2018 VW Atlas

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Atlas held up the world.

The VW Atlas could swallow a Beetle.

It is the biggest VW, ever – and proof (if you needed it) that Big is in and Small is out.

Well, at least insofar as exterior size – and interior room.

The Atlas is nearly as long, stem to stern, as a Chevy Tahoe – and like the big Chevy, it can seat as many as seven in its three rows.

Assuming, of course, they leave the Beetle outside.

But unlike the Tahoe, the Atlas comes standard with a four cylinder engine under its hood rather than a big V8.

And the biggest engine you can get in the Atlas is a pretty small V6.

It is thus a vehicle that embodies the near-critical-mass conflict between what the people want – and what the government decrees.

People want big vehicles. But the government demands big fuel economy numbers – no matter how much it costs us.

Thus a full-size SUV . . . with a compact car’s engine.

We are going to see more such, as federal fuel economy fatwas further pinch things under the hood. But at least they haven’t yet figured a way to fatwa size and room out of existence.

Yet.

WHAT IT IS

The Atlas is VW’s longest/largest/heaviest-so-far vehicle.

A great white (if you get it in white) that is almost 200 inches long and 4,505 lbs. empty when equipped with the available all-wheel-drive system, the Atlas it is designed to give VW something size and otherwise competitive with the full-size/three-row crossovers sold elsewhere and in particular by rivals like Mazda (CX-9) and – coming soon – the 2018 Subaru Ascent.

Yep. They’ve gone Big, too.

Prices start at $30,500 for the base S trim, which is front-wheel-drive-only and comes only with a 2.0 liter, four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic.

You can upgrade to a 3.6 liter V6 if you like – and once you buy that engine, you have the option of opting for a full-time all-wheel-drive system, which isn’t offered with the smaller 2.0 liter engine.

V6 equipped versions of the Atlas start at $31,900 for the FWD S trim and top out at $48,490 for an SEL Premium trim with AWD.

WHAT’S NEW

The Atlas name and the Atlas itself are new additions to the VW roster. Like the current Passat, the Atlas was specifically designed for the U.S. market and the American buyer – which means both are larger than what VW would normally sell (and does sell) in Europe. The Euro-spec Passat is actually a completely different car than the Passat sold here.

Probably, the Atlas will only be sold here as there is not much market in Germany for sheetmetal great whites.

WHAT’S GOOD

Roomier than two Beetles.

Can pull two Beetles (almost, max tow rating is 5,000 lbs.).

Big, but agreeable to drive in close quarters.

You can still get a V6.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Standard four cylinder engine is Beetle-esque.

Upgrading to the V6 is almost mandatory – is mandatory, if you want AWD.

Mazda CX-9 has roomier second row and comes standard with more engine.

This thing begs for VW’s 3.0 liter turbo-diesel. But the Feds killed that in the crib.

UNDER THE HOOD

How long before Atlas shrugs?

And not just this one.

Putting a small car’s 2.0 liter four cylinder engine – even if turbocharged, to goose its output up to V6 levels, kinda-sorta, when more power is needed – into a full-sized crossover SUV is not unlike using a penny to bridge the gap in a fuse box.

It’s just not a good idea.

VW tacitly concedes this in two ways.

First – at first – you can’t buy an Atlas powered by the 2.0 liter four. Which is the same basic four that powers VW’s much smaller cars, several of which weigh literally just a bit more than half what the the Atlas weighs.

As this model is rolled out – happening right now, mid-summer 2017 – it is only being offered with the optional V6 (we’ll get to specs shortly). The standard 2.0 liter four – tuned to 235 hp – will come online this fall.

And it will power (if that is the right word) front-wheel-drive versions of the Atlas only.

VW – wisely – isn’t going to do a Cory Giles to the poor thing (more weight!) and hope nothing breaks.

But, on the one hand, it means the real-world price of the Atlas is higher-than-advertised; at least, if you want AWD.

The optional 3.6 liter V6, paired with a new eight-speed automatic (also paired with the 2.0 liter engine) is, again, shared with other VW models; it’s the Passat’s optional engine – and makes about the same rated power here as there: 276 hp at 6,200 RPM and 266 ft.-lbs. of torque at 2,750 RPM.

An interesting thing about the latter figure:

The V6’s torque output is just barely more than that produced by the turbocharged 2.0 liter four (258 ft.-lbs.) and the four’s peak output happens much lower in the RPM bandwidth – at just 1,600 RPM.

This makes both feel initially similar, as far as acceleration (more on this below) but once rolling, the V6-powered Atlas is much quicker. It gets to 60 in the mid-high sevens, depending on whether you go with the lighter FWD version (quickest) or the heavier (a bit less quick) AWD version.

The 2.0 powered Atlas, on the other hand, isn’t quick regardless. Best case scenario here is about 8.5 seconds.

Longer, if loaded.

But the four cylinder-powered Atlas’ mileage should be at least potentially better – the only reason this engine was strong-armed (by Uncle) into the Atlas. Otherwise, it’s a batty idea – like expecting a 50-year-old smoker who is 20 pounds overweight to run a 10k.

Official numbers weren’t available when this review was written in early July but should be higher than the pretty dismal 17 city, 23 highway rating of the V6/AWD Atlas.

How dismal is that?

A Chevy Tahoe with a 5.3 liter V8 with 355 hp and four-wheel-drive (with a beefy two-speed transfer case and 4WD Low range gearing) rates 16 city, 22 highway.

During a weeklong test drive in a V6/AWD Atlas, I averaged 17.3 MPG.

Luckily for VW, gas is cheap.

For now . . .

ON THE ROAD

In VW’s defense, at least it is still possible to get a V6 in the Atlas.

It’s not in the Mazda CX-9, which comes only with a 2.5 liter four (tuned to 250 hp) and apparently won’t be possible in the soon-to-be here 2018 Subaru Ascent. The word is Subaru will not offer six cylinder power in its new kahuna, either.

This, sadly, is The Future.

Unless something is done about the government.

It continues to decree ever-higher/ever-harder-to-achieve fuel economy mandatory minimums that have reached the point of not being achievable with engines that have more than four cylinders. Whether it is any of the government’s business what mileage our vehicles get seems to be a question no one is willing to ask.

Anyhow, we end up with odd couples such as this Atlas (and the CX-9 and soon-to-be-here Ascent) which ought to come standard with a V6 at the least. Putting a four in such vehicles badly gimps not just the performance but also the capability – and that is the main point, isn’t it, of a vehicle like this?

For instance:

With the V6, the Atlas can pull a solid 5,000 pounds. This easily bests the four-cylinder-only Mazda, which can’t pull more than 3,500 lbs.

But with the four, the Atlas only pulls 2,000 lbs. – pathetic for such a big lug.

And (unlike the CX-9) no AWD with the four. Which is kind of like buying a new pair of running shoes without the laces.

The four does ok in stop-and-go traffic. That bit mentioned above regarding its very decent (and very soon) torque output is why. It helps get things moving, but deceptively so. From rest to about 30, it seems to pull as well as the V6. And does, actually. In some ways, pulls better – because the full torque is accessible with less pedal. Remember: 1,600 RPM vs. 2,750 RPM.

But when you give it full pedal, the four hasn’t got much left to give. It’s an ok choice for city people (and for people who don’t need the AWD for winter weather weather driving) but otherwise, the 2.0 Atlas is under-engined.

Ironically, this will probably mean its real-world mileage (as opposed to the EPA’s published numbers) will be less-than-advertised, because in real-world driving, the driver will likely be mashing the gas pedal constantly to wring some acceleration out of the thing. Which will keep the turbo four’s turbo huffing – and the gas mileage suffering.

The problem could be relieved somewhat by goosing the turbo four’s output to 250 hp or so – in the same ballpark as the fours in the CX-9 and Ascent. But then the V6 becomes a tough sell – and upping its power would kill its mileage, which would “trigger” more problems with the government, which VW does not need right now.

Sigh.

And the double sigh part of it is this is otherwise a really swell bus. Great for families who love their VWs but needed a bigger VW.

The size, VW delivered.

Road manners, too.

The Atlas feels big and solid – which it is. A V6/AWD version weighs almost 200 pounds pounds more than an AWD-equipped CX-9 (4,502 lbs. vs. 4,327 lbs for the Mazda). It is also wider than the CX (78.3 inches vs. 77.5 inches) and rides on a wheelbase some two inches longer (117.3 inches vs. 115.3 for the CX).

But its turning circle is tighter than the slightly longer overall CX-9’s: 38.1 feet vs. 38.8 feet and while the Mazda is the sportier-driving of the two, the VW does a better job of being a comfortable bus than the Mazda.

AT THE CURB

The flat, wide hood gives the Atlas a hunky – almost Land Rover – feel from the driver’s seat. It stands tall, too – 70 inches vs. 69 inches fr the CX-9. Interestingly, the VW has less ground clearance than the Mazda, which has 8.8 inches vs. 8 for the Atlas. Interesting because the Mazda touts its handling/cornering prowess and being higher-up doesn’t help that. It also increases step-in height. The Atlas is noticeably easier to get into and out of.

But the Mazda is a bit roomier – especially in its second row: 39.4 inches of legroom vs. 37.6 inches for the Atlas. But the Atlas has much more cargo room: 20.6 cubic feet behind its third row vs. 14.4 for the CX; with the second row down, the Atlas gives you 55.5 cubic feet of space vs. 38.2 for the Mazda.

It will be interesting to see whether Subaru offers more – or less.

One thing it will offer is standard all-wheel-drive, which is optional equipment in both the Atlas and the CX-9. It will probably have more ground clearance, too, as Subaru’s are bought chiefly by people who groove on snow-day driving.

But, expect to pay more for that. The AWD-equipped Ascent will likely sticker for about what the AWD-equipped versions of the Atlas and CX-9 go for, which is a couple thousand bucks more than the FWD versions of those cars go for.

One area where VW one-ups Mazda (and probably Subaru) is an available Digital Cockpit that replaces the otherwise standard and pretty conventional analog dashboard with a Star Trek-esque configurable flat screen. This comes only in top-of-the-line Premium SEL trims, though.

Also available are Audi-esque R-Line trim enhancements, including 20-inch wheels/tires. Be hipped, though, that these huge wheels increase rolling resistance and so hurt both mileage and performance.

There is also an available Lane Keep Assist, which semi-steers the car. You are not supposed to let the Atlas determine its own course, of course – but the system allows it – up to a certain point. That point being curves that are more than gentle ones – and when the painted lines that the system depends on to keep the car in between the painted lines fade or just go away entirely. This is a preview of self-driving cars and your opinion about it will probably depend on whether you’d rather drive or let the car handle it.

Personally – cue OJ voice – I don’t like it.

The system fights your inputs; gets pissy if you change lanes – and cross a painted line – without having signaled (for saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety) first.

Good news, it’s optional.

Bad news: The paint shaker auto-start/stop system isn’t. It insolently kills the engine at every stoplight – every time the Atlas is stopped – and then automatically restarts it when you take your foot off the brake and depress the gas. It doesn’t make much noise, but the noise is noticeable. And like all these systems – which are being grafted onto more and more new cars, of every type and class, there is the prospect of higher down-the-road costs for things like starters and batteries. Especially batteries, which instead of having to start the engine maybe two or three times in the course of a day now have to do it a dozen or more times. More frequent charge/discharge cycles always reduce battery life.

Thank Uncle.

VW – and everyone else – aren’t installing these systems because they make sense or because customers are clamoring for it. They are doing it because the government effectively demands it. The fractional uptick in economy matters… to the bureaucrats in DC, you see.

THE REST

Something that would make sense – and which VW’s customers would probably be very interested in – is a diesel engine option.

The efficiency gains would be a lot more noticeable to the customer than the idiotic auto-start/stop system, as would the capability bump. With VW’s excellent 3.0 liter TDI engine under the hood, the Atlas could probably pull nearly as much as a V8 Tahoe while delivering substantially better fuel economy.

But it makes sense – which is apparently the problem.

The government has done everything but overtly outlaw diesels – on account of fractionally higher than it deems acceptable NOx emissions. So instead, we get turbo fours and gas-burning V6s that burn a third as much fuel.

Ultimately – and soon – this is all going to come to a head. Either the government is going to continue to get away with gimping cars (and making them ever-more-unaffordable) for reasons that can’t be justified on any rational basis – or there is going to be a revolt. Either by the car industry – or one of the car companies.

Or by customers – who may finally decide they’ve had enough.

THE BOTTOM LINE

VW did the best it could – and overall, the Atlas is good. The only thing it lacks, really, is more engine.

But that’s a problem that’s going around – and going to get worse.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Yup, diesel wiuld have made too much sense.

    I thought I had read that diesel sales in Europe were about 50% overall. (ranging from as high as 80% in Germany to less than 30% in UK)

    But I recently came back from Europe and I’d say in Sweden Paris and London, I go w >90%. Being a wagon guy, it killed my to see diesel after diesel wagon, all mfg’ers, BMW, Audi, Skoda, Citron, Peugeot, VW, Subaru, Volvo, saab, Renault, the list goes on Hyundi wagons, didn’t know they made them.

    I didn’t bother photoing Lambos or McLarens, just diesel wagons.. Still the B8 Passat Alltrack would be at the top of my list..

    Anyway, my ’12 B7 TDI Passat’s fate is still in the wings via epa fatwa of course.

    #sigh

  2. “The Atlas is VW’s longest/largest/heaviest-so-far vehicle.”

    Not quite correct.
    For longest and heaviest, the Phaeton exceeds the Atlas, quite a bit:
    about 5 inches longer
    at least 600 lbs heavier, in W12 trim almost 800lbs heavier.
    It’s wheelbase was also longer than the Atlas.

    The comment above about the ’70 microbus is not correct, at least for exterior length.
    Both the T2 and the T3 (Vanagon) were 5k, which raraely made sense if you didn’t need all the additional unnecesary toys that also bought…

    • Both the T2 and the T3 (Vanagon) were < 180 inches long.

      The idea of SLOW is funny, as it's so relative.
      No doubt with the 2 liter engine, the Atlas will not have great high-gear acceleration (at speed from one high gear to next).
      But calling an 8.5s 0-60 slow shows just how ridiculous we’ve become in this country.
      Just a generation ago, mabye 30 years, so well within our lifetime, such numbers were considered great and sporty, and reviews would praise cars for it.
      Think first gen GTI, and then look up its 0-6 numbers.

    • The idea that soccer mom sedans and SUVs must accelerate from 0-60 in 7 seconds is just absurd, given that overall driving ability (driver training, road conditions, traffic patterns) haven’t changed for the better over that time. Only thing we gained is getting rid of the 55mph limit, and not even that in many areas.

      Example: One of NJ’s main roads the Parkway has been 55 for decades over significant portions.

      And really, other than torque numbers, is there really that much of a difference between the Atlas 2 liter at 4600 lbs empty vs. a 1976 Buick Estate Wagon 455 cu in at 5100+ lbs empty?
      Not sure of the exact numbers, but by the end of its life (’76), that engine had well below 200hp.

      • Hi Chris,

        True, but the 455 – even in gimped form – was still making something like 340 ft.-lbs. of torque.

        But I agree with your point about the disconnect between power and what the general Clover does with it (nothing).

        • That’s the exact summary of what I meant!
          and of course the feel of that 455 when pushed, haha.

          For some reason, the best acceleartion you could get, was when you’d set the cruise control to say 60, but were traveling at below the resume cut-off (25-30monh, much higher then these days). When you hit resume, as soon as it kicked in, it was a real kick in the butt.
          if you did that manually, just by flooring it, wasn’t the same.
          Nvr could figure out why, maybe some early logic mapping?

    • At least for the Atlas, the extra $ to upgrade to the V6 are somewhat reasonable, unlike the CC, where the price jumped by >5k, which rarely made sense if you didn’t need all the additional unnecesary toys that also bought…

    • Sorry about the rant, it just ticks me off when performance numbers that once were thought well above average are now supposed to be considered severely deficient, when the actual application hasn’t really changed.
      No one is buying an Atlas as a race car, if they want one, they should buy one.

      BTW, if anything there is less need of passing acceleration these days, beause at least with respect to semis and professional truck drivers, they obey the speeds more today than in the past, because many of these rigs big brother the drivers so much, that they get docked by their employers when they break the rules.

      here in NJ, you rarely see the rigs barrelling at extreme speeds, definitley less than say 20 years ago…..

  3. This entire debacle brings me to finally ask the question: Is there a uniform “highway” speed carmakers use as the basis of determining mpg?

    Some companies estimates seem much closer to actual mpg than others.

    I’m guessing the 75 to 80mph PSL in most parts of Tx isn’t used by anyone.

    Reckon any company would even answer the question?

  4. Our 1970 VW Bus was bigger, inside and out. 0-60 took about 3 minutes with the factory 1.6, but hey, better fuel economy than any pickup truck back then.

  5. This is a foot longer than my GX470, but has 50 ft-lbs *less* torque. This does not bode well for acceleration. The good news is it weighs 400 lbs less, so it might be a wash (when compared to a 13 year old design).

    It really needs the V6 diesel – but thanks to Uncle, that won’t be happening. 🙁 The VR6 motor design (what VW used in the Atlas) lends itself to turbocharging, as there’s a hot side and a cold side to the motor, the intake & exhaust manifolds aren’t intermingled. So maybe they’ll add one in a few years to address the performance issue. HPA has a kit for the R32 Golf that takes it to 600 HP…

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