When you turn up s-u-p-e-r late to a party, you’d better make a grand entrance. Volkswagen hopes its new Atlas will turn heads at the already long-raging three-row-jumbo-crossover rave with its striking, bold-n-blocky, uniquely VW look and “whoa, check out that caboose!” back seat package. Accommodating adults in comfort and getting them in and out of the second and third rows with ease is this rig’s major party trick. Walk into the way-back seats and squint a little, and you can easily imagine you’re riding in a minivan that’s equipped with a cloaking device that can convince your neighbors you’re the rugged, outdoorsy type.
Of course, fooling the neighbors and accommodating folks in the back is only half the battle. To find out what kind of impression the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas will make on folks strapping into the left front seat, we mounted our cold, calculating test gear to a top-shelf V6 SEL 4Motion model and put it through our paces. It seems that, like some late party arrivals, this one might have rushed out the door not quite completely turned out—trailing toilet paper from a shoe and with a bit of her skirt tucked into her knickers.
This 3.6-liter version of VW’s venerable narrow-angle VR6, as tuned for this 4,725-pound vehicle with seat belts and space enough to strap in another 1,272 pounds’ worth of American couch potatoes and their stuff, churns out 276 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque. With each of those horses tugging 17.1 pounds (empty) and eight transmission ratios to work with, that yields a class-trailing acceleration of 7.9 seconds to 60 mph. The quarter mile passes in 16.0 seconds at 81.6 mph. The prime vehicles a sensible buyer should cross-shop the Atlas against are all quicker, with the Honda Pilot winning the stoplight grand prix (6.2 seconds to 60), and even our slowest Pacifica minivan edging the Atlas out (7.7 seconds).
Editor in chief Ed Loh fretted that “The Atlas’ greatest strength might also be its Achilles’ heel. It is a packaging miracle, but what happens when you fill this thing up with people and cargo? Can the engine handle a fully loaded Atlas?” That’s a concern that goes double for the base 235-hp/258-lb-ft 2.0-liter turbo. Super aggressive throttle mapping might be built in to mask this power deficiency during a brief showroom test drive, but it’s sure to aggravate owners, as features editor Seabaugh noted: “Throttle tip in is too aggressive for a family vehicle like this. It makes it difficult to pull away smoothly from a stop, and it snaps occupants’ heads back.” The eight-speed automatic could probably brighten up the acceleration and responsiveness if it weren’t so busy trying to deliver the 4Motion’s promised 17/23/19-mpg EPA city/highway/combined fuel economy. “It’s trying to get into the fuel economy gear quickly, and then you have to fight it for downshifts and power,” said associate editor Scott Evans. Engaging the Sport mode helps but only a little. Our first recommendation for an early model refresh: Offer a 2.5- or 3.0-liter VR6 turbo good for 300-400 hp and sharpen up the sport-mode programming.
Another area that could use some urgent retuning is the suspension damping. Volkswagen’s first crack at it seems to feature shocks that somehow feel harsh on chatter bumps, washboard, and gravel surfaces but float over larger undulations. The suspension travel could also do with another inch or two and/or savvier countermeasures at the extremes of travel because during some mild off-roading multiple editors reported feeling the suspension topping and bottoming out. There was also praise, however, for the overall grip and traction in the Off-road mode and for the effective hill-descent control system.
Our dry-pavement handling tests show the Atlas outperforming at least one key competitor—the Chevy Traverse—in terms of lateral grip (0.79 versus 0.77 g). The two are virtually tied on the figure-eight performance at 27.9 seconds and 0.61 average g, which further highlights the considerably slower-accelerating VW’s grip advantage in the corners. Note that suboptimal surface conditions where these two vehicles were tested make it hard to compare their results with the rest of our database. We must also point out that these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Many drivers reported that the Traverse felt better composed and displayed less body roll and tire squeal than the Atlas.
One final calibration issue that needs addressing is the infotainment menu hierarchy. As is, it hides certain critical functions behind a settings screen that can’t be accessed when the vehicle is in motion. Instrument panel illumination/ambient light dimming and changes to the lane keep assist system are just a few we noticed. Every other vehicle manufacturer we know of allows these parameters to be modified while driving—often via buttons or knobs on the instrument panel or steering wheel—and so should VW.
In the grand scheme of things, VW has gotten right the hardest vehicle attributes like packaging, proportion, stance, etc. Sure we’d like a more powerful engine, but most of what bugs us about this brawny and commodious CUV can be remedied almost as easily as detaching toilet paper from a shoe or untucking a skirt. Get them all right, and VW can be assured its late-arriving party girl will be no wallflower.
Because the test surface we used for this review is a mere month old (and still curing), our braking and handling results show longer stopping distances and less grip than we typically record and report. With that in mind, this vehicle’s numbers are not necessarily comparable with previous or future test results.
|2018 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL Premium 4Motion|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$49,415|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||3.6L/276-hp/266-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||4,725 lb (55/45%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||198.3 x 78.3 x 70.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.9 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||16.0 sec @ 81.6 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||139 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.79 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.9 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||17/23/19 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||198/147 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.01 lb/mile|