The Volkswagen Atlas is brand new for 2018. It is VW’s new flagship SUV. The Atlas is designed to conquer the US market. It starts at $30,500, however, our V6 AWD SEL Premium test car costs $49,415.
SUVs are a must-have these days for any car company hoping to do business in the US.
In July, 40% of all vehicles sold in this country were crossovers and SUVs.
America simply has an insatiable appetite for these vehicles.
That brings us to Volkswagen and its new Atlas SUV.
For decades, Volkswagen has struggled to gain footing in the US. Even though VW has its fair share of loyalists, the brand has never been able to become the high volume juggernaut it is in other parts of the world.
One of the major issues plaguing the German carmaker is its reliance on passenger cars to achieve volume. It’s a strategy that’s proved to be a magnificent success in Europe, Asia, and South America, selling more than 10 million cars globally in 2016.
It’s also a strategy that has doomed VW in the US.
- Matthew DeBord/BI
Since 2012, Volkswagen’s annual US sales have plummeted more than 26% to just 323,000 cars last year in a red-hot market. While the company’s multi-billion-dollar emissions cheating scandal certainly didn’t help things, VW’s double-digit sales decline started years before problems with its diesel-powered cars came to light in 2015.
Now, back to the all-new Volkswagen Atlas SUV. Recently, Business Insider had the chance to spend a week, behind the wheel of a white 2018 Atlas in top-spec V6 SEL Premium trim with optional 4Motion all-wheel-drive.
The mid-size Atlas is VW’s new flagship off-roader and will be asked to spearhead the brand’s upcoming “SUV Revolution” in the US. The strategy shift will see Volkswagen revamp its whole lineup with a newfound focus on, well, SUVs.
So, what’s the new kid on the block like?
Fortunately for VW, the Atlas is a roomy seven-seater that feels decidedly all-American. It’s a dramatic departure from the traditional VW values that gave us sporty, moderately upscale mass-market products at an above mass market price.
It’s that type of thinking that gave us the first generation compact Tiguan in 2009 and the second generation mid-size Touareg in 2011. Although both models were able to deliver sporty “German” driving dynamics, they were simply too small and too expensive to be competitive in the US.
- Matthew DeBord/BI
To drive, the Tennessee-built Atlas is soft and comfortable. Although it handles with confidence, you’ll be sorely disappointed if you get behind the wheel expecting it to be a 16.5 foot-long, 4,500-pound GTI with room for 7. Instead, it feels more like Volkswagen’s interpretation of the Ford Explorer.
Under the hood, our tester came with the optional 3.6 liter, VR6 V6 engine. The compact, narrow-angle power plant produces a stout 276 horsepower. The Atlas comes standard with a 2.0 liter, 235 horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder.
Paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive, our V6 Atlas delivers solid, but not spectacular acceleration. Car and Driver’s testing showed the big VW could hit 60 mph from a standstill in a respectable 7.9 seconds. Four-cylinder models are available only with front-wheel-drive.
The V6 Atlas is expected to deliver a fuel economy rating of 17 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. In mixed driving, we got 20 mpg from our tester.
In front of the driver is a crisply rendered digital instrument readout. It’s not quite as impressive as its sister brand Audi’s award-winning Virtual cockpit system, but it more than holds it own. Our Atlas test car came with the optional 8-inch touch screen running the company’s latest version of its MIB II infotainment system. (The Atlas comes with a standard 6.5-inch touchscreen running the same system.)
The MIB II system proved to one of the most impressive mass market infotainment systems we’ve come across in a very long time. The system was quick to respond, crisply rendered and its menus were intuitively organized. It’s easily superior to anything we’ve seen from Honda, Toyota, Fiat-Chrysler, and Nissan. While on-par with the latest from GM and Ford.
In addition, VW’s Fender audio system once again wowed us with a rich and rewarding listening experience.
Overall, the cabin is large and roomy. The second-row is positively cavernous while the third row offers more than sufficient space to seat two average-sized adults. With the third-row folded down, the Atlas offers a stout 55.5 cubic feet of cargo space.
Our only complaint is the interior fit and finish of the Atlas. Although the materials were generally of a good quality, a few trim pieces of our new test car already felt worn. Not a good sign for a vehicle that needs to survive the rough and tumble life of a family hauler.
And then there’s price. While the old Tiguan and the Touareg were two of the most expensive models in their respective segments, the Atlas sits right in the sweet spot of the mid-size segment. The standard four-cylinder Atlas’s opening price of $30,500 is aimed directly at the Ford Explorer’s $31,660 and the Toyota Highlander’s $30,600 starting sticker.
Our fully-loaded, top-of-the-line V6 SEL Premium left the showroom at $49,415.
- Matthew DeBord/BI
Here’s my verdict. Embracing Americana is the smartest thing Volkswagen has done in a long time. While it hasn’t completely shed its German heritage, the company finally delivered an off-roader that caters specifically to the largest and most lucrative SUV market in the world.
It’s a move that, frankly, VW should have made a decade ago. After all, history shows embracing the needs of American car buyers translates to sales. In the early 1990s, Toyota and Honda tried to take on the booming US minivan market with the Previa and the Accord-sedan-based first generation Odyssey. While innovative, the mid-engined Previa proved to be too odd and too expensive for American buyers. At the same time, the original Odyssey was simply too small and too underpowered.
By the late 1990s, Toyota and Honda learned their lesson and built what was effectively their take on the American minivan, complete with V6 power and enough cup holders for a soccer team’s worth of juice boxes.
- Matthew DeBord/BI
Toyota and Honda struck pay dirt with the Sienna and the second-generation Odyssey. Two decades later, Ford and General Motors have been pushed completely out of the minivan market while Toyota and Honda have two of the hottest sellers in the land.
Whether VW will be able to convince car buyers to forgo more established options remains to be seen. However, the Atlas, as a product, is certainly as good as anything in the market today.