My refrigerator holds all my food, keeps it perfectly chilled, and has never broken down—I still don't love my refrigerator. I have that exact thought every time someone tells me they love their Ford Explorer or Toyota Sienna. I get it, you like the utility and the reliability, you probably even love the memories you've had in the thing, but you don't actually love that big transportation appliance, do you? That's the question I have about Volkswagen's jump into the three-row family-hauler segment. Is the Atlas something you can love like other VWs, or is it just another family hauler?
As you may remember, I drove the Atlas in Canada a few months back on snow-covered forest roads to get a brief impression, mostly of the interior and overall livability. For a real taste of the driving experience, I traveled to Texas to put a few hundred miles on the VR6-powered version and get an idea of what daily life would be like with the American-built, yet-still-somewhat-German-by-nature SUV.
Let's start with a quick recap of Atlas' size. While huge in terms of VWs, it is in fact a very mid-sized SUV competing with the likes of Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, and a mall parking lot full of others. There have been some questions about where the new Tiguan fits in with its latest redesign bumping it up to a three rows as well. The Tiguan will compete against Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Toyota Rav-4, etc. By the numbers, the Atlas has an additional 7.5 inches in wheelbase and 13.2 inches in overall length when compared to Tiguan. The long and short of it is you can fit adults in the third row of an Atlas, whereas the way back of the Tiguan is for kids or maybe small adults.
Like most of its competitors, the Atlas is more of a well-fed station wagon than a gentrified truck. The engine sits transversely; in fact, it is built on the same MQB platform as the Golf, Tiguan, and pretty much every upcoming VW for the next several years, that isn't meant as an electric vehicle from the beginning. Regardless of size, the shared platform gives the Atlas a familiar feeing right from the start. The seat feels like it adjusts lower than even the Alltrack, creating the sensation of being down inside; compared to most SUVs that allow passersby to see your belt buckle, the seats sit so high. The interior design is familiar VW, just built on a larger scale; a Golf built for the super-size-meal generation.
With everything bigger, as you might expect, a good deal of nimbleness of the GTI isn't present, but the precision of the steering and coordination between front and rear axle is. The longer wheelbase and suspension travel mean ride quality is very good, more importantly, the suspension magicians at VW have managed to keep head-toss and sway to a minimum. That's the important thing here, not that it runs through turns as fast as a GTI, but it has the same sensations. The Atlas isn't a replacement for your GTI or Golf R, but it also won't wrap you in self-loathing every time you drive it.
The Atlas can provide thrills you'll never get in your MK7 GTI, courtesy of the 3.6L VR6. There has been a lot of talk about how the 2.0t might be the better choice for the Atlas because of the low-end torque. If you aren't aware, the 2.0t has roughly a billion lb-ft of torque right off of idle, while the VR6 requires you wind it out a little bit to get the best from it. Most of us do drive around at low rpm, but most of us also drive around using relatively low torque. Let's face it, it's nice to have 250 lb-ft available at 1,800 rpm, but how often do you have the throttle wide open while loping along—you downshift, or more accurately, the eight-speed transmission's computer bumps down a few gears for you. So look—I get it—most people will be perfectly happy with the 2.0t, not just because of the low-end torque, but because most people never really ask for that much torque; throw in better fuel economy and it makes sense for the average buyer. If you aren't the average buyer, do yourself a favor, buy the VR6 and demand the aftermarket build a cat-back exhaust for the Atlas. All of my strained logic flies out the window, of course, if you happen to live, or travel often, at high altitude; then forced induction is the obvious choice.
It is worth saying that the VR6 feels perfectly adequate in all of the driving I've done in the Atlas so far. The caveat being that I've only driven the seven-seater with two passengers and virtually no payload. I have to imagine driving it with five additional passengers and a trunk full of luggage is an entirely different experience. Hopefully at some point in the near future, I can make that happen and report further. With luck, I will be able to spend at least a few miles as a back-seat passenger, although this may be one of the few midsized SUVs in which I won't look at the passenger seat as a favorable position.
So far, the Atlas seems pretty well received. I have read multiple comments online about it being a decade too late and I am forced to wonder, too late for what? Consumers are still buying SUVs at rates that would make you think the sedan market is completely finished; to say they missed the boat is absurd. VW has hit the price point it needs with a product that is what the consumer wants. Is it something I could fall in love with? It might be. It isn't a GTI, but it is without question, still a Volkswagen.