Review: The Atlas is Made to American Standards, Not Watered Down for American Tastes

Finally. Finally the Atlas is ready for public eyes. No longer are we limited to censored information, covered panels, and camouflage. The Atlas really and truly has arrived. If it feels like VW has been teasing this model for a long time now, that’s because it has. Finally, though, the car is done and just about ready to be sold (that begins in May) and they haven’t screwed it up. Unlike the Rabbit, which was softened for perceived American tastes, the new Atlas keeps all of its German quality and inflates it to an American scale.

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First of all, it’s big. And by “big,” I do mean that measure of bigliness that Texans might deem acceptable. At 198.3 inches long, the Atlas is almost exactly the same length as Ford’s Explorer, and beats the Honda Pilot (both of which VW says it’s targeting) by nearly 4 inches. So you won’t feel bullied by big SUVs in your new brand-bolstering SUV

Inside, too, the Atlas shows its scale. With 153.7 cubic feet of total passenger volume, the VW could hold 0.6 more diced foot than the Pilot and two whole more cubed feet than the Explorer. And you feel it. From the the drivers’ seat (or any other seat for that matter) the Atlas is cavernous. It’s a testament to the width of the interior that I could hardly reach my passenger to hit him when I noticed a punch buggy. And with a middle row that slides forward up to seven inches, both aft rows are more than acceptable for passenger carrying duties.

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That interior scale, though, might be the Atlas’s only real aesthetic fault, internally. It’s not so much that it looks bad inside, frankly it looks a lot like any other VW, but it does show that VW isn’t used to making vehicles this large. In lower trim models, the acres of dash and the gallons of interior do become a little monotonous. At higher price points there’s enough ornament to occupy you as your eyes wander across the breadth of the Atlas’s interior, but without that wood and stitching and the big new 8-inch infotainment screen, it’s easy to become bored.

What the Atlas’s scale does not make boring, though, is the performance. The Atlas is a testament to quality of the MQB platform. Its ability to go from excellent in the Golf to excellent in the Atlas is shocking and the engineers behind it ought to be applauded for making such a versatile chassis. It’s not that it’s as good as a Golf R—it weighs far too much—but it does still feel like a Golf. It tracks through the corners accurately and easily. It doesn’t roll or pitch alarmingly, and through the Texas Hill Country it was remarkably well behaved and even bordered on fun. Still, though, the V6 with its 276 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque isn’t in any particular hurry. It’ll get you onto the freeway quickly enough, but you’d never describe it as sporty. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to test the 4-cylinder Atlas, which I’ll be very interested to drive when I can. It only makes 235 hp, but at 258 lb-ft, the diminutive engine nips at its big brother’s heels.

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What the V6 does give you that the 4 pot doesn’t, though, is a towing capacity of 5,000 lbs. The four cylinder turbo, by contrast, can only tow 2,000, which according to Jim Burch, the Atlas’s Product Manager, has to do with a number of factors, like cooling. The V6 is available at all trim levels, but  the 4-cylinder is only available at  the lower four (S,  S Launch, SE, SE Technology, and SEL), while Front and Rear Wheel Drive. are available at all five trim levels, including SEL Premium. The 4-cylinder engine, though, only ever drives the front wheels. Each trim level, as you’d expect, brings more luxury to the game, but one of the most exciting features, VW’s Digital Cockpit is only available on the top level SEL Premium (which means that the SEL Premium will be the only vehicle in America with it).

Starting at 48,490, SEL Premium trim is by no means cheap, but with leather seats, the 8” infotainment screen (also available on the 33,500 launch edition), and the biggest Fender audio system ever fitted to a VW, it does make an argument for itself. And while the digital cockpit is certainly an improvement over the VW-standard little box of info that fits between the standard speedo and tach, it unfortunately is a bit of a let down compared to Audi’s system. The two screens are similar, and VW’s performs just as well, but Audi’s steering wheel mounted buttons are so much more intuitive. Sub-menus are the great evil of our infotainment times and, unfortunately, the Atlas’s Digital Cockpit is littered with them. It took too many button presses and too long with my eyes off the road to figure how to do something as simple as minimize the dials to bring the map onto the Digital Cockpit. Once there the system works brilliantly, and it’s a little unfair to give VW a hard time over this, since it’s still better than most of the competition, but hopefully VW will use its clout to just steel Audi’s UX.

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The new screen in the middle, though, is a vast improvement. As I wrote last time, it makes the current system feel old. The screen is bigger, the icons are bigger, and the processing speed is faster. It also just looks better. It’s a very clean, simple design that matches the rest of the minimalist interior. It’s not that the old (read: current) system was bad, it’s just that this new one is great. That whole part of the infotainment system melts away out of focus in the best, easy-to-use kind of way.

In many ways, Germany and the US aren’t that different. That’s hardly a surprise since Germans were one of the biggest ethnic groups in early America (so big in fact that the founding fathers considered publishing a German copy of the Constitution). Both nations love beer, simple hearty foods, and big highways. Really, one of the biggest differences is scale. And that’s always shown in what VW offered America. The products were always great, but never really big enough to capture the mainstream. Early on that was its advantage. Now, though, VW has understood that it’s not. The Atlas won’t surprise anyone. It feels remarkably like a VW in every way but its scale. It drives well, feels solid, and bombs down the highway with that cool, German confidence that’s so lovable. With that combination, it’s hard to see how this could be anything but a success.

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