Despite opening up its wallets to customers, offering buybacks and profusely apologizing to the public, Volkswagen still has a lot of work to do in earning trust from consumers.
Engines: 2.0L turbo 4-cylinder, 3.6L V6
Output: 235 hp (2.0T), 276 hp (V6)
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: Not Available
US Price: Will start at around $30,000
CAN Price: Starts at $35,690
How can they succeed when everyone is looking at them with a critical eye, when everyone is skeptical of any claim about their vehicles? Well it seems like they’re dealing with this situation by making some of the best new cars we’ve seen in a long time.
With the VW Golf Alltrack making our own shortlist for Car of the Year, and even won the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s Car of the Year. That’s clearly not enough and the automaker is finally addressing a weakness in its lineup with a new three-row crossover called the Atlas.
To call the Atlas an important vehicle to Volkswagen is an understatement. Not only do they have to prove to buyers that they’re a competent automaker making vehicles without bending the rules, but they also have to deliver in a segment that’s extremely important to Americans.
ALSO SEE: 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack Review
Crossovers are family friendly, comfortable and versatile, which is why they’re gaining in popularity so quickly. Helping to deliver that made-for-America tagline, the Atlas is also made in the United States at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga assembly plant.
Sum of its Parts
The Atlas is a big car but is based on the modular MQB platform that also underpins the Golf compact, showcasing the flexibility of the platform. Competing with the likes of the Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander isn’t an easy task, but fortunately, the Atlas starts with this well-sorted and well-developed platform, and it feels agile and responsive.
From the very get-go this car feels less intimidating than its size would suggest. At least in terms of handling feel, the car is already up to the standards of the best in the segment. It’s comfortable, highlighting its ability to excel as a road trip vehicle. Don’t forget that for many year VW produced the iconic Type 2 Microbus that’s often remembered as the go-to cross-country cruiser.
There’s a bit of that spirit here in the Atlas: the light steering is appropriate for the segment, and the suspension glides over rough roads. The car comes with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine as base equipment, sending 235 horsepower to the front wheels. Optionally, you can get a V6 engine and all-wheel drive, as our tester was. The V6 seems a bit underpowered at 276 horses, while the competition is closer to 300 (or even more in the case of the turbocharged V6s found in the Ford Explorer, or V8 in the Dodge Durango) but the eight-speed automatic transmission does what it can to put the engine in the best gear for acceleration and responsiveness.
4Motion and Then Some
The 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is very similar to what we’ve seen in the Golf Alltrack, but has some extra capability via different drive modes that can be toggled through a knob on the center console. The four modes – on road, snow, off-road and off-road custom – change various settings including stability control intervention, gear changes and even the behavior of the ABS for the best grip and traction in almost any conditions. Some, such as the on-road mode, have extra settings so you can get a drive feeling that is tailored to you.
Driven on the cold, wet roads of rural Quebec, the Atlas performed confidently. When the roads turned to gravel, mud, snow and ice, the car stayed surefooted. We didn’t take it into any extreme situations or steep ditches, but the crossover was able to handle the seasonal hazards that crop up during winter weather.
All the Space in the World
In addition to their capability, buyers choose crossovers because of the amount of space they offer. In this area, the Atlas really excels. Headroom in the front and second row of the vehicle is fantastic, but the legroom in that second row is luxurious. Furthermore, they can slide, offering those in the third row a surprising amount of living space.
The design of the interior is clean, though our mid-high trim level vehicle did feature a few hard plastics that seemed out of place. However, the Atlas makes up for this downside with a generous helping of convenience and safety features. While full details on pricing, trim levels and specifications will be shared in April, we were told that the base Atlas will come in at around $30,000 USD ($35,690 CAD) and top out below the $50,000 USD mark. Our model featured three-zone automatic climate control, heated seats and at least four USB ports to charge whatever devices you may bring into the vehicle. It also had a nice large and responsive touchscreen, and will support Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink. The popular and gorgeous Volkswagen Digital Cockpit will be offered, as well as a 12-channel Fender audio system.
Standard safety features include the rear-view camera and an automatic post-collision braking system, which will ensure that in the unfortunate case of an accident, the vehicle will automatically apply the brakes to minimize any further damage or injuries.
Optional safety features are extensive, including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, lane keep and adaptive cruise control with pedestrian detection and the capability to work in stop-and-go conditions. Not only are these the important stepping stones to autonomous driving that Volkswagen needs to perfect, but they also work incredibly well in this crossover. The lane keep system in particular is very subtle and doesn’t interfere with the driving experience.
The Verdict: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas First Drive
While still prototypes, the Atlases we drove were extremely solid vehicles and impressed in many ways. Volkswagen is taking this market seriously, especially since it’s so late to the big crossover party. If earning the trust of the American buyers means trotting out cars that are as polished and competitive as the Atlas, then Volkswagen is on the right path.