Most of us first heard the name “Atlas” in the pages of our comic books. You remember, the ad where the scrawny guy and his girlfriend get sand kicked in their faces by some jock, so the guy signs up for a Charles Atlas fitness program so it doesn’t happen again.
Well, there’s no indication Volkswagen is some scrawny kid on the automotive beach, but it has been on the ropes lately after its diesel emissions-rigging scandal broke in 2015.
So it has launched its own Atlas program, beefing up its model line with the company’s first seven-passenger crossover and invoking the name of the mythical Greek titan condemned to hold up the sky for eternity.
It worked. Atlas has been flying out the doors, and combined with the new Tiguan, released in August, has driven Volkswagen sales in Canada to its highest monthly sales ever, at 9,032 units.
Dealers report demand for Atlas is outstripping supply, at least temporarily, while shipping from its manufacturing plant in Tennessee is held up by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
It’s easy to see why. The Atlas is just what you’d expect — stylish, in the minimalist VW way, fuel-efficient, powerful and with oodles of room.
Like others in its class, Atlas comes with a choice of front-drive or all-wheel drive. The former is the only drivetrain offering with the 2.0-litre turbo four. You have to upgrade to the V-6 if you want all-wheel drive.
Here’s my take on the front-wheel vs. all-wheel-drive debate: if you need a seven-passenger vehicle just for getting around in the city, maybe a tame gravel road here and there, you can feel OK about sticking with front-wheel drive. The smaller engine has plenty of power and torque, and winter tires are going to do far more for you in winter than all-wheel drive will.
If you know you’ll be towing power toys such as boats and snowmobiles, and will be venturing into areas more challenging than snow-covered asphalt, then all-wheel-drive is a good choice. Just know that all-wheel drive carries some added baggage, including higher maintenance costs down the road and lower fuel economy. So think about whether you really need it.
Whatever your drivetrain choice, you still need winter tires. All-wheel drive doesn’t help you stop or steer, it only helps you go. It can bestow a false sense of security about road traction, too.
If you’re buying right now, all-wheel drive with the V-6 is your only option: the 2.0-litre isn’t available just yet. VW Canada spokesman Thomas Tetzlaff didn’t have an ETA, “but it should be late this year.”
The Trendline and Comfortline models are available with a choice of engines. In both cases, upgrading to the V-6 ($4,100) means automatically upgrading to 4Motion all-wheel drive. Highline and Execline are only available with the V-6 and 4Motion.
Depending on any towing requirements, the V-6 might be mandatory. The turbo is rated to tow 2,000 pounds, good for snowmobiles and light campers, while the V-6 is the choice for anything heavier. It’s rated up to 5,000 pounds.
There are some pretty neat touches VW has put into the Atlas. The first is a very roomy cargo area, with flat load floor when the third row is down. Underneath that flat floor is also a handy, out-of-the-way spot to stow the retractable cargo cover when it’s not in use.
The Execline model driven is a V-6 with all-wheel drive and a terrain selection system not unlike those of Ford and Land Rover. Point the knob at a drawing of the conditions (snow, mud, etc.) and it will handle things from there. It also features VW’s self-parking system, which finds suitable openings and then manipulates the steering wheel for you. You control the speed and stopping.
If you’ve driven a VW lately, you’ll be familiar with the interior design of the Atlas. From the IP to the heating and ventilation controls to the centre console, VW drivers will feel right at home. The test vehicle’s two-tone medium tan on black leather upholstery is also quite fetching.
I particularly liked the user interface on the touchscreen: the screen senses your hand moving in and automatically provides a selection of buttons based on the active screen.
As is unavoidable these days, the Atlas features auto start/stop, which automatically kills the engine instead of idling. While the feel of the engine restarting is relatively smooth, it isn’t the quietest restart.
The handling of the Atlas is excellent, approaching that of what I think is the segment leader, the Mazda CX-9. Ride quality also is superb.