BOERNE, TX – Volkswagen selects Texas hill country to stage the launch of its all-new ’18 Atlas CUV – an appropriate venue given VW’s uphill struggle in an exploding sector that has been bolstering the bottom lines of other automakers for more than a decade.
VW has been present (barely) with the Tiguan compact CUV and the upsize Touareg, but both have been criticized as too expensive and lacking functionality.
Those vehicles only could accommodate five occupants, so the Atlas corrects VW’s critical shortcoming by delivering standard 3-row seating (stay tuned, as a 2-row variant is under consideration in Wolfsburg). Many Americans rarely use the third row, so it folds flat and yields a cargo hold large enough for an expensive trip to Ikea. Second-row seats can lie flat, too.
Why will the Atlas succeed where the others failed? Because it provides the utility Americans want. Storage cubbies are numerous; the central storage bin (under an expansive first-row armrest) is enormous; charging ports are plentiful; cupholders are well-placed; seats are firm but comfortable for family vacations; and the all-new infotainment system is intuitive and easy on the eyes.
Kids can slip into the third row by pulling a trick lever atop second-row seats that slide and fold forward at the same time. That same lever, grabbed from either the front or rear, works either way, allowing the seat to tilt and slide conveniently. The German engineers had to show off, right?
The third row has seating for two, while the second row can accommodate three with the standard bench or two with the optional captain’s chairs.
This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but the Atlas has a shot at success because it isn’t trying too hard to be European or overly clever or to deliver a stiff ride or dynamic handling. With interior and exterior styling that is straightforward (even a tad dull), the Atlas should blend into the ever-expanding sea of front-wheel-drive utes. In this segment, innocuous is good.
Breakneck acceleration is not a top priority for CUV shoppers, which explains why VW introduces this all-new vehicle with two corporate engines that are proven and capable but won’t win any awards.
The 3.6L “VR6” naturally aspirated V-6 is rated at 276 hp and can be paired with all-wheel drive, while the 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl. shared with the GTI churns out 235 hp with FWD only. Both engines employ direct fuel injection and are mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. VW expects half of customers to pick 4Motion AWD, which can channel up to 50% of available torque to the rear wheels when needed.
The 4-cyl. was not available in pre-production upper trim models offered for test drives here, but the V-6 is more than adequate for passing and is a quiet, smooth companion for long hauls.
The driver can switch into “Eco” mode to save fuel by upshifting rapidly and retarding throttle response. In “Sport” mode, throttle response quickens and gears are held longer, allowing the occasional sprint that pushes engine speed to an exhilarating 5,500 rpm.
On a 150-mile (241-km) mostly rural route through rolling hills connecting a series of small Texas towns, the Atlas V-6 manages an impressive 24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km) as we spend equal time in normal, Sport and Eco modes.
The “user experience” in the Atlas is a function of VW’s MIB II scalable infotainment platform, which debuted in 2015 and appeared in most of the brand’s ’16 vehicles. But the system has been upgraded for Atlas to respond more quickly to commands, and a brighter 8-in. (20-cm) central display screen with better color reproduction also improves visibility from various angles.
MIB II underpins the next generation of VW’s Car-Net connected vehicle services platform, which allows smartphone apps to run on the vehicle’s display through services like Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink.
Our experience with Android Auto was disappointing, as the system failed to run properly on both test vehicles. Another shortcoming with MIB II: It does not allow the driver to adjust cabin temperature with voice commands.
Customers buying Atlas will receive a free 6-month trial subscription for VW Car-Net Security & Service, which includes remote vehicle access (and locking/unlocking), automatic crash notification, roadside assistance and stolen vehicle location assistance.
Wolfsburg Leads Development, With U.S. Input
SEL Premium is Atlas’ top trim (priced at $48,490) and includes the reconfigurable cockpit cluster, which earned corporate sibling Audi trophies for Wards 10 Best Interiors and Wards 10 Best User Experiences in 2016. SEL Premium also integrates 2.5D navigation, which allows one-shot voice destination entry and predicts possible destinations based on frequently used routes.
Another good reason to pony up for the top trim is the all-new Fender Premium Audio System with 12 speakers, a 480-watt 12-channel amp and a massive subwoofer tucked underneath the rear cargo floor. Audio supplier Panasonic worked with VW and the music amplification experts at Fender to pack arena-size sound inside the Atlas.
Arriving late to the big CUV party, the Atlas brings a feature VW says has been lacking in the segment: Automatic Post-Collision Braking. Standard on all models, the system applies the brakes when a primary collision occurs and is intended to reduce residual kinetic energy and the chance for additional damage.
Both the new Atlas and upcoming ’18 Tiguan CUV will carry a limited warranty of six years or 72,000 miles (115,869 km), whichever comes first. VW describes it as the best transferable bumper-to-bumper warranty among SUVs in America and says coverage will extend beyond the first owner.
Designed and engineered in Wolfsburg with input from U.S. staff, the Atlas evolved from VW’s 2013 CrossBlue concept and is starting to roll off the line in Chattanooga, TN. The VW plant there currently assembles the Passat sedan based on the company’s older PQ platform. The automaker invested $900 million at the plant for the Atlas launch.
But the Atlas comes from the enormously flexible MQB (Modular Transverse Matrix) architecture, which underpins the Golf and a European version of the Passat. The upcoming Arteon, which will serve as VW’s luxury flagship, also will spring from MQB.
On sale next month at VW’s 652 U.S. showrooms, the Atlas will be exported from Chattanooga to Mexico, Canada, Russia, South Korea and the Middle East, but there are no plans to sell the Atlas in Western Europe, as the vehicle was deemed too large for the region.
Too large for Europe generally means just right for the U.S. Finally, VW has a proper ute, made by Americans for Americans.
'18 Volkswagen Atlas Specifications
|Vehicle type||Six- or 7-passenger, 5-door CUV|
|Engine||3.6L direct-injected, DOHC V-6 with cast-iron block, aluminum head|
|Power (SAE net)||276 hp @ 6,200 rpm|
|Torque||266 lb.-ft. (361 Nm) @ 2,750 rpm|
|Bore x stroke (mm)||89.0 x 96.4|
|Wheelbase||117.3 ins. (2,979 mm)|
|Overall length||198.3 ins. (5,036 mm)|
|Overall width||78.3 ins. (1,989 mm)|
|Overall height||70.0 ins. (1,778 mm)|
|Curb weight||4,502 lbs. (2,042 kg) with AWD|
|Base price||$33,700 (plus $925 destination charges)|
|Fuel economy||Estimated 17/23 mpg (13.8-10.2 L/100 km)|
|Competition||Chevy Traverse, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander|
|Attractive starting price||Styling a bit bland|
|Moves along ably||Carryover engines|
|Fully contemporary interior||What took so long, VW?|