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2018 Volkswagen Atlas - A Quick, Cold Drive

The current state of the people's car

Apr 7, 2017
Photographers: VW, Konrad Skura Writer: Matt Zuchowski

Up until now, we've only experienced VW Group's MQB platform on smaller cars like the Golf, A3, and TT. As I've said in the past, all things considered the Golf is the best car in the world, in large part due to how good the car's very basic architecture is. By the time you read this, Volkswagen will be using the transverse unibody MQB platform on the first non-compact car, the seven-passenger three-row SUV, named Atlas. A bit later, we will see the Arteon premium sedan and eventually, the second generation of American-built Passat move to MQB as well.

2018 vw atlas front fascia Photo 2/41   |   2018 Vw Atlas Front Fascia
2018 vw atlas rear hatch Photo 3/41   |   2018 Vw Atlas Rear Hatch

The question on everyone's mind is how will a platform that seems so well tailored for fun-to-drive compacts translate over to vehicles larger in every dimension? We flew to Canada for an early drive of the Atlas to see how things worked out. This was an early glimpse into the car and, originally, the idea was to take them out on a frozen lake to get an idea of how well the all-wheel-drive system works and gain some basic insights into the vehicle's handling dynamics. If nothing else, we'd find out if the heater and seat warmers are up to the task in The Great White North.

Sadly for VW, in the days leading up the event, Quebec had a heat wave; the mercury edged above single digits and it rained instead of snowed. Because of this, we couldn't get the go-ahead to drive on thin ice. As luck, my luck anyway, would have it, the night we arrived the temperature dropped way back down again and snow flurries began. It wasn't enough to refreeze the lake, but it did cover the local roads in snow to give VW the all-wheel-drive test it was after while also keeping speeds low enough to leave the real driving dynamics a surprise for an upcoming trip to warmer Texas.

2018 vw atlas hotel sacacomie Photo 7/41   |   2018 Vw Atlas Hotel Sacacomie
2018 vw atlas sled dogs Photo 8/41   |   2018 Vw Atlas Sled Dogs

Our drive was based out of the Sacacomie Lodge in the Mastigouche Wildlife Reserve. An enormous log cabin focused on wintertime outdoor activities ranging from dogsledding to snowmobiling to countless other ways to get frostbite while having "fun." Canadians are by nature incredibly friendly and accommodating people; they warmed up the SUVs before we even left the lobby. As this thin-blooded Southern Californian scurried across the ice, I did happen to notice that while this is a fairly big vehicle, it seems to fit right square in the category occupied by Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, and the rest of the "I want to look like an off-road adventurer, but really want a tall car crew." That isn't to say that the vehicles in this class don't have some off-road capabilities; it's just that car manufacturers know from years of data that these customers won't ever use whatever ability is there.

The first thing that jumped out at me while sitting in the Atlas is how low the front seats drop. I am pretty certain you have the ability to drop the seat closer to the floor than in an Alltrack. I am sure they go way up as well, but it's nice to be able to sit down inside an SUV. The interior itself is exactly what you'd expect from VW, just larger. Everything short of the steering wheel is scaled up, including foot well, shoulder, and knee room. The Atlases we drove were equipped with VW's latest infotainment system, which aesthetically is a big upgrade over the MIB II. Unfortunately, they were not equipped with VW's new Digital Cockpit, a 12-inch-wide screen that replaces the traditional gauge panel. Some of you may remember VW's Digitales FahrerInformationsZentrum, also known as Digifiz, available in the mid-1980s. This is a huge step up in looks and functionality, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't slightly concerned about how Digital Cockpit will be abbreviated.

2018 vw atlas passenger side rear view Photo 12/41   |   2018 Vw Atlas Passenger Side Rear View

Overall, material quality is on par with the Passat and is also up to snuff with all the SUVs in the $30,000 base range. What does seem out of place for the class is the second- and third-row space. The second row is near limo-like. It feels more spacious than even the current Passat, which is big. But that isn't the only upside of the second row; it slides and tilts forward in a mid-blowing fashion that makes it easier to get to the third row than any SUV I've seen. On top of that, it moves in such a way that you can even tilt it forward with a child seat still buckled in-sans child, of course. As far as I know, this is the first of its kind. The third row is suitable for short drives for taller adults, but at 6'2", I wouldn't want to do more than about 15 minutes. Sadly, I have yet to figure out how to make myself shorter to see how less goon-like adults fit in vehicles.

2018 vw atlas driver side rear quarter view Photo 13/41   |   2018 Vw Atlas Driver Side Rear Quarter View

Even with the third-row seats in use, there is a decent-sized trunk; with the seats folded down, the space is cavernous. Luckily, the seats can be put up and down easily from the trunk area. The vehicles I drove also had a power tailgate, a surprisingly useful feature.

I had hoped the Atlas would drive as well as the Passat, but I was prepared to cut it a break because of its size and mission. At least on the snowy roads around the lodge, it actually felt better than the current Passat. VW wouldn't say, but I have to imagine a great deal of the components are shared with the Arteon sedan. I noticed the Atlas uses what looks like a cast aluminum front control arm, as opposed to the stamped steal piece on the Golf. The spring and damping rates also felt more driving oriented than I would have thought. The Atlas has a planted, well-controlled ride, which I honestly didn't expect from the SUV. I was tempted to throw it around in the snow in my best Walter Rohrl impression, but discretion is apparently the better part of valor.

2018 vw atlas interior Photo 17/41   |   2018 Vw Atlas Interior
2018 vw atlas front seats Photo 18/41   |   2018 Vw Atlas Front Seats

As far as grip, the BorgWarner all-wheel-drive system, formerly known as Haldex, works seamlessly. As we know from experience in the Golf R, Alltrack, and Sportwagen, the system operates primarily in front-wheel-drive mode, until transferring torque to the rear axle is accomplished by a rear-mounted electronically controlled clutch pack. The aggressiveness of the system can be varied with a center console-mounted drive mode controller that also controls throttle and transmission maps, as well as traction and stability control for on-road, off-road, snow, or custom.

The only engine VW had on hand in Canada was the 276hp 3.6L VR6. The base engine is a 235hp 2.0t, which will likely be the popular choice, and both are paired to an eight-speed automatic. The VR6 felt plenty powerful for the type of driving most people will do with the Atlas, but I do wonder how it will feel when loaded up with seven people and a few bags in the trunk. If you are wondering why no V-8 or turbo-six, the big sellers in this class are equipped with turbo fours and naturally aspirated sixes, although the presence of a few outlier engines makes us hopeful for higher-performance variants down the road.

2018 vw atlas passenger side front view Photo 22/41   |   2018 Vw Atlas Passenger Side Front View

While my trip to Canada certainly didn't answer all of my questions about VW's use of the MQB platform on larger cars, it certainly did make me optimistic for what's to come. The Atlas is sure to be a big success for VW; customers and dealers alike have been asking for something like this for a decade, at least. While I was impressed with the initial sampling of the family-hauler, I am even more anxious to drive it on some dry roads and have a little bit more time to play with all of the gadgets.

Big Time - Learning About the Arteon and Atlas MQB Platforms

Volkswagen is competitive with just about any company in the industry in most aspects, but when it comes to parts sharing, it's in a class of its own. For the last two decades, its unique ability to spin off a huge range of cars of different types, sizes, and personalities from the same parts has played a key role in putting the German giant on the forefront of the industry. Now with more models than ever across the VAG Empire, the need for platform commonality is even stronger. The challenge is great, but when done correctly, the outcome delivers unprecedented benefits. Apart from radically cutting the cost of R&D, technological unification pays off on the strategic level; with the same platform, a factory making Golfs can switch to Passats without much fuss, eliminating the costs of transportation and accelerating the process of bringing new models to different parts of the world.

2017 Geneva Motor Show Elmar Marius Licharz Photo 23/41   |   2017 Geneva Motor Show Elmar Marius Licharz

To answer the needs of even greater unification, Volkswagen took a bold step in designing a new family of platforms. Five years ago, MQB appeared as the basis of the MK7 Golf. It was nothing short of a breakthrough, even if it wasn't apparent then. After all, it wasn't the first time Golf had shared key components with its sister models. But Golf was just the beginning; eventually, the radical platform that cost a whopping $60 billion to develop and implement will be the base for all VAG cars packing a transverse engine in front of the cabin. By 2018, MQB will underpin around 6 million cars, more than a half of the projected annual sales of the whole group.

2017 Geneva Motor Show Volkswagen Arteon Photo 24/41   |   2017 Geneva Motor Show Volkswagen Arteon

This also means that the MQB platform is expected to introduce circus-gymnast levels of flexibility. The have-it-all chassis needs to house petrol, diesel, natural gas, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fully electric powertrains in everything from a Euro-only supermini to an America-built seven-seater SUV. To make this happen, MQB cannot be just a floorpan. As its name suggests (MQB is short for Modularer Querbaukasten, loosely translated, "Modular Transverse Toolkit"), it's more like a set of components made to work with each other despite varying wheelbase and track. The architecture necessitates standardized positioning of the front axle, pedal box, and engine, but apart from that, it can handle anything.

And, as the recent premieres prove, it really does. Three years after the Volkswagen CrossBlue concept, we witnessed the debut of the new VW Atlas model at the 2016 L.A. Auto Show. Priced between Tiguan and Touareg models, the new three-row SUV boasts even greater dimensions than the latter. At 198.3 inches long and 77.9 inches wide, the new Atlas is 30.8 inches longer and 7.1 inches wider than a Golf. Touareg and the China-only VW Phaeton successor called Phideon use the Audi-developed MLB platform reserved for the upper crust of the VAG family. Atlas is currently setting the limits for how far the engineers can get with this ingenious underfloor.

2017 Geneva Motor Show Volkswagen Arteon Photo 28/41   |   2017 Geneva Motor Show Volkswagen Arteon

When it comes to how sexy an MQB-based Volkswagen get, Arteon sets the new high. The new model, which recently enjoyed its worldwide debut at Geneva, had barely changed from the VW Sport Coupe Concept GTE prototype from the very same event two years before. The body, penned by Marc Lichte before he moved to Audi, speaks volumes about VW's future ambitions. The new face, characterized by LED headlamps integrated seamlessly with the chrome bars of the grille, will be reserved for high-end models, and we're going to see more as the German giant strives to earn a bigger share of the upscale market. As Arteon and Atlas prove, MQB-based models will play a key role in this strategy.

2017 Geneva Motor Show Elmar Marius Licharz Photo 29/41   |   2017 Geneva Motor Show Elmar Marius Licharz

To get a full view of this somewhat revolutionary situation, during the launch of the Arteon at the Geneva Motor Show, we caught up with Elmar-Marius Licharz, who supervises the development of mid- and full-size Volkswagen models. He's clear about VW's ambitions: "Arteon is a car for the people who appreciate something more emotional than a typical B-segment sedan, but still keep an eye on value. This is how we are challenging premium carmakers without becoming one ourselves." Licharz goes on to say: "Up to now, if you looked at the premium car brands, you got nice looks, but you got little functionality. Our intention is to merge functionality with emotional looks and quality feel." This is a different direction for VW. As Licharz reveals, "There's currently a push for more emotional design at Volkswagen. We know that people buy cars not only for rational reasons, even when it comes to such volume manufacturers as us." This puts Arteon in a special situation, as it's expected to be priced higher than the Volkswagen CC, which seemed a natural predecessor of this new model. Not so, says Licharz: "Arteon is neither a successor to the CC nor a Phaeton. It stands right between these two model lines."

The move from current Passat wheelbase was possible thanks to the flexibility of the MQB platform. With 191 inches of length filled with 111.8 inches of wheelbase, Arteon not only is roomier than a Passat but also surpasses the BMW 4-series Gran Coupe, or even Audi's new A5 Sportback. As Licharz points out, "It's nearly Audi A7 size." And it pays off; as I take a seat next to VW's engineering boss in the front, his colleague clambers in on the rear bench (it's a five-seat configuration) behind me. He's more than 6 feet, 5 inches tall and still has loads of space for his legs. Licharz asserts that "the trunk was designed to house a full-size bicycle". With 20 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats untouched and a long hatch to cover it, it might (although there weren't any bikes around the Geneva show to confirm this).

2017 Geneva Motor Show Volkswagen Arteon Photo 33/41   |   2017 Geneva Motor Show Volkswagen Arteon

On a technological front, Arteon is even further away from your typical Passat three-box sedan. The new Discover Pro entertainment system with a 9.2-inch touchscreen combines a new menu layout with gesture controls and a plethora of new Internet connection-based functions. Arteons will be equipped with progressive steering and a range of TSI engines stretching to the 280hp 2.0t. The versatile nature of a VW means the engineers couldn't go for either a sportier or comfier setting; they had to cover both. As can be expected, Arteon will be equipped with the DCC adaptive suspension, but apart from that, clients will be able to choose from two model lines, pushing the car to a more laid-back (Elegance) or a "definitely" more driver-oriented R-Line. But, as Licharz stresses, "Arteon was made to be an agile car."

2017 Geneva Motor Show Volkswagen Arteon Photo 34/41   |   2017 Geneva Motor Show Volkswagen Arteon

Still, the real breakthrough comes with the design. "It was extremely hard to get the exterior design right because we wanted to get a large surface of the engine hood, which is generally more challenging from the perspective of pedestrian impact tests. I bet nobody believed we'd keep the design of the concept car 100 percent, but that's what we did, ready to take no compromises." Indeed, the new Arteon looks virtually like a copy of the Sport Coupe Concept GTE. The bold concept car traded VW CC's streamlined shapes for more angular, square-shouldered muscularity. It doesn't happen often that Volkswagen guys get excited about the design of their cars, but Licharz couldn't hide his emotions: "If you look from the front, you'll see that Arteon has a very attractive shoulder line biting in under the side windows. The key to Arteon's optical lightness lies in the details, like the bit with very little bodywork between the side windows and the roof. It was a tough job, but we're excited with the results. To me, from some perspectives, Arteon's silhouette is not far off a Porsche."

That's quite an effort for a somewhat niche car, but Licharz is adamant that market potential is there: "Even though Arteon's segment isn't very big, we decided to bring the car to the U.S. Seventy percent of Arteon's production will stay in Europe, but the U.S. will still be one of its biggest single markets." The new Volkswagen flagship will arrive at U.S. shores next year with some minor alterations for homologation reasons. Also, Licharz is already thinking about ways of making the model more alluring to a bigger audience: "Just as an idea, a shooting brake is the sort of car that could work. We need to see if there's a business case, but for the time being, we can't rule it out." So there you have it—a competitive seven-seater, a sexy four-door coupe, or even an exotic low-slung shooting brake, all spun off from the same platform as the plain Jane Golf. From among all the puzzle pieces, the MQB platform grows to be VAG's biggest asset in its worldwide ambitions.

2017 Geneva Motor Show Elmar Marius Licharz Photo 41/41   |   2017 Geneva Motor Show Elmar Marius Licharz
Michael Febbo
114 Articles
2018 Volkswagen Atlas - A Quick, Cold Drive
Tech Spec
Base price: $30,000 (mfr. est.)
Layout: front-engine, AWD, seven-seat, four-door SUV
Engine: 3.6L, 276hp DOHC 24-valve VR6
Transmission: eight-speed automatic
Length x width x height: 198.3 x 77.9 x 69.6 in.
Suspension: MacPherson strut (f); multi-link (r)

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