Volkswagen’s new muscular three-row seven-seater SUV “Atlas” is an appropriately German reaction to the desires of the US family car buying market. It makes sense for Volkswagen to build this, but considering it shares lineup space with a full-size SUV that seats five (Touareg), a compact SUV that seats both five and seven (Tiguan and Tiguan Allspace respectively), and a recently greenlit 5-seat Atlas, where does this mid-size model actually fit?
If you’re part of an American household with a child, chances are you’ll desire something like this to tote your child and all of their friends. It looks enough like a truck that you won’t get your ass kicked at your weekly fantasy football group. It drives enough like a car that your muscle memory learned from a few years in a Passat won’t change much. It’s wider, so maybe you’ll have to take that into consideration a bit. So, do you actually need one of these? Read on to find out.
In the interest of full disclosure, Volkswagen flew me to Texas, put me up in a nice room, and fed me nice food. When tornados on the east coast completely jacked up flight schedules, their staff went out of their way to accommodate me.
Volkswagen tried vans in the US, and they couldn’t get them to sell properly. They’d rebadged the Chrysler Town & Country as a Volkswagen Routan, and it just wasn’t VW enough. The T&C sells well as a Chrysler, but didn’t cut it with a German brand roundel on the grille. Presumably, they invested some money into market research following that debacle, and found out VW buyers wanted something perhaps with an injection of design strength. Turns out, people want to drive minivans, but don’t want to be seen driving minivans. Therefore Volkswagen made something with all of the functionality and sensibility of minivan driving, with the perceived cool factor of a soft-roader.
Here’s a Volkswagen accessory for clipping your kid’s iPad into the seatback. It’ll keep them entertained and out of your hair while driving, which I guess is the point? What do I know? I was raised in the back seat of an MN12 Cougar, and didn’t get internet access until I was a Freshman in high school.
The very back of the Atlas is actually quite small when all seven seats are in place. Stow the third row, however, and your options open up a bit. I did manage to squeeze all 6’2″ of my hulking near-300-pound frame into the third row. The second row tilts forward, but it’s still kind of a pain to get into the third row. Once I got back there, I found it to not be super comfortable either. It’d be alright short-term for a normal sized adult, and most children would be fine even for long road trips. Huh, sounds like a van.
The new generation of touch screen from VW is actually pretty great. This new screen has a great resolution and the colors really pop. It’s crisp and readable, and the touch function is super quick to react. Most appropriately, however, Volkswagen didn’t put too much information in the screen, and still includes redundant buttons and knobs to make things easy to operate from the driver’s seat without looking away from the road for too long.
The climate control section of the center console has large and clearly marked knobs and buttons. In a world of hiding everything in the center screen, Volkswagen has done well going old-school here.
For the most part, buttons on the steering wheel have become standardized, so it’s no surprise to find easy radio controls and cruise control adjustment here. Speaking of cruise, the radar distance control style cruise on this one works well. For long stints on the highway, that’s a really nice feature to have.
Interior bits are pretty standard Volkswagen, which is to say that they’re decently nice, but aren’t going to blow your mind. The driver’s seat was perfectly comfortable for a handful of stints over the course of a day, some of them as long as two hours or so. I’m reasonably comfortable saying that I could sit in these seats most of the day and not feel bad about it. The touchpoints are good, the design of the interior itself is a little bland, but not necessarily in a bad way. The wide center console makes a great arm rest.
This Volkswagen looks big on the outside, and it feels big on the inside. That interior space matches the car’s hugeness, and makes up most of its appeal to large families, I suppose. Space is used reasonably efficiently, exterior visibility is great, and it’s quiet inside. Partly because of these attributes, and partly because this behemoth is built on an MQB-based platform, it drives mostly like a car, belying its size. With the wheels pushed out to the very corners of this gigantor, there is less body roll than you’d expect, and road comfort is appropriate.
The driving position is upright, as you’d expect these days. I can put my feet flat on the floor and have my knees bent at a 90-degree angle. It’s probably ergonomically better or something, but somehow I find that a disconcerting way to be seated behind the wheel. Like I’m disconnected. This isn’t exclusive to the VW, but something I’ve found odd in recent years.
The Atlas does feel significantly smaller than its size would indicate while you’re driving it. This big 6/7 seater drives more like a sedan than it has a right to. I’m not sure what suspension magic the Germans work, but every single German car I’ve ever driven feels much smaller than it actually is. It is large and it is wide, so you have to keep an eye on the corners so you don’t hit things, but it feels shorter. I wouldn’t choose this as my first choice for a run down a back country road, but when pushed a bit on some of the curvier Texas roads we could find it was composed and responded better than some sedans and hatchbacks I’ve driven. The steering shouldn’t be described as communicative, but this thing has the grip to hold higher-than-advised speeds through the corners.
The exterior aesthetics are polarizing. Personally, I like the looks of the Atlas. It’s a bold design in an otherwise boring landscape of SUVs. It takes some getting used to, but it’s not as anesthetized as other cars in this class. I’m not judging minivan buyers that don’t want a minivan, I don’t want a minivan either. This makes sense as a minivan replacement without the stigma.
In the morning I drove an SEL trim level Atlas with front wheel drive. In the afternoon I drove an SEL Premium version with 4motion AWD. There are no options when building your Atlas, you just get packages and a choice of exterior colors. It starts at $33,500 (a less-expensive 2.0T version is coming soon), putting it squarely in the heart of Ford Explorer country, and being that we’re in Texas, well, maybe that’s a hard sell. In higher-trim levels, the price can get a bit exorbitant. That SEL Premium 4motion will run a whopping $48,490, though it does include a Digital Cockpit dashboard, Fender audio, a giant sunroof, navigation, and a ton more. I’m not sure that the top flight model is worth fifty grand, but it’s a decent buy at 35 to get the launch edition with 4motion.
And in closing, I have to commend VW on this color. It’s a wild color, and the world needs more unreasonable color like this in otherwise reasonable automobiles. Everything these days is either black or white or grey, and I can’t stand it. Throw a bright and flashy color at a car and it stands out more. It’s hard to capture in photographs, but it’s kind of a greenish gold color with lots of metallic. It’s perfect. I love it. I want all of my cars this color.
[Photos copyright Bradley C. Brownell/Hooniverse 2017]