2021 Volkswagen Atlas Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Aug 27, 2021

Introduction - Find the best Volkswagen deals!

Volkswagen was slow to respond to the shift in consumer preferences for three-row SUVs, but when the automaker finally created one, assembled in America for Americans, it did it the right way. The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas had the right look, the right size, and a third-row seat that was actually habitable by adults. The Atlas wasn’t perfect, but what in life is?

Now, for the 2021 model year, VW updates the Atlas with several important changes. Some were added at the start of the year, while others arrived as part of a 2021.5 model upgrade. 

The changes to the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas include:

  • Updated front and rear styling with LED lighting
  • Available 21-inch wheels with R-Line trim
  • Upgraded interior materials
  • Expanded availability of the turbocharged 4-cylinder engine
  • 4Motion all-wheel drive (AWD) now offered with the turbo-four
  • Next-generation Car-Net connected services technology
  • New Traffic Jam Assist driving aid
  • Available road-sign recognition system

Volkswagen rolled out further improvements as part of a mid-year enhancement. The 2021.5 Atlas adds:

  • Next-generation infotainment with greater processing power and response speed
  • New Travel Assist Level 2 hands-on advanced driving assistance system (ADAS)
  • New Emergency Assist automatic stop assist technology when drivers become unresponsive

Multiple versions of the 2021 Atlas are available. The core trims are S, SE, and SEL. Volkswagen offers a Technology Package for the SE, a Premium Package for the SEL, and a sporty R-Line Package for both.

Previously, J.D. Power reviewed the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas. This review focuses on the Atlas’s updates for 2021, and how they potentially impact its overall appeal to consumers.

What Owners Say About the Volkswagen Atlas - Find the best Volkswagen deals!

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SEL Premium R-Line Blue Front Quarter View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

J.D. Power classifies the Atlas as an Upper Midsize SUV. According to data collected from verified owners for the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, 56% of vehicle owners in this segment are male (vs. 60% across all vehicle segments), and the median age of an Upper Midsize SUV owner is 55 years (vs. 56).

Owners have ranked Upper Midsize SUVs in 10 primary areas of evaluation. Listed below in descending order, you’ll find their preferences from their most favorite thing about these types of vehicles to their least favorite thing:

  • Exterior styling
  • Driving feel
  • Feeling of safety
  • Interior design
  • Powertrain
  • Driving comfort
  • Setting up and starting
  • Getting in and out
  • Infotainment
  • Fuel economy

In the J.D. Power 2020 APEAL Study, the Atlas did not rank due to low sample size.

What Our Independent Expert Says About the Volkswagen Atlas - Find the best Volkswagen deals!

In the sections that follow, our independent expert provides an analysis of a 2021 Volkswagen Atlas SEL Premium R-Line equipped with the following options:

  • Captain’s chairs
  • Muddy Buddy rubber floor liners

The price of the test vehicle came to $52,600, including the $1,020 destination charge. The test vehicle did not include the 2021.5 model year improvements to the infotainment and ADAS technology, or the associated price increases.

Subtle Design Changes Improve the Atlas

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SEL Premium R-Line Shetland Beige Interior Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Based on the feedback from verified vehicle owners, J.D. Power data shows that people typically do not buy a car, truck, or SUV unless they like the exterior styling. With the Atlas, Volkswagen made sure its family-friendly SUV wouldn’t get lost in a sea of lookalike crossover SUVs. From its bold grille and chiseled lines to its swollen fenders and upscale detailing, the original Atlas looked the part of an SUV.

For 2021, Volkswagen gently updates the Atlas’s styling, adopting some of the elements that first appeared on the five-passenger Atlas Cross Sport. New LED headlights and taillights are standard, and the front and rear bumpers get a refresh. A new grille ties in better with other members of the VW family, and top-end R-Line versions have new 21-inch wheels.

The Tourmaline Blue SEL Premium R-Line test model looked terrific, rugged yet refined, and sporty but upscale. This appeal carried into the Shetland Beige interior, where subtle improvements to materials and detailing help to hide some of the inexpensive plastics used in the construction of the cabin. At night, ambient lighting made the Atlas a soothing place to spend time. 

Two Separate Updates Bring Significant Driving Assist Improvements

Every 2021 Atlas comes with critically important driving assistance systems. They include:

  • Forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection
  • Automatic emergency braking
  • Blind-spot warning
  • Rear cross-traffic warning

As you move up the trim level ladder, more features are available, including:

  • Adaptive cruise control
  • Lane-departure warning
  • Lane-keeping assistance
  • Parking sensors
  • Automatic high-beam headlights
  • Road-sign recognition system

Traffic Jam Assist is new for 2021. It works at speeds under 37 mph, and pairs the adaptive cruise control with the lane-keeping assistance system for more relaxed driving in heavy traffic. During evaluation, in late afternoon traffic situations, the system worked well, smoothly accommodating other motorists cutting into the gap ahead. However, after changing lanes to get around slower vehicles, the system could be more responsive in terms of accelerating back up to the set speed.

Unfortunately, the test vehicle did not have IQ Drive, Volkswagen’s collection of new ADAS. Travel Assist forms its foundation, a Level 2 hands-on ADAS that pairs the adaptive cruise control to a lane-centering assistance system for long-distance highway driving. It comes only on 2021.5 Atlas models.

IQ Drive also includes a new Emergency Assist system. When Travel Assist is in use, the Emergency Assist technology can detect an unreponsive driver who may have fallen asleep or suffered a medical problem. If this condition exists, Emergency Assist brings the Atlas to a safe stop in its lane of travel, with the hazard lights flashing.

Additionally, the SEL Premium R-Line is exclusively available with a 360-degree surround-view camera system and semi-autonomous parking assistance technology.

Two Separate Updates Bring Significant Infotainment Improvements

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SEL Premium R-Line Infotainment System Apple CarPlay

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Just as it did with the Atlas’s ADAS technology, Volkswagen has made two separate improvements to the SUV’s infotainment system.

The first arrived during the 2020 model year in the form of a next-generation Car-Net connected services system. With its updated smartphone app and long list of complimentary services for five years of ownership, Car-Net adopted a tiered four-plan structure as follows:

  • Remote Access
  • Safe & Secure
  • Hotspot
  • Guide & Inform

Remote Access is free to use for five years, providing remote engine starting, remote use of the door locks, a last-parked location finder, and the ability to check fuel levels and more. This plan also includes Family Guardian, which allows parents to set speed, curfew, and geographic boundary alerts to help keep tabs on teens who use the family SUV.

Pay the subscription fee of $99 annually, and the Safe & Secure plan provides automatic collision notification and emergency assistance. The Hotspot plan adds 4G LTE Wi-Fi connectivity for $20 per month. Guide & Inform is available on Atlas models with navigation, provided through SiriusXM along with satellite radio. 

When VW rolled out updates for the 2021.5 Atlas, it swapped the SUV’s old infotainment technology for a new platform promising greater processing power and faster response to inputs. Standard with SE trim and higher, this new Modular Infotainment System 3 (MIB3) technology also equips the Atlas with wireless App-Connect to run Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as the ability to pair multiple devices to the Bluetooth at a time.

Because it was not a 2021.5 model, the test vehicle did not have MIB3. That meant we had to connect an iPhone via the USB port to run Apple CarPlay. Given how terrible the voice recognition system was, this proved a necessity for obtaining directions to this and that.

It is worth noting the Atlas SEL Premium’s exclusive Fender premium sound system sounds terrific. In my opinion, it offers a higher fidelity listening experience that the Beats Audio systems that are finding their way into other VW models.

New 21-inch Wheels Look Great, But…

For 2021, Volkswagen offers a new 21-inch wheel design for the Atlas SEL and SEL Premium equipped with the R-Line package. The chunky split-spoke design looks great and has a machined finish, a welcome break from the black wheels every automaker thinks every customer now wants.

However, with P265/45R21 tires mounted at each corner, there is even less bump isolation than previously existed in the Atlas. And that has a deleterious effect on driving enjoyment.

Volkswagen builds the Atlas on its vaunted MQB vehicle architecture, which it uses for the majority of its products. Hallmarks include extensive use of high-strength steel for rigidity and weight savings, and the Atlas employs a front-strut and multilink-rear suspension with coil springs and telescopic dampers all around.

In my experience, these components do not provide enough absorption and filtration of impacts, and the 21-inch wheels combined with the 45-series tire sidewalls make the Atlas feel more brittle than ever. 

This was particularly evident when traveling over the railroad tracks that cross Rice Avenue in Oxnard, California. Traveling south toward the ocean from the 101 freeway, the sound and feel of the tracks dramatically reverberated throughout the cabin. And because the road’s pavement texture changes immediately after the tracks, I momentarily thought something had broken due to the impact.

Volkswagen needs to address this, as soon as possible. Aside from the old infotainment system’s almost useless voice recognition technology, the lack of suspension isolation is the most dissatifying thing about driving the Atlas.

Independent Expert Opinion - Find the best Volkswagen deals!

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SEL Premium R-Line Blue Rear Quarter View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Overall, the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas is a good choice in the Upper Midsize SUV segment, and the updates in the 2021.5 version of the vehicle likely make a significant difference in terms of owner satisfaction with the infotainment and ADAS technology. I can’t state as much with certainty, however, since the test vehicle did not have the latest round of tech features in the 2021.5 Atlas.

In addition, aside from the brittle feel and sound of the suspension over jarring pavement surfaces, the Atlas is reasonably athletic while providing a compliant ride. Also, though the 276-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 engine is advanced in terms of its age, the AWD test vehicle averaged a decent 19.6 mpg on the testing route.

Add the SUV’s attractive design, roomy seating areas, substantial cargo capacity, favorable crash-test ratings, and Volkswagen’s Carefree Coverage program, and there are plenty of reasons to put the Atlas on your shopping list.

Volkswagen may have taken its sweet time addressing customers in this segment, but the inherent appeal baked into the 2021 Atlas demonstrates that it was time well spent studying customers and delivering what they want in a family-sized three-row SUV.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience in test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2023 J.D. Power

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