First ride: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas prototype

March 2, 2017

By Volkswagen’s own admission, its new seven seat midsize crossover is incomplete. That’s because the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas will go on sale later this spring and it was designed from the start to feature a fuel-sipping diesel engine as its headliner. 

Well, that’s not happening any time soon, which leaves the German automaker with a bit of a quandary. What’ll be the big draw to lure shoppers looking for a family-friendly vehicle into its showrooms for the first time in years?

Last year, we traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to learn more about this new crossover where we heard a rather familiar story. One with way more at stake this time. 

MORE: Read our 2018 Volkswagen Atlas Preview

The new Atlas follows a tried-and-true recipe in order to compete against industry heavyweights like the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, and Nissan Pathfinder. It’s a segment where roominess, not performance, woos buyers. And in that regard, VW has knocked it out of the park. Big rear doors open to reveal NBA-grade rear seat leg room, a spacious third row that easily folds flat, and even decent space behind the rearmost seats. That second row elegantly folds forward to allow for excellent third row access and it does so without requiring removal of a child seat.

Prototype Volkswagen 7-Seat Crossover

Prototype Volkswagen 7-Seat Crossover

VW says it will offer optional captain’s chairs in place of a second row bench with a center console that stows when not in use, but we didn’t get to see that. Similarly, the automaker promised big infotainment upgrades—but, again, we’ll have to wait to know what’s going on there.

In fact, we really couldn't tell what the crossover would look like during our ride because VW covered up its dashboard and center console during our drive. Its door panels appear to have been lifted from the Passat, however, as does its chunky three-spoke steering wheel. Mirroring most rivals, VW promises a host of standard and available safety equipment like adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and a system that will nudge the crossover back into its lane if it strays. Ahead of a federal requirement, a backup camera will be standard on all five or six trim levels expected to be offered.

Visibility from all seven seats is excellent thanks to a low belt line and thin roof pillars composed of high strength steel. To keep costs down, VW won’t employ any exotic materials like carbon fiber or even aluminum, although it promises the Atlas's structure will be stout enough to endow it with one of the highest tow ratings in its class. For those who want to tug a boat or a camper around, VW plans to offer a trailer sway assist system for the crossover’s stability control.

Prototype Volkswagen 7-Seat Crossover

Prototype Volkswagen 7-Seat Crossover

A VW engineer drove us on smooth, curvy public roads for about half an hour, enough time to get somewhat of an idea of its composure. Equipped with 18-inch wheels, which will probably be the base setup, the Atlas rides softly and feels light on its feet but remarkably solid. Even with vinyl camouflage festooned to its snout when we rode in it, the crossover let in very little road and wind noise.

As the slow-selling Dodge Durango has proven, this segment doesn’t place a high value on handling prowess. But that could be where the VW makes its mark. The automaker promises a sporty powertrain mode and, judging by the spirited pace at which the engineer pushed it through a glassy smooth, curvy Tennessee back road, the Atlas might become the most entertaining option in its class for enthusiasts.

That’s not to say that it will give the 365-horsepower Ford Explorer Sport a run for its money at a traffic light, however. Under the pre-production crossover’s hood was a muffled 3.6-liter V-6 that seemed to work fairly hard to motivate what shouldn’t be much over 4,200 pounds of vehicle. A 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder will be standard on front-wheel drive model and, presumably, it will bemore fuel efficient—although VW isn’t ready to talk performance or fuel economy numbers. Like its rivals, both front- and all-wheel-drive versions are set to be available. VW was mum on powertrain specs during our ride.

Volkswagen CrossBlue Concept - 2013 Detroit Auto Show

Volkswagen CrossBlue Concept - 2013 Detroit Auto Show

What’s missing, of course, is the turbodiesel that would have given VW a 35 mpg flag to wave. Instead, the automaker hinted that a hybrid is on the horizon. 

The Chattanooga assembly plant where the Atlas will be built serves as a constant reminder of the last time VW tailored a model for Americans: our Passat, which shares little in common with its same name European market model. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Passat, but its stodgy “Euro lite” feel that emphasizes roominess and value isn’t resonating with consumers. In short, conservative doesn’t really work against more evocative rivals.

So too could be the case for the new crossover and its fierce segment dominated by longstanding rivals. We couldn’t see its face, its tail, or its interior when we rode in the Atlas, but the glimpses we got through the camouflage reveal heavy inspiration from the derivative CrossBlue concept that, frankly, didn’t wow us at its 2013 Detroit auto show unveiling.

The Atlas needs to give shoppers a reason to visit beleaguered VW showrooms after what’s probably a long absence. The segment’s typical buyer might have driven a Jetta in college, but 15 years and a couple of kids later, they have moved on to, say, a Honda CR-V. Without a signature stand-out feature, VW’s challenge will be to talk buyers out of a Pilot when the time comes to upsize.

(Note to readers: This story originally appeared before Volkswagen announced the official name and on-sale date. The story has been updated throughout.)

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