SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Volkswagen’s all-new mid-size SUV, officially named Atlas, demonstrates two tenets of concept vehicles. First, manufacturers can indeed construct attractive vehicles that stay true to the designers’ original vision and, secondly, a whole lot can happen between conception and the eventual birth of the model.
No one knows this better than VW, which for the past year has struggled with a US$15-billion albatross of its own creation: the diesel emissions scandal that not only forced the company to take a humbling look at itself, but to halt sales of diesel vehicles and recast plans for diesel and hybrid-diesels in its upcoming cars and SUVs.
Where stout, old-fashioned diesel was once a viable and growing alternative for consumers kicking tires on hybrid or plug-in cars, the VW emissions-cheating saga effectively killed diesel’s promise in North America, snuffing out whatever appetite existed for the fuel outside commercial use.
That’s partly why we won’t see the promising diesel-hybrid drivetrain that was touted when the Atlas debuted in 2013. Back then, much noise was made about its earth-shattering, 516 pound-feet of torque, delivered through the unique marriage of diesel and electricity. With beefy good looks, 37 miles per gallon (6.4 L/100 km) on the highway and 305 horsepower, the CrossBlue concept was a darling of the 2013 North American International Auto Show. We wanted one immediately.
Now, through the percolation of time, public perception and simple economics related to the diesel disaster, VW finally brings us the real thing: the 2018 Atlas, a seven-passenger SUV. And while it may have lost its powerhouse diesel/hybrid powertrain, it remains great looking, giving up nothing in the odyssey from sketch to genuine sheet metal, sitting low and wide, with a big, Jeep Cherokee-eating grin and an interior the size of an army tent. The front end, in particular, looks almost identical to that concept so many of us fell for almost four years ago.
Designed primarily for the North American market and with three rows of usable seats — the third row surprisingly accessible — the Atlas will come to Canada in late May as a 2018 model in either front- or all-wheel-drive variants. FWD versions will automatically get the turbocharged 2.0-litre in-line four used in the Golf GTI, but with 238 horsepower. AWD units receive the same 3.6-litre V-6 in the Touareg, with 280 hp and an expected 266 lb-ft of torque. It’s unclear if FWD models will be available with the V-6. Either engine will be mated to a new eight-speed automatic with manual mode, but no DSG transmission for now. AWD Atlases will use the same 4Motion full-time Haldex system Volkswagen currently employs in other models, although the Atlas gets a dial that offers selections for all-wheel-drive modes.
But the real story of the Atlas is the interior. To be assembled alongside the Passat in Chattanooga, Tenn., starting in December, the Atlas borrows some of its control switches, but gets a new, and very large, touch-screen infotainment screen with incredibly sharp graphics and response times. Trim levels will include a Trendline, Comfortline, Highline and Execline — the last receiving a new TFT colour instrumentation screen. Other models get the attractive instruments found in the Passat.
Built on VW’s MQB platform, the Atlas has slightly less interior space than GMC’s Acadia, putting it at No. 2 for interior space in the segment, says VW, edging out the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and the Honda Pilot. That would put it at just under 79 cubic feet (2,235 L) behind the first row, or about 40 (1,135 L) behind the second. Second- and third-row seats fold flat. VW says it has the best forward visibility of any SUV and is second, behind the Pilot, for rear visibility.
A heated steering wheel will be available, as will a full suite of safety features, including an around-view monitor, blind-spot monitoring, active cruise control, lane-keeping assist and park assist functions. VW also says the Atlas will be “competitively” priced for the segment, meaning it will cost less than a Touareg, but more than a Tiguan. If that’s the case, expect the Atlas to become a key player in the popular segment.
— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016