine option?” Cue shifty eyes, forced smiles, and some guttural throat clearing from the assembled VW personnel on hand. Of course, all one really needed to do was open the fuel filler door to see the curiously wide (and vacant) space beside the fuel filler neck where a diesel exhaust fluid filler would have existed to learn the answer.
In these post-Dieselgate days, Volkswagen is doing its best to move forward by focusing less on diesel engine development and more on building a range of vehicles that the all-important American market will take seriously. Already, the compact Golf hatchback and midsize Passat sedan represent two of our favorite vehicles in their respective segments, while VW has just launched a new Tiguan compact crossover that will better compete against the Honda CR-Vs, Toyota RAV4s, and Ford Escapes that fill U.S. highways. But this week is all about the 2018 Atlas, a vehicle that would make Volkswagen a contender in the midsize SUV segment that is shopped heavily by active North American families who load them up with both people and stuff, often while towing even more stuff behind. (Volkswagen will sell the Atlas in select markets outside the U.S. as well, but all will be built in VW’s Chatanooga plant alongside the Passat.)
To that end, the Atlas is designed to compete. Aesthetically, it looks rough and ready with broad, chiseled lines, a blunt snout, and a creased character line along each side that emphasizes its rugged appearance. Inside, the Atlas is spacious with packaging that allows three rows of seats – enough to fit seven people inside fairly easily. While many vehicles in this segment have third rows that are useful for only the smallest children, but this is not the case here. We’re happy to report that even adjusting the front and second rows for a near-six-foot frame, the third seat offers plenty of head, leg and shoulder room for an average adult to get plenty comfortable. Should the third row not be needed, it folds down to increase luggage space and allows the second row to slide rearwards, giving almost limousine-like legroom. A bench seat or captain’s chairs are available in the second row.
We sampled the highest-tier Atlas SEL Premium, which is equipped with leather seating surfaces (lower trims get VW’s high-quality leatherette), faux wood trim and an 8-inch center display that is standard in all Atlas models except the base S-level trim. An optional 12.3-inch Volkswagen Digital Cockpit instrument panel display is also available and, like the Audi Virtual Cockpit system that it is loosely based on, it offers a fully customizable digital display tailored to the driver’s preferences. Notable American-market influences include a large storage cubby under the armrest between the front seats and an optional automatic tailgate opened by swiping a foot under the rear bumper.
The Atlas is the largest vehicle yet built on Volkswagen’s scalable MQB architecture, which underpins most other Volkswagens, including the Mk7 Golf and the new Tiguan. This platform is easily stretched or shrunken to accommodate vehicles of varying sizes and it Volkswagen says it helped keep costs down during the Atlas’ development. Also keeping costs down are the engines, which are fundamentally shared with other vehicles in Volkswagen’s North American lineup. The base engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four, which is mostly as found in the current Golf GTI, but with a few modifications for slightly more power. The upmarket engine is the 3.6-liter V-6 found in the Passat, making 276 hp and 266 lb-ft in this application. This is the launch engine and the only one we were able to drive, although VW Atlas product manager Jim Burch also expects it will be the volume engine due to the popularity of V-6 units in this class. Both engines are paired to an eight-speed automatic transmission, the only gearbox available. Front-wheel drive is standard, with Volkwagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system available as an option.
The SEL Premium is only available with the V-6 engine and all-wheel drive and our tester was also fitted with 20-inch wheels. It conducted itself well during our drive and we were especially impressed with the Atlas’ road-handling and almost sporty feel, which caused us immediately to think of Mazda’s CX-9 as perhaps the only other vehicle in this class with such agile road manners. On tighter sections of test route, the Atlas seemed to shrink around the driver, making it feel almost a class smaller than it actually is – a good thing.
4Motion-equipped vehicles have four driving modes: Onroad, Snow, Offroad, and Custom Offroad. We didn’t get a chance to experience the last three, but did toggle between settings within Onroad mode which include Normal, Sport, and Eco selections along with a customizable Individual setting. Steering feel is a touch light in Normal mode but firms up nicely in Sport; the same setting also affects shift maps and throttle tip-in, making the Atlas feel nicely responsive. No shift paddles are available even in this upper trim, but the gearlever can be slotted over to a manual setting where shifts up and down are executed quickly with a tap of the lever.
Also standard on the Atlas SEL Premium is a 12-speaker Fender Premium Audio system rated at 480 watts and equipped with a 12-channel amplifier. We’ve been impressed with Fender audio systems in past Volkswagens and the Atlas’ is perhaps the best effort yet. Unfortunately, it’s not available optionally on lower trim levels, so you’ll have to pay $49,415 asking price for the SEL Premium trim to make it yours. Along with the Fender audio, you’ll also receive niceties like heated and cooled front leather seats, an above-looking area view camera, park assist, adaptive cruise control and three-zone climate control, among other features. VW’s Car-Net connectivity system allows for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality.
Will the Atlas help provide more forward momentum for a brand struggling to regain its customers’ trust? That remains to be seen, but we can say we’re looking forward to spending more time behind the wheel later this year, hopefully with a couple of its closest competitors in tow.
2018 Volkswagen Atlas SEL Premium Specifications
|ON SALE||Fall 2017|
|ENGINE||3.6LDOHC 24-valve V-6/276 hp @ 6,200 rpm,
266 lb-ft @ 2,750 rpm
|LAYOUT||4-door, 7-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||17/23 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||198.8 x 78.3 x 70.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.5 sec|
|TOP SPEED||135 mph|