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Volkswagen Atlas

First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas

The Volkswagen Atlas is a three-row full-size SUV, and this all-new model is set to debut this June as a 2018 model. Based on the CrossBlue Concept, this Tennessee-built SUV will fill an important hole in Volkswagen’s product line, and it holds the distinction of being the automaker’s first-ever VW-built seven-passenger model.

The Atlas cannot come soon enough. After ending its six-year relationship in 2014 with Fiat Chrysler as the supplier for its seven-passenger Routan minivan, Volkswagen no longer had the logical step up from its midsize Passat sedan or the compact Tiguan SUV. The VW Routan certainly wasn’t the best Volkswagen could do, but it kept customers in the product fold who otherwise might have switched to a competing model from a brand such as Chrysler, Honda or Kia.

Atlas Price and Trims

Volkswagen Atlas
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The 2018 VW Atlas is sold in five trims with two engine choices and available all-wheel drive. The cost of the base front-wheel-drive Atlas S is $30,500, plus a $925 destination charge. The other four trims are: SE ($34,990), SE with Technology ($37,090), SEL ($40,890) and SEL Premium ($48,490). A special S Launch ($33,500) edition with the upgraded engine will precede the S grade until the base four-cylinder engine is ready this fall.

Although the design is fresh, the look of the 2018 Atlas is familiar, at least up front. That’s where you’ll find the recognizable Volkswagen fascia, marked by a horizontal grille with the brand’s logo prominently displayed in the middle. The standard LED headlamps are accented by LED daytime running lights featuring a connecting U-shaped design. That’s a look evident with the Golf R. Available fog lamps, a sporty lower grille opening and distinct character lines running from the front to the back of the hood are also found.

The Atlas’ profile projects strength, befitting this vehicle’s name. Strong shoulders, pronounced wheel arches and flowing character lines add flair and distinction. Roof rails are standard, and Volkswagen says they are laser welded — you won’t find the usual weld points evident in most other models.

From the rear, you’ll find a liftgate spoiler, wraparound tail lamps and a pair of embedded exhaust ports with optional polished finishers. An available trailer hitch package allows the V6 to pull up to 5,000 pounds.

As for wheel choices, you’ll find standard 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels. Optionally, 20-inch aluminum-alloy wheels can be had.

Roomy Interior with Upgrades Available

Volkswagen Atlas
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The Atlas’ interior is roomy, offering a 2-3-2 layout. Front bucket seats, a 60/40-split fold-down second-row bench seat and a 50/50-split fold-down third-row seat supply room for seven.

Unlike some competing models, Volkswagen has done an excellent job in making all seven seats comfortable for passengers, no matter their size. Indeed, the second-row seats push and pivot forward, even with a car seat in place. A Volkswagen representative measuring 6 feet 7 inches tall demonstrated how easy it is to access and sit in the back seat. Although his head topped the ceiling, legroom was sufficient. And like the second-row seat, the last row is sufficiently padded. You won’t find a penalty box in the Atlas.

Cloth seats are standard and imitation leather is available. If you want real leather, you’ll have to opt for the SEL Premium model.

All driver controls are within easy reach, with steering wheel-mounted operation of the audio, cruise and available navigation possible. You’ll find a flat-bottomed steering wheel, wrapped in leather except in the base trim. Prominent tachometer and speedometer analog displays in the instrument panel flank an oversized digital driver’s information center.

The center stack has a large color display on top, followed by an audio system controlled by switches and knobs. At the base of the center stack is a large open compartment suitable for housing a cell phone. A deep storage compartment does dual duty as an armrest.

Of course, not everyone wants a second-row bench seat. That’s why shoppers can opt for captain’s chairs ($625), although that means dropping passenger capacity to six. Later in the model year, Volkswagen will roll out an R-Line package, offering exterior and interior trim updates.

The Atlas’ interior features soft-touch materials, and some models come with woodgrain trim on the dashboard. Standard features include full power accessories, a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, cruise control and dual-zone climate control. The list of available features includes power-adjustable front seats, heated front seats, three-zone climate control and a hands-free liftgate.

Technology and Driver Assistance Features

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Standard technology features include a USB port, an 8-inch display screen, Bluetooth connectivity, a six-speaker audio system and Car-Net App-Connect for compatible devices. All three of the major global smartphone platforms are present: Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink.

Optionally, customers may opt for a 12-speaker Fender audio system with Panasonic speakers. There’s also an available 115-volt outlet in the second-row console.

Volkswagen offers various driver assistance features. The lineup of available amenities includes adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist and park assist.

A rearview camera is standard, and a surround-view camera is available.

Two Engine Choices

Volkswagen Atlas
(CARFAX, Inc.)

Engine choices begin with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged gas engine available on most models. Volkswagen says this engine is similar to the Volkswagen GTI’s, and it delivers 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.

Also available is a 3.5-liter V6 engine, commonly found in the VW Passat. This engine makes 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque and is your only choice if you opt for VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system. Both engines are paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Because the base engine will debut late, Volkswagen offered only the V6 at a recent media event held in Texas hill country. It turns out the setting was ideal for putting the Atlas through its paces. The transmission shifted smoothly throughout, even during steep climbs, and the powertrain supplied more than enough power to pass, even when traveling at high speeds on the Texas highways.

We think the larger engine is the better choice. It’s more ideally suited for carrying and moving full loads. Should you have no plans to tow, the V6 can easily power the Atlas when it’s loaded with seven people and all the stuff you’ll be bringing with you. In addition, if you want the handling advantages of all-wheel drive, only the larger engine will do. The base engine is front-wheel drive only.

VW Atlas and the Competition

The Atlas represents an unusual strategic shift for Volkswagen, a manufacturer noted for developing products in Germany. This time, Volkswagen gave its North American operations the authority to design and build a vehicle American consumers want, and the capable Atlas is proof as to the success of this game plan.

Volkswagen’s Atlas has a strong competitive set, including the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Dodge Durango and Honda Pilot. Also consider the Mazda CX-9 and GMC Acadia.

In all, the Atlas has much to offer if you’re looking to buy a seven-passenger SUV. When you consider that Volkswagen also has an all-new Tiguan arriving this fall, it becomes clear that the automaker is working hard to maintain and grow its base of SUV buyers.

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