VW Atlas charts new territory

by Haney Louka . Sep 15 2017

They thought they had me.

Our next-door neighbours are witnesses to a seemingly endless stream of new vehicles that take short-term residence in the driveway week after week. This time, they thought they had me beat. But not 24 hours before they were to take delivery of their new 2018 Volkswagen Atlas, I just had to show up in one.

To be sure, I didn’t even know about their new purchase until the text message came in with some tongue-in-cheek comments about us beating them to it. Next came what could have been an awkward question: so, what were my first impressions?

Such an inquiry would only put me in an uncomfortable position if I really wasn’t a fan of VW’s new full-size crossover. But that’s not the case; between this new Atlas and the even newer Tiguan, VW is staging a full-scale assault on the crossover market faster than you can forget the word “diesel.”

I’ll start with this: if you’re expecting the kind of European driving manners that grace most VW chassis, you’re barking up the wrong tree. True, the Atlas is built on the corporate MQB (a.k.a. Golf) architecture in an exercise that literally stretches the definition of platform sharing. But as its grandiose name suggests, it’s developed for a market that values space and comfort above all else. We can thank our neighbours — oops, sorry: neighbors — to the south for creating that demand.

None of this is to say that VW has somehow fallen short of its goals with the new Atlas. Rather, it’s to set appropriate expectations. And what prospective buyers should expect is a well-appointed, comfortable people-mover with legitimate third-row accommodations.

The squared-off hood makes the far reaches of the vehicle visible; a boon for manoeuvring in tight spots. With 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque, the V-6 is smooth if not abundant in its power to hustle this big seven-seat people-mover about.

Whether this is a stylish crossover is subject to the eye of the beholder. To me, it’s conservative and a bit me-too; one observer thought there was some Jeep Grand Cherokee in its profile, and I agree. Regardless, its appearance is clean and does not offend.

Inside, the Atlas comes into its own. Our loaded $52,540 Execline model sported a digital cockpit first seen on the Audi TT and currently making its way into several models in the VW Group’s stables as new generations are introduced. But models across the range get a clean design that shows VW is sticking to its German roots with a no-nonsense layout. Comfortable and supportive seats — another VW strong suit — are present and accounted for. Our tester had second-row captain’s chairs, a $625 option on the top two trims. They slide fore and aft, recline and have adjustable armrests. They’re heated too, as are the outboard positions on second-row bench seats should buyers decide the buckets are not for them.

The infotainment system is slick; a large, high-res touchscreen with proximity sensor (more text appears as your finger nears the display) keeps all display functions visible in a row along the bottom (much like Ford’s SYNC 3). Pinch and drag gestures on the screen are as effective as on my smartphone. And Android Auto smartphone integration puts some of my phone’s key apps on the large screen when I connect it to the vehicle via USB.

Getting the map view to the instrument panel is simple enough, but to make any adjustments (zoom, map orientation) one first needs to move it back to the centre screen (you can’t have it on both at once) and make the adjustments there, then move it back. As an added bonus, when the map view is active on the digital cockpit, the speedo and tach shrink to give it more real estate.

Atlas pricing starts at $35,690 for a front-drive Trendline with the corporate 2.0-litre turbo four and an eight-speed automatic transmission. Opting for 4Motion all-wheel drive also means opting for the 3.6-litre narrow-angle V-6 and making your wallet $4,100 lighter.

Standard kit includes 18-inch wheels, LED headlights, rear-view camera, rain-sensing wipers, smartphone integration (Apple Carplay/Android Auto), a 6.5-inch touch screen and automatic start-stop, which cuts the engine when idling. The highly recommended $900 convenience package adds an eight-inch screen, cargo cover, heated seats, satellite radio and a few other goodies.

Comfortline starts at $39,690 and jumps to $43,790 with the six-pot and all-wheel drive. It adds leatherette seating surfaces, three-zone automatic climate control, adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection, push-button start and remote start.

The $48,990 Highline gets the V-6 and 4Motion standard, plus a panoramic roof, leather seats (heated/vented in front and heated second row), power liftgate and park-distance control.

In addition to the digital cockpit in our tester, Execline models also get 20-inch wheels, ambient lighting, 12-speaker Fender premium audio, cameras all around, lane-departure assist, automatic high beams and automatic parking.

The automatic parking system works for parallel and backing into a perpendicular parking stall; I tried the latter once in downtown parking garage and I had to stop the vehicle from backing into a concrete column. The system was fully active, the proximity alarms were going, but the parking system made no attempt to advise that I abort the parking mission.

As for the neighbours, they’re thrilled with the Atlas’s cavernous interior and easy-to-access third row. They’ve driven on highways and gravel roads, and agree that it has a great ride. And, after doing some serious comparison shopping, they find VW’s infotainment system to be one of the best in the biz.