With the market rushing headlong toward trucks, SUVs and crossovers, Volkswagen has badly needed a mid-range SUV between its $25,000 compact Tiguan and $50,000-plus premium Touareg. And now, finally, it has one.
Designed and engineered in Wolfsburg, built at VW’s billion-dollar Chattanooga plant and riding on the modular MQB platform, the 2018 Atlas ($31,000 base price) enters production three years after the CrossBlue concept made the auto-show rounds. Atlas was developed as “a vehicle to go straight at the heart of the mid-size SUV market,” explained Michael Lovati, Vice President of VW’s mid-size/full-size product line.
“We had to make something that those customers want through a lot of benchmarking, clinics, feedback and collaboration to understand how they think and what's important to them, then translate that into a vehicle concept and design. That is a challenge for anyone, particularly a European company," he admitted.
Interior spaciousness, driver visibility and cabin comfort were among the Atlas development team’s primary bogies, Lovati noted. The team benchmarked key segment players Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and the slightly larger Chevrolet Traverse. "Those vehicles are doing something right to win so many customers," he said, "so we took a close look at every feature to be sure that we hit the sweet spot on what those customers want."
Commodious cargo hauler
At 198.3 in. (5037mm) long overall, Atlas’s ruggedly-styled exterior is fractionally equivalent to Explorer and exceeds Pilot and Highlander, while its 117.3-in. (2979-mm) wheelbase is longer than all but Traverse. All three seating rows are roomy, in the author’s view, and the adult-size third row is easily accessed via (7.7-in./195.5-mm) fore-aft sliding, forward-flipping and reclining 60/40 second-row seats even with child seats in place. Lovati claims third-row access to be best in class. Second-row captain's chairs are optional.
Atlas offers 20.6 ft3 (583 L) of cargo capacity behind the third row, 55.5 ft3 (1572 L) with third row folded down and a whopping 96.8 ft3 (2741 L) with second and third rows folded down. Lovati is proud of the flat, flush cargo floor devoid of obstructions. He also noted that VW’s use of ultra high-strength steel alloys in the Atlas’s A-pillars enabled a slender pillar cross section, which in turn helps provide superior outward visibility, obscuring the driver’s view by only 7°.
Mass efficiency was a priority in the steel-intensive Atlas’s development, but the engineers did not aim to make it lightest in class. "The complete package has to all fit together, so that's where the focus has been," he explained. “We are always optimizing for certain characteristics, including mass.” At 4,336 lb (1967 kg) in front-drive configuration and 4,502 lb (2042 kg) with AWD, Atlas’s curb weight sits roughly mid-pack among its competitors.
Minimizing NVH was high on the team’s surprise-and-delight list. "That is something we have looked at through a lot of drives, testing and analysis, measuring and tweaking specifically for this market," Lovati noted. He said optimum material gauging, use of premium door seals, body joint sealing, flocked wheelhouse liners and “very heavy dampeners and insulators throughout, particularly on the firewall," work in combination to attenuate and block noise and harshness.
While Atlas uses front and rear subframes for suspension and engine mounting, both are solid mounted rather than isolated.
VR6 and turbo-four power
The vehicle’s cleanly styled and functional cabin features dashboard and interior trim was co-developed by VW supply partner Yangfeng Automotive Interiors and sourced from Yangfeng's new Tennessee plant. Because the new SUV is underpinned by the MQB “toolkit,” as Lovati calls it, Atlas shares little with the Passat (still based on the old PQ platform) that is built alongside it in Chattanooga. He adds that Atlas is package-protected for hybridization "with some modifications," but there is no current plan to do so.
For its powertrain choices, Atlas debuts with a standard 3.6L VR6. Introduced in 1991, the VR6 may be the industry’s most package-efficient six. Its narrow 10.6° cylinder-bank angle and single DOHC cylinder head (now fitted with direct injection and variable valve timing) make it nearly as narrow as an inline six but much shorter for transverse packaging in FWD-based architectures. It delivers a claimed 276 hp (205 kW) at 6200 rpm and 266 lb·ft (360 N·m) at 2750 rpm.
By late summer a 2.0-L turbocharged four from VW’s ubiquitous EA288 family joins the lineup. Rated at 235 hp (175 kW) and 258 lb·ft (350 N·m), the turbo four is calibrated for premium 91 RON fuel.
Both engines are equipped with stop/start and are paired with an Aisin 8-speed automatic. Driveline choices include FWD (rated at 18 EPA mpg city/25 highway/20 combined with the VR6) or the BorgWarner-sourced 4Motion AWD (17/23/19 mpg, with VR6). EPA certification of the 2.0-L engine had not been completed at time of publication.
The 4Motion AWD transmits up to 50% of available torque to the rear wheels and vectors torque side-to-side, as needed. Electronic controls offer a selection of driveline modes: Onroad (with Normal, Sport, Comfort and Individual settings); Snow; Offroad and Custom Offroad.
Maximum claimed tow rating with the VR6 (with a factory hitch) is 5000 lb (2268 kg).
Suspended by struts with lower control arms and an anti-roll bar in front, and a multi-link rear set-up, the Atlas is fitted with 245/60R18 Continental CrossContact LX Sport tires; 20-in tires will be offered. The vehicle steered and handled crisply and rode smoothly on the twisty Texas two-lanes where we drove it during the media introduction. From behind the wheel, Atlas feels smaller than it is and the VR6 offers pleasing performance.
"For a vehicle of this size, it's very stable on the road," Lovati observed. "The driving dynamic is what customers expect from our MQB technology, adapted to the Atlas' size and weight." Splitting time between two drivers during the media preview, with some aggressive accelerations, we averaged roughly 20 mpg as indicated on the vehicle’s display cluster.
A full-LED headlight array (including daytime running lights) is standard; LED taillamps are available Other safety features include VW’s Automatic Post-Collision Braking; Lane Assist; Blind Spot Monitor; Autonomous Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Monitoring; Rear Traffic Alert with Braking; Area View; Adaptive Cruise with Stop & Go, and Light Assist and (parallel and perpendicular) Park Assist.
Infotainment and connectivity are served through an 8.0-in Car-Net Infotainment screen in all models except the base S, with available App-Connect (for Apple CarPlay); Android Auto and MirrorLink are the standard platforms. For big-screen lovers, a 12.3-in customizable digital cockpit is available. The long list of available features includes sporty R-Line and road-trip-capable Weekend Edition packages; three-zone HVAC; heated outboard rear seats; Fender premium audio; KESSY keyless access; power-operated liftgate with foot-kick "Easy Open" and a panoramic sunroof.
While the Atlas is targeted primarily at North America, it will be exported to Russia, Saudi Arabia and some other markets as the Teramont, a nameplate that also will grace the version manufactured in China (by SAIC) for sale there.
VW has been without a competitive entry in this hotly contested segment. The new Atlas appears to have the design, engineering, features and performance it needs—plus a six- year/72,000-mi transferrable "bumper-to-bumper" warranty—to be a serious player in it.