PowerSteering: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas Review
Size trumps substance. Or at least Americans seem to think so when gas prices are low. Historically, trends have shown that U.S. consumers prefer their vehicles to be larger than in other parts of the world, a sentiment fed by inexpensive fuel and wide-open spaces.
Volkswagen, long behind curve with regard to American vehicle preferences, finally responds with the all-new 2018 Atlas. While the Tennessee-built Atlas is classified as a midsize utility vehicle, Volkswagen has carved out an impressive amount of space within this oversized crossover, giving those consumers who need lots of room for people and cargo room a credible alternative to a minivan or a full-size SUV.
Impressively, you can get a Volkswagen Atlas for just over $30,000, specified in minimalistic S trim. There are plenty of available features and packages to ladle on, and when full equipped the Atlas SEL Premium is nearly a $50,000 vehicle. That clearly treads into luxury SUV territory.
For this review, we evaluated an Atlas SEL Premium with 4Motion without any additional options. The price came to $49,415, including the $925 destination charge.
What Owners Say
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the new 2018 Atlas, it is helpful to understand who typically buys a midsize SUV, according to data collected by the J.D. Power 2017 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.SM
Men predominately own midsize SUVs (59%) and their median age is 56 years. They enjoy a median annual household income of $113,384, and 48% of them identify as members of the Baby Boomer generation.
They prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (61%). Fuel economy is important to 56% of Midsize SUV owners, and 52% of them agree that they are willing to spend more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly.
In terms of design, 70% agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd, while only 36% characterize a vehicle as just a way of getting from place to place. Performance is more important, with 91% claiming to like a vehicle that offers responsive handling and powerful acceleration.
Quality, dependability, and low maintenance costs are key considerations. Nearly all Midsize SUV owners (96%) say that reliability is a first consideration when choosing a new vehicle, with quality right behind (95%). Among Midsize SUV owners, 91% claim they avoid vehicles that they think will be expensive to maintain.
Safety is less important, with 83% of Midsize SUV owners agreeing that they will pay extra to make sure their vehicle has the latest safety equipment.
What Our Expert Says
In the sections that follow, our expert provides her own perceptions about how the new Atlas measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2017 APEAL Study.
With its massive grille, T-square design and flared wheel arches, the Atlas is not shy about emphasizing its size. In my opinion, this SUV’s face would not be out of place on a full-size pickup truck, while the Atlas’s macho countenance and muscular stance ensure that the SUV bears absolutely no resemblance to a minivan. The SEL Premium test vehicle’s standard 20-inch wheels added to the stout look, while the Platinum Gray paint job toned down the masculine rhetoric.
Cohesively designed and arranged, and with nice-feeling materials covering the surfaces where your hands often come into contact with the cabin, the SEL Premium’s interior looks and feels upscale from the driver’s seat. The further back you go, however, the cheaper the materials become, especially in the third-row seating and cargo areas. In turn, this makes it harder to accept the SEL Premium’s asking price.
Lately, I’ve enjoyed driving cars with digital instrumentation, which has come a long way in terms of sophistication. Volkswagen offers this as standard equipment for the SEL Premium, allowing owners to customize the look of the gauges and the size of the driver information center. While Volkswagen Digital Cockpit obviously isn’t as cool as similar technology available in Volkswagen Group’s upscale Audi models, it retains the ability to view a navigation map within the instrumentation, and it digitally displays current speed in big, easily referenced numbers.
Comfort is one of the best things about the new 2018 Atlas. My SEL Premium test vehicle had a 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat and an 8-way power adjustable front passenger’s seat, each well bolstered, supportive, heated, and ventilated. The driving position was perfect, too, and the steering wheel offered a heating element. Real leather is only available for the SEL Premium model; other Atlas trims have V-Tex leatherette.
What’s truly noteworthy about the Atlas is second- and third-row seating comfort. Shoulder, hip, head, and legroom are downright lavish, and the second-row bench slides fore and aft on tracks and reclines. My test vehicle also provided separate climate controls for the rear passenger area, along with side window sunshades and USB charging ports.
But wait, there’s more! The third-row seat is actually inhabitable by fully-grown adults. Not that you’ll find anyone clamoring to ride back there, but it’s much more livable than in other three-row midsize crossovers, and approaches the same comfort level as a traditional minivan.
Climate Control System
Laid out in a logical manner, the Atlas’s climate system is easy to use. However, on my test vehicle, the air conditioner seemed rather underpowered during the hot and sunny week that I drove the Atlas. At no point did the interior reach that delicious frostiness that has you wishing for a jacket despite outside temperatures reaching near 100 degrees. Making matters worse, the ventilated seats weren’t powerful enough to offer much relief.
Volkswagen installs its latest infotainment technology in the new Atlas, and the SEL Premium comes with the top version of the system, which is equipped with an embedded navigation system and a Fender premium sound system.
In addition to an 8-inch touchscreen display that looks and works just like a smartphone, Volkswagen wisely includes big knobs for adjusting stereo volume and radio station tuning. Touch-sensing infotainment system shortcut buttons are well marked and widely separated, making them easier to use with reduced requirements for precision.
In order to access real-time traffic, you must sign up for most costly Car-Net package. You can save yourself some money by simply plugging in your smartphone and letting Apple CarPlay or Android Auto do their thing. Their navigation systems are also much easier and familiar to use than the native system of the Atlas, which frequently didn’t understand voice commands, gave the wrong information, and lost its GPS positioning data.
Storage and Space
If you need space to cart around your belongings, and you just don’t see yourself driving a minivan, this Volkswagen has your number.
To be specific, the Atlas supplies 20.6 cu.-ft. of space behind the third-row seat, 55.5 cu.-ft. behind the second row, and a maximum of 96.8 cu.-ft. when all rear seats are folded down. Try to find another midsize SUV that can match those numbers. The Atlas even beats some full-size SUVs at carrying cargo.
Aside from the cargo area, Volkswagen also supplies plenty of bins and cubbies throughout the cabin, making it easy to organize your belongings. Even third-row occupants receive small spots in which to stash their stuff.
Visibility and Safety
From the driver’s seat, you’ll enjoy a nice, high perch from which the pilot the Atlas, and because the hood is relatively flat you can see where the front corners of the SUV are located, making it easier to park. Of course, with SEL Premium trim, you could just look at the 360-degree surround-view camera display to help you park without bashing in the big front grille. Or rely on the front and rear parking sensors.
You can equip the 2018 Atlas with any of a number of standard and available active safety features, such as forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, forward automatic emergency braking, low-speed reverse automatic braking, a blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, and more.
My test vehicle was fully armored, and the systems worked well to identify threats. However, I kept the lane departure warning and lane keeping assist feature turned off because of how loose, vague, and disorderly it made the SUV’s steering feel.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the 2018 Atlas a “Top Safety Pick” designation for its ability to protect passengers in the event of a crash. It wasn’t able to achieve the extra “Plus” point because the headlights on vehicles with lower trim levels performed at a marginal level. The Atlas has yet to be tested by the federal government.
While Volkswagen will ultimately offer a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine in the Atlas, all versions with 4Motion all-wheel drive are equipped with a 3.6-liter V6 making 276 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 266 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,750 rpm. The engine delivers smooth, capable power, but doesn’t show much in the way of spirit or robust energy. It might behoove the folks at Volkswagen to put a turbocharger on this engine, instead, and just forget about offering a less powerful turbo four.
In standard format, power is sent to the front wheels through an 8-speed automatic transmission that was, at times, slow to downshift when the driver requested extra bursts of speed. In such cases, I put the manual shift function to use, as well as the Sport mode that gives the drivetrain a little more life.
My test vehicle was equipped with VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system, which, in combination with the Atlas’s 8 inches of ground clearance, should come in handy for those living in areas with frequent inclement weather. It also includes different traction and stability control settings designed to match whatever terrain the Atlas is traversing.
Given this SUV’s size and weight, combined with an older V6 engine design, it was not surprising that I averaged 18.2 mpg during a week of driving around town and on highways. This result fell a bit short of the EPA’s official estimate of 19 mpg in combined driving (17 mpg in the city, 23 on the highway). Many other midsize crossover SUVs are more fuel-efficient than the Atlas V6.
If you have previous experience driving smaller Volkswagens, you might expect the Atlas to exhibit a familial Germanic liveliness. Sorry to say, but the same modular platform that allows a Golf and all of its variants to shine on curvy roads doesn’t produce the same result when tasked with forming the foundation of the big and heavy Atlas.
Not that it’s bumbling, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s quite graceful on canyon roads, with just a bit of side-to-side motion during weight transitions. Rather, the Atlas doesn’t demonstrate the same get-up-and-go vivaciousness of something wearing a VW badge.
Steering is precise and tuned to be light, and the brakes are easy to modulate and showed no fade during harder driving, despite the local heat wave. My test vehicle’s 20-inch wheels did translate to a harsher ride than expected, accompanied by some cabin quakes when going over bumps.
In short, the Atlas is capable, if not engaging.
Volkswagen builds the Atlas right here in the USA (Chattanooga, Tennessee), delivering to its American customers a useful midsize crossover SUV with a heaping extra scoop of cargo room and passenger space. And it’s all wrapped up in a rugged-looking, wallet-friendly package, as long as you reign in the impulse to check all of the option boxes.
The Atlas is not, however, a lower-cost Audi Q7. The Atlas shares a foundational component set with smaller VW and Audi models, while the Q7 is related to vehicles such as the Bentley Bentayga and upcoming 2019 Porsche Cayenne.
It may not be as fun to drive as the Golf, but the new 2018 Atlas is useful and functional, and should meet all of your family- and cargo-hauling requirements with aplomb.
Volkswagen supplied the vehicle used for this 2018 Atlas review.