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First drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas [Review]

by Drew Johnson

VW is going big with the three-row Atlas SUV.

For Volkswagen, Atlas might just be shorthand for "At Last." After suffering through a diesel emissions scandal and a lineup long-devoid of any modern utility vehicles, VW and its dealers finally have something to be optimistic about — the three-row Atlas SUV.

The VW Atlas will go after the heart of the three-row SUV market, which includes vehicles like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. Does the Atlas have what it takes to contend with those segment stalwarts? Come with us as we find out.

The basics
Built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Atlas is the latest vehicle to ride on VW's modular MQB platform. Amazingly, that means the massive Atlas rides on the same basic architecture that underpins the pint-sized Polo.

The base engine for the Atlas will eventually be a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder developing 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. But until that engine arrives later this year, all Atlas models will be motivated by a 276 horsepower, 266 lb-ft of torque version of VW's 3.6L VR6 motor.

The four-cylinder Atlas will be available exclusively with front-wheel drive; the V6 will ship standard with front-wheel drive but buyers can upgrade to VW's 4Motion all-wheel drive for an additional charge. Regardless of engine and drive, the Atlas uses an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Atlas V6 models equipped with a factory hitch will be able to tow up to 5,000 pounds. Fit an aftermarket hitch and that rating drops to 2,000 pounds.

The Atlas measures in at 198.3 inches in total length, placing it about half-way between the Honda Pilot and Dodge Durango. With its standard second-row bench, the Atlas can accommodate up to seven-people. Upper-end versions of the Atlas can be equipped with second-row Captain's Chairs that reduce total seat count to six but improve access to the third-row.

Five basic trim levels will be on offer — S, SE, SE w/Technology, SEL and SEL Premium. Starting at $30,500, the Atlas S includes LED headlights, a rear-view camera, 18-inch wheels, 6.5-inch infotainment screen and VW's App-Connect which runs Android Auto and Apple CarPlay out of the box. The Atlas SE sees upgrades that include leatherette seating surfaces, 10-way power driver's seat, blind spot monitor, 8-inch infotainment screen and a keyless entry system. The Atlas SE retails from $33,590. Adding the Technology package bumps the SE's price to $35,690 and adds adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, power lift gate and remote start.

Jumping to the $39,160 Atlas SEL nets a panoramic sunroof, park distance control and a towing package. The Premium package, which starts from $48,490, comes standard with 20 inch wheels, LED taillights, leather seats, VW's Digital Cockpit and a Fender audio system.

Captain's Chairs are available on all SE and above Atlas trim models. Those seeking a sportier-looking ride can add the R-Line Package to Atlas SE w/Technology and SEL models.

Design and comfort
The Atlas is an all-new product for VW, which brings with it all-new styling. There are some clear VW styling cues, but the Atlas isn't a copycat of anything currently in the automaker's lineup. However, that's not necessarily a good thing.

While VW's styling department rarely sets hearts on fire, it also doesn't mess up very often. VW products are usually simply styled, but handsome is a minimalistic kind of way. The Atlas, on the other hand, seems to try just a bit too hard.

The front end of the Atlas strikes a decidedly blocky tone, but VW has sprinkled in an unusual amount of lines, creases and curves into the rest of the SUV's bodywork. That starts with a highly stylized hood that is supposed to portray power but comes off as busy. A distinctive character line that runs from fender-to-fender just seems plain out of place. The rear of the Atlas is its best angle, but it looks a little too similar to the Jeep Grand Cherokee to our eyes.

The interior of the Atlas is far more cohesive with an overall design that VW fans will appreciate. Slide behind the wheel of the Atlas and it almost feels as though you're sitting in an over-sized Passat.

In VW fashion, controls are logically arranged and easy to operate. We weren't able to sample the Atlas' base infotainment system, but the upgraded 8-inch unit offered good resolution with fast response times. Accessing Apple CarPlay via VW's App-Connect was as simple as plugging in our phone to one of the USB ports. HVAC controls are refreshingly analog, but the knobs feel cheap to the touch, especially considering the Atlas can cost more than an Acura MDX.

Materials are just OK throughout the Atlas' cabin. Nothing's offensive, but there's nothing great, either. Upper sections of the Atlas' dash and doors are covered in soft-touch materials, but they feel a little too rubbery. Lower sections are made out of hard plastics. Fake wood accents look just that — fake. We do, however, like the contrast provided by the metal-like accents that surround the plastic veneers.

The Atlas' front seats offer good padding with plenty of support, making it a capable long-distance cruiser. There's even a surprising amount of side bolstering, should the driver get a little frisky on the backroads.

The Atlas' second-row bench provides passengers with more than enough head and legroom. Should you need to adjust the latter, the second-row bench boasts a sliding range of 7.7-inches. The bench folds forward and slides to allow access to the third row. Making life easier for those with little ones, the second-row bench can slide forward with a child seat still attached.

The Atlas' third-row offers enough space for two regular-sized adults. The Atlas' way-back doesn't feel as spacious as the one found in the Honda Pilot, but it's far from a penalty box.

Using all of the seats' folding and sliding mechanisms is easy enough, but there are a couple caveats. For example, before sliding the second-row bench back to its normal seating position, you have to pull a lever to unlock it. In most crossovers you can simply push the seat back without unlatching anything. And when folding the third-row you have to ensure the second-row is moved forward, otherwise the seats won't fold flat into the floor.

Cargo space is typical of the class. It would be difficult to fit seven people and all their gear in an Atlas, but there is enough space behind the third-row to accommodate a few suitcases. Transporting five with all their luggage shouldn't be an issue for the Atlas.

The drive
Our drive time was limited to Atlas SEL and SEL Premium models, both equipped with a V6 and 4Motion all-wheel drive.

For the initial part of our drive, we used the Normal mode in the Atlas' drive selector. In addition to four on-road setting — Eco, Normal, Sport and Individual — the Atlas also offers setting for snowy and off-road conditions.

We were immediately surprised by the lightness of the Atlas' steering, and not in a good way. Steering is so light, in fact, that it almost feels disconnected from the front wheels. You can tell that the Normal setting was probably designed for the kind of people that might be switching to the Atlas from a minivan.

Sport added some weight to the tiller, but not as much as we would've liked. Still, Sport is an improvement over Normal and provides a little better road feel.

VW hasn't announced official curb weights for the Atlas range, but SEL models probably tip the scales somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,500 pounds. That kind of weight gives the Atlas a planted feeling out on the road, but it also means the V6 has to work extra hard during sudden acceleration. The Atlas' eight-speed doesn't help much, with wide spacing between its gears causing several flat spots in the crossover's powerband. We weren't able to drive any four-cylinder powered Atlas models.

As with most VW products, the Atlas uses a well-tuned suspension that manages to be comfortable without feeling floaty. The Atlas is simply too big of a vehicle to really hustle down a winding road, but it handles its weight well without ever feeling tippy or out of control. Better steering a little more power would certainly enhance the Atlas' driving experience, but we doubt the average buyer will find much to complain about.

During our day-long drive through Texas' Hill Country tire noise was an issue on some stretches of tarmac. Wind noise was also apparent around the Atlas' A-pillars, but we were driving on a particularly windy day. Once we hit the smooth roads of the interstate the Atlas' cabin quieted down quite a bit.

Our SEL tester came with adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, both of which operated as advertised. The Atlas also benefits from available forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring, rear traffic alert with braking and park distance control.

Outward visibility in the Atlas is good, although thick D-pillars can obscure rearward vision. Shorter individuals might also have trouble judging the Atlas' front end thanks to a high dash and door lines. In fact, the Atlas has a much higher beltline than most utility vehicles in its class, creating a cocoon-like feeling. Most people have come to expect a high-riding seating position from a utility vehicle, but that's not the experience the Atlas delivers.

Fuel economy for front-wheel drive V6 models is listed at 18mpg city and 25mpg highway, netting a combined average of 20mpg. The Atlas' 4Motion system drops those figures to 17 city, 23 highway and 19mpg combined. We saw about 19mpg during our drive. In comparison, an all-wheel drive Honda Pilot is rated at 19/26/22mpg city/highway/combined.

MG's bottom line
With the Atlas, VW finally has the kind of super-sized SUV Americans love to buy. However, as with most first attempts, the Atlas isn't perfect. Steering could be improved, and we'd like to see a bit more performance from the Atlas' 3.6L V6. Styling is always subjective, but we doubt the Atlas will be winning any beauty contests.

But the Atlas has enough going for it — including a roomy and comfortable cabin and a long warranty — that it should see decent sales in this SUV-crazy market.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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