It is fitting that the all-new Volkswagen Atlas takes its name from the Greek god tasked with keeping the sky from falling on mortals.
Coming off the hugely publicised diesel-emissions scandal, VW needs an emotional win. Despite the media and consumer kerfuffle, sales for the people’s brand are actually up so far in 2017, but that is mostly due to the arrival of the Golf Alltrack, a boomlet that eventually could fizzle. Hence the need for the Atlas to prop up the brand.
Riding on the same flexible architecture that underpins the Golf, the Tennessee-built Atlas is a medium-large three-row SUV that fills a major gap in VW’s portfolio. Not since the Routan—a rebadged Dodge Grand Caravan that VW last sold in 2013—has there been a VW with more than five seatbelts. Buyers have been forced to look elsewhere for their family-hauling needs.
Massive by VW standards, the Atlas’s outer dimensions skew toward the burly end of the segment. Overall length is within an inch of the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder, but the VW has a longer wheelbase and makes excellent use of its footprint. Seven passengers, or six if buyers opt for the late-availability second-row captain’s chairs, have 153 cubic feet of space to share. That matches the Honda Pilot’s interior volume and eclipses the 10Best-winning Mazda CX-9 by 18 cubes, although it’s shy of the Exporer’s 155. With butts in all the seats, the Atlas has 21 cubic feet of cargo space, while most competitors are in the teens.
Moving all that mass—up to an estimated 4550 pounds—is a task shouldered by one of two engines: VW’s ubiquitous EA888 turbocharged 2.0-liter and a naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V-6. In this application, the turbo four makes 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque and comes only with front-wheel drive. The narrow-angle V-6 is good for 276 horsepower and is available with either front- or VW’s 4MOTION all-wheel drive.
Fortunately, the Atlas doesn’t feel as big as it is. It drives smaller—although not quite as small as a CX-9. Solid-mounted front and rear subframes communicate chassis behaviors, although the steering is all but mute. The all-wheel-drive Atlas comes with a dial selector for the self-explanatory modes: Snow, Offroad, Custom Offroad, and Onroad—the latter offering four sub-modes consisting of Eco, Normal, Sport, and Individual. When switching among them, the most noticeable difference is the steering in Sport mode, which ups the heft. Brake feel, something often overlooked in this class, is strong, too, with immediate pedal response and an intuitive correlation between effort and stopping force.
The base S model comes with LED headlights, 18-inch wheels, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Stepping up to SE trim brings faux-leather seats, blind-spot monitoring, keyless entry and push-button start, additional USB ports, heated front seats, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen (up from 6.5) with satellite radio. The six-cylinder, V6 S Launch model gets the upsized infotainment interface and a panoramic sunroof otherwise reserved for SEL trims.
VW also ups the radiator fan’s motor from 600 to 850 watts and ditches the lower grille shutters to ensure air is always passing through the heat exchangers. All SELs include driver-assist features such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, forward-collision warning, and park assist (all but the latter are available as an option on the SE). The SEL Premium—V-6, AWD only—brings real leather, cooled front seats and heated second-row seats, a 12-speaker Fender audio system, and 20-inch wheels, along with VW’s version of Audi’s digital Virtual Cockpit, called Virtual Display here. The digital cluster functions much the same as its Audi counterpart, but the map view isn’t quite as striking—read: large—and the controls are on the right steering-wheel spoke, not the left.
The Atlas struts into dealerships this June, fully capable of shouldering the responsibility of transporting families and all their stuff as well as a big chunk of VW’s future. Like its namesake, this VW is strong enough to handle heavy lifting.