First Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas

In an attempt to prove to America that it’s not just a manufacturer of small European economy cars, Volkswagen has built two SUVs that it hopes will prove its mettle as maker of big cars, too. The first is the Atlas. A midsize SUV built on the brand’s much talked about MQB platform. Expanded, raised, and bulked up, the platform is the basis for a big, competent, and actually pretty good SUV that in many ways feels like the Passat of SUVs.

Despite sharing a platform with the Golf, the Atlas’s character and proportions make it feel more like the Passat. That kind of makes sense, since the two share a production line at Volkswagen’s assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Engines are remarkably similar, too, with a 3.6-liter VR6 and 2.0-liter i4 on offer. Those of us invited to the hotel Sacacomie in the—at times—great white north (read: Quebec) only had the chance to drive the 3.6-liter, because it’s the only one available with 4Motion all-wheel-drive.

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The hotel Sacacomie is nestled in a valley, above a lake left by the incomplete retreat of the glaciers following the last ice age. It feels like the kind of place that Teddy Roosevelt would have liked. Giant fireplaces, taxidermied animals, and an overlook of wooded wilds greet you after your long drive north from Montreal. It’s a popular stop off for snowmobilers of means. I say all this only so that you’ll understand the associations that VW wants you to make with its new SUV. Outdoors, power-sports, dogs (did I mention the 101 huskies that take patrons for dog sledding rides?). And, yeah, it works. The Atlas feels right at home in the woods.

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It’s big, first of all. At 198.2 inches long, 77 inches wide, and 69 inches high, the Atlas is competitive in its class (Durango: 199x75x70; Pilot: 194x78x69). More importantly, though, it feels vast inside. With a big chunky sotrage bin under the big chunky middle armrest, big comfy seats, and space for seven adults, the Atlas is perfect for a weekend at the cabin. And yet for all that size, from the behind the steering wheel it doesn’t feel ungainly. If you’re ever intimidated by it’s size while parking, though, VW’s got you covered. Not only will the Atlas parallel park for you, it will also pull into parking spots, forwards or backwards. Everywhere else, the controls are tight, response is good, and with 4Motion it feels more than capable of lugging its weight around.

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That all-wheel drive system also makes the Atlas feel right at home away from civilization. Although it’s now, for legal reasons, called the fifth-generation Borg Warner AWD system (nee Haldex), the Atlas uses exactly the same clutchpack diff, mounted between the back wheels, as the Golf Alltrack and the Golf R. That means that the Atlas is primarily front-wheel driven, but that at  the first sight of trouble the back wheels will receive up to 50% of the torque. You can determine how quickly the system kicks in with a circular drive select button mounted behind the gear selector. By choosing the offroad mode, for example, the rear wheels are always engaged up to a speed of 80 km/h (about 50 mph). The off road mode also automatically engages hill descent mode and messes with the shift points to help you along. Snow mode on the other hand lowers the shift points to keep the wheels from spinning. Both modes are well conceived and allowed the Atlas to bomb down snowy side roads at speeds that angered the locals. It’s no rally car, and you can feel the FWD bias as the Atlas wants to understeer, but it makes no bones about it.

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Meanwhile, back on the highway it feels remarkably civilized. The suspension handled both the dirt and the highway comfortably. The interior, meanwhile, feels exactly like any other Volkswagen’s, with great fitment and materials that, while less than luxurious, are more than acceptable. New to the Atlas, though, are the infotainment screens. The highlight being the digital dash, which will only be available on the highest trims, so unfortunately, it was not fitted to my particular, early production model. Having seen the system in Europe and used Audi’s digital cockpit, I feel I can safely say that it will be excellent. The digital dash replaces the usual gauges with a screen that can simultaneously present you with speed and rev information, while also giving you navigation, economy, and entertainment information. It looks good and works well. Perhaps more importantly, though, (as it will be fitted to all trim levels, albeit at different sizes), the info screen in the center console has grown. Now 8.5” and buttonless, the new screen looks about a million times better, and works well. The new screen, and I mean this in the kindest way possible, makes VW’s current infotainment screen look old and out of date.

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In many ways, the Atlas is like Quebec. There are some differences at first glance, but then you notice the A&W and you remember that it really isn’t all that different after all. In much the same way, the Atlas looks a little bigger and has a few new tricks, but at its heart it’s very much a Volkswagen. Like the Passat, it’s a well thought out, eminently practical car, that makes a lot of sense. It won’t set the world on fire, but like a lazy lapdog, it will undoubtedly work its way into your heart. Look for it in dealerships this Spring.