Atlas: Will It Hold Up Volkswagen's World?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 07, 2017

BOERNE, TEXAS—It doesn’t matter where automakers come from these days, as long as they realize that to succeed in the American market they need a full complement of crossover SUVs. Three rows of seats are better than two, and they also have to be stylish, bristling with technology, capacious and accommodating of whole Scout troops, and fun to drive—while also maintaining good fuel economy. Believe me, especially in a very competitive market, getting the formula right is harder than it looks.

The Atlas, with $900 million invested in Chattanooga, has to be a giant-killer hit SUV for VW. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Volkswagen has a lot riding on the seven-passenger Atlas, a new midsized (on the bigger side of midsized) crossover that it will build (alongside the Passat) in Chattanooga. Some $900 million was invested at the Tennessee plant, with the result that VW expects to be competitive in four segments—compact and midsized sedans, and compact and midsized SUVs. “It’s the biggest bet VW has ever made,” said Jim Burch, product manager for the Atlas in North America.

Did I mention that making your SUVs in America is also a big advantage in the Age of Trump? Perhaps to emphasize just how red, white and blue the Atlas is, VW chose to unveil it in the heart of Texas, specifically the hill country.

Inside the Atlas: Americans will feel at home. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Where else would you see signs in store windows saying, “Stay calm and carry,” or “Alcohol, tobacco and firearms should be a convenience store, not a government agency.” Well, lots of places, actually.

In VW-friendly downtown Bandera, where the general store is 100 years old. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Our first stop was in Bandera, at an absurdly picturesque general store with a tin ceiling, more than 100 years old. The owner was a former Volkswagen salesperson and Passat lover, so we asked her to check the Atlas out. It’s crucial for VW that people like her like the new offering, and she did—in fact—love it. So far so good.

VW made a conscious effort to aim the Atlas at the American heartland. “We’re working to  regain trust and rebuild the brand,” said VW’s Mark Gillies, and nowhere is that more crucial than in the U.S. market.

Texas is SUV country, and the slogan "stay calm and carry" is popular. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The good news is that Texans would feel right at home behind the wheel, even the tall ones—the driver’s seat just keeps going back, and the back-seat room is generous, too. The controls and design—interior and exterior—are tasteful and attractive, but nothing shouts “Euro!” or stretches the limits.

On the road, too, the performance strikes a balance: It handles well, with nicely flat cornering, but the suspension is on the softer side—just the way Americans like it. There are five trim levels (the top SEL Premium line features a bigger 12.3-inch screen and a Fender audio system) and two engine choices: a direct-injected, two-liter, four-cylinder TSI turbo (235 horsepower) and (available in all trims) a 3.6-liter V-6 (276 horsepower).

The roof rack was cool, but that carrier will really hurt the aerodynamics. "Life's as big as you make it," the company says. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Note that there’s only 40 hp between the two powerplants. VW expects the vast majority of U.S. sales  to be the V-6, but automakers are wringing incredible power out of fours these days. No one who opts for the turbo is likely to be disappointed. Both motors connect to an eight-speed automatic, and both offer start-stop technology as standard (as is remote start).

One reason the V-6 will dominate here is that an Atlas equipped with it can tow 5,000 pounds; the four is restricted to 2,000 pounds. The AWD Atlas also has a selector with settings like “snow” (designed to guard against wheelspin) and two off-road settings. In Onroad mode, normal, sport and eco profiles can be dialed in.

Shoes on a fencepost in the Texas hill country. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Atlas, based on VW’s versatile MQB platform, is no lightweight, and you pay at the pump. The V-6 comes in at 20 mpg  combined, and if you add AWD that drops to 19 mpg. Fuel economy for the four-cylinder engine (which has late availability) isn’t out yet, but it should be better.

Pricing varies fairly widely. If you’re willing to put up with a base-model S for $30,500, you do without the eight-inch screen and many of the sophisticated safety offerings (but a rear camera is standard).We drove an SE, which was nice enough, but it’s likely buyers will opt for the SE with technology, which adds about $3,000 to the price but contains the full safety suite (adaptive cruise, front collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning), and more. By the time the buyer gets to the loaded SEL Premium, he or she is looking at $48,490 (including the V-6 and AWD).

VW sold 27,635 U.S. vehicles in March, a cautious 2.7 percent increase over March of last year. The Golf GTI is doing particularly well, with 2,010 sold—its best March on record. The company still has numerous challenges in the U.S. market, considering that some Americans no longer trust the brand, and it’s had to cope with the loss of all its diesels. But the Atlas, aimed at the heart of America, should help matters. And so would a production version of the Microbus, if VW will ever listen to me about that.

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