If you’re jonesing for a new SUV, and if the recently launched, 2018 Volkswagen Atlas is on your test drive hit-list, you’re likely in for a pleasant surprise – especially if you’ve owned one or more recent VW products lately.
Light at its controls, feels easily maneuverable as big utes go, and is scarcely harder to position, park, or weave around obstacles than a small car.
One of the most distinctive-looking machines in its segment, the Atlas was cooked up for the North American market with three seating rows, size to spare, and nothing short of the latest in available high-tech connectivity, safety, and AWD smarts. The looks are love-it-or-hate-it, but in any case, there’s no mistaking Atlas as it rolls on by: it’s big and handsome and blocky – a more traditional SUV shape, with some new design elements.
It looks strong and sturdy, just like its namesake Greek Titan: you know, the naked fella holding the Earth on his shoulders.
But beyond the unique looks and buzz generated by the latest SUV on the scene, two of Atlas’s attributes will likely grab your attention quickly on an initial test drive.
First, this one’s a VW, through and through – and if you’re a fan of the brand, you’ll quickly feel right at home. On board, it’s intrinsically VW: the atmosphere is upscale and tidy without appearing overdone. Many elements are familiar from past products, including interfaces, consoles, controls, switches, and even the design and patterning on the leather seats. If an Atlas will be joining your driveway alongside a few-year-old Volkswagen of some other sort, it’ll all feel pretty familiar. From your first moments in the cabin, Atlas conveys, in no uncertain terms, that you’re on board a Volkswagen.
Second, there’s little getting used to the Atlas driving experience, if this will be your first great big brute of a ute. Don’t worry about its heft: though there’s a lot of vehicle surrounding you, and though you sit up high with a commanding forward view, Atlas is light at its controls, feels easily maneuverable as big utes go, and is scarcely harder to position, park, or weave around obstacles than a small car. The bricky look to the styling suggests that Atlas drives like a tank, but around town, and while parking especially, this is not the case.
Hit the highway, and some of the lightness at the controls is traded for a weightier feel. The steering heavies up a measure, and the Atlas’s weight feels more apparent when cruising. Mostly, this helps the machine stay locked into its lane with minimal need to readjust, while imparting that weighty utility vehicle feeling that many appreciate. Still, Atlas manages to avoid feeling clumsy, gigantic, or ponderous when driven the way most will drive it, most of the time. It’s a beefy cruiser, but it doesn’t feel like you’re driving a burrito truck, or like the suspension is made of coagulated gravy.
Slick all-wheel drive (AWD) system, too. In fact, as a fan of good AWD systems, I couldn’t be more excited for you to try this AWD system out.
The oily guts are packed into the rear axle, where hydraulically actuated clutches twitch away with millisecond precision to grab a precise amount of front-wheel torque and move it to the rear axle when required. This latest 4Motion system represents several generations of evolution and is smart, fast-acting, and virtually invisible. From the driver’s seat, even in challenging conditions, you feel little more than abundant traction, and Atlas’s keen tendency to go where it’s pointed with little fuss.
Notably, when stopped, all four wheels are slightly pre-engaged, so there’s virtually no initial off-the-line slipping required to activate full traction. Finally, via numerous drive modes accessible by a tidy toggle dial on the console, drivers can pre-set the AWD system (and others) for specific conditions. Put your winter tires on and fear not: this one’s got light-years of fuss-free traction.
A final observation here: when the system is totally overwhelmed by deep snow or very slippery ice, it defaults to allowing a just-right amount of four-wheel spin to keep things moving and clawing along, with power allowed to slightly outgun available traction towards a favourable effect.
Said power for my tester came from a 3.6-litre V6, direct-injected for 276 horsepower. A sign of the times, this is the only Volkswagen engine in North America today that isn’t a four-cylinder turbo. Performance is so-so-ish, adequate if not thrilling. The engine works best driven gently, where it revs low, stays smooth, and barely makes a peep – though it does have a nice, meaty growl when pushed. There’s an eight-speed automatic that works towards low cruising revs, and most of the time, you don’t even know it’s there.
No issues are notable relating to space. Up front, there’s room to spare for two big adults. Your 5'11", 215 lb writer found Atlas easy to board and exit, and adequately spacious, even while wearing full winter gear and having recently demolished 90 minutes worth of post-leg-day all-you-can-eat sushi. Near the driver are numerous power ports, a handy console storage bin that’s tilted to keep items secure, proper cupholders, door storage pockets, and a deep centre console.
Second-row seats are just as spacious and easily accessed, and they can slide and recline and fold with ease to adjust for various passenger sizes and cargo requirements. The second-row seats tip and fold ahead to allow occupants into the third row, which is half-decently roomy for an adult, but best left for the kids.
With all seats occupied, there’s still enough of a cargo hold to accommodate a load of groceries or a complement of small bags or luggage. Fold the rear seats down, and Atlas turns into a comfy cargo van with room for four or five.
A few techy touches will get the gadget geeks salivating. First, my tester’s instrument cluster was comprised of a clever all-digital display, with fully customizable readouts rendered with crisp, clean, high-resolution graphics. The screen is glare-free, the animations are fluid, and in all, it’s not unlike the display on a high-quality smartwatch or tablet. No interference to the screen display when wearing a quality set of polarized driving glasses, either.
The central command interface is similarly well done: graphics are excellent, animations are fluid, the layout of menus and controls is logical, and it even uses proximity sensors that only reveal additional on-screen functions in the presence of your approaching hand, for a more clutter-free display. So, Atlas is easy to use, even in regard to its most high-tech features.
The potent and punchy Fender audio system was a welcome travel companion, as were the vivid and bright LED headlights. Just note that Atlas’s fuel tank is on the smallish side, so extended road trips will require more stops to refuel than some will like.
How’s she ride? Mostly good news. Cruising a smooth highway, the suspension feels nicely dialled in: comfy, not sponge-cake, and responsive without feeling twitchy or nervous. Around town, it’s a similar story on all but the roughest roads: much of the time, Atlas rides like a slightly sporty family sedan – though the dangerously ill-maintained roads of Sudbury, Ontario, managed to coax plenty of noise from the suspension and drag ride quality down a few pegs, at times.
That leads to my first gripe. Largely thanks to the great big wheels, extremely rough surfaces – like, say, your busted-up cottage access road – can cause ride quality to fall off, and even coax the odd rattle or click from some interior panelling. Additionally, road and wind noise levels, at times, can be higher than I like in a vehicle at this price point, though they’re usually kept well in check. Finally, there’s a touch too much hard plastic used in parts of the cabin. Most of it looks great, but a few panels disappoint upon further inspection with the fingertips.
On that note, if you’re considering a top-dog Atlas, be sure to check out the comparably priced Buick Enclave, Ford Explorer, and Mazda CX-9, each of which has a similarly modern, but richer-feeling cabin. Ultimately, here’s a worthy test drive in a very crowded segment, and one likely find even further appeal with existing VW fans after a lot of space and flexibility from a great big ute that’s very easy to drive and very easy to live with.
|Peak Horsepower||276 hp @ 6,600 rpm|
|Peak Torque||266 lb-ft @ 2,750 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||13.7/10.1/12.1 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||583 / 2,741 L seats down|
|Model Tested||2018 Volkswagen Atlas Execline|
|Price as Tested||$54,435|