Even though Volkswagen is well-known for its people-movers like vans and small crossovers, the company never had a 3-row SUV in its lineup. That’s changed with the Atlas, VW's answer to vehicles like the Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot. The Atlas has to hit the ground running, as it is a latecomer, entering an extremely popular segment full of well-established models. And after hearing for years that VW wanted to build an SUV in this segment (no exaggeration since VW's first concept 3-row SUV was from 2013), we finally had the opportunity to drive one and see if it has the goods.

The Atlas checks the right boxes for people shopping for a 3-row SUV: it'll carry up to seven people, can be easily reconfigured to tote gear, and is available with all-wheel drive. It pulls up to 5,000 pounds with the V6 if you get the towing package from the factory (VW installs a more robust fan, and makes other changes), or 2,000 pounds if the hitch is installed at the dealer. But an SUV has to offer more than that to stand out against the competition.

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Elegant cabin

The cabin is the hub of any midsize SUV, and VW's Atlas uses the same simple, elegant styling that you would expect if you’re familiar with Volkswagen's current model lineup. There are attractive flourishes, such as metal- and wood-like accents, and pleasant soft-touch materials up top, but with harder plastics below. At top center of the dash is the standard MIB II infotainment system, run through a 6.5-inch touch screen, with Apple CarPlay. Upgrading will get you an 8.0-inch touch screen and navigation.

This isn't a Touareg with a skimpy third row squeezed in. The Atlas is an all-new SUV on the MQB platform, an architecture versatile enough to underpin everything from the Golf to the next-generation Tiguan. The Atlas' overall length is similar to that of its competitive set, yet rides on a longer wheelbase, giving Volkswagen the opportunity to create more space in the interior. That pays off in a big way in the second and third rows.

The Atlas has something that isn't as prevalent in the midsize SUV segment as you'd think, namely a truly usable third row. It'll comfortably fit adults, even tall ones. Thanks to the low step-in height and the well-placed grab handle, getting into the third row is pretty easy, and there's good head- and legroom waiting once you're there. The second row is easy to reconfigure: if you’re taking the varsity team to a playoff game and some of them need more legroom in the third row, the bench seat second row can manually slide forward and back, with a range of 7.7 inches. That row also reclines, and can hold child seats in place while someone gets into the third row. The cargo area is spacious, and a power tailgate is available, but the third row is manual-fold only.

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Over Hill and Dale

At initial launch in late spring, the Atlas will be offered with a 276-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 with an 8-speed automatic transmission. A front-drive-only, 235-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, providing almost as much torque as the V6, will be available closer to September. A fairly benign defeatable auto stop/start is standard with both. We drove the Atlas with the V6/8-speed combination and 4Motion all-wheel drive. The engine is refined and the transmission offers smooth shifts, but the power is just adequate. Our test vehicle had two people aboard and there was enough engine for climbing grades in Hill Country in Texas. The real test will be with the cabin filled with that varsity team, or a family and its luggage, perhaps with a boat in tow.

The 4Motion all-wheel-drive system mated to the transversely mounted engine will send up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels, and offers driving modes: on-road, snow, off-road and custom off-road. We stayed in on-road mode, where there are even more settings: eco, normal, sport and individual modes. Each one offers different steering feel, throttle programming, transmission shifts and adaptive cruise control response. In normal mode, steering is very light and lacks the fun Euro-inspired feel that Volkswagen fans have come to enjoy. If you want the Atlas to drive less like a midpack SUV, put it in sport mode. That's where the "VW-ness" shines through. The experience becomes more engaging, with greatly improved steering feel and transmission response. The Atlas isn't tiny, weighing in at over 4,500 pounds with the V6 and AWD, but snaking through canyons, it feels like a smaller vehicle in sport mode. The ride was a good mix of comfort and agility, and the interior was quiet throughout our drive.

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Getting Technical

Another aspect of the Atlas that shows off the VW DNA is the available technology, amenities and hidden touches. Tri-zone climate control is available, as is a Fender audio system. There's also a neat feature that only works when the ignition is off. There's a button within the climate control settings that is labeled "REST." When the Atlas' ignition is off, pushing REST keeps the interior heated or cooled for up to 30 minutes. This means that if you run in to pick up dry cleaning on a chilly day, you'll have a toasty SUV waiting for you. There are plenty of safety features, including lane assist, blind-spot monitoring and forward collision warning. A new version of park assist will help you back into or pull into a perpendicular parking spot.

And there's the digital cockpit, only offered in the topline SEL Premium model, which replaces the standard gauge cluster. This all-digital 12.3-inch display lets you customize your display and provides excellent visibility. It can also be part of an expansive customization based on the driver. It's far beyond the typical driver memory seat idea: here, it includes what radio station presets each driver prefers, climate control settings, navigation view, how you have the digital cockpit set up and what drive mode you like. According to VW, there are over 100 different items that can be set up for up to four drivers. We wish the Atlas had a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel instead of the manual setup, as it would be nice to add that to the list of customizable parameters.

Pricing

The Atlas comes in five trim levels, starting with the base S at $31,425 with a 2.0-liter engine and front drive. The trim levels move up, through SE, SE with Technology, SEL, and the topline V6-only SEL Premium, which at $49,415 comes with basically everything. While some niceties are standard, such as LED headlights, 18-inch wheels, CarPlay connectivity and Bluetooth, there are plenty that you have to step up to the SEL, or SEL Premium to get. Even with that, the Atlas still costs less than the smaller Touareg, which starts at over $50,000, pricing that makes us wonder about that vehicle’s future. The Atlas' pricing aligns with what you’d expect in a Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer or Toyota Highlander.

It's smart for Volkswagen to offer its current Tiguan, Passat and Jetta owners a 3-row option to step up to that keeps them in the VW family, and the Atlas is a fresh face that should lure some first-time midsize SUV buyers. The challenge is getting people out of SUVs that they have been loyal to for years.


 

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