2018 Volkswagen Atlas first drive: Super-sized

April 7, 2017

Tired of watching its owners drive past VW showrooms when their families grew large enough for a three-row crossover, the German automaker finally has something to lure shoppers away from Ford Explorers and Honda Pilots.  

It’s called the Atlas, and the burden it carries is substantial. VW wanted it to offer a diesel engine with the tantalizing potential of 30 mpg on the highway, but when the feds caught the company cheating and lying about its TDI turbodiesels on emissions tests, that plan was spiked.

Suddenly, the potential ace up the Atlas’ sleeve was handed back to the dealer.

2018 Volkswagen Atlas, Boerne, Texas

2018 Volkswagen Atlas, Boerne, Texas

But there’s more to this story than what’s not here. The Atlas may be VW’s freshman effort at a 7-passenger, three-row hauler, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s not much to behold, with a chunky shape as conservative as they come that is not offset by a distinct lack of flair inside. Instead, the Atlas is quietly competent and exceptionally good at carrying seven humans—even seven adults.

DON'T MISS: Read our 2018 Volkswagen Atlas Review

All three rows of seats deliver stellar room for wide-shouldered passengers. Up front, long cushions provide great long-distance support. The second row may be the best in the house thanks to its leg-crossing room and wide range of adjustment. Tug a lever and, even with a toddler seat attached, the second row slides forward to reveal excellent access to the roomy third row. It’s definitely third class back there with its hard, low cushion, but the folding seats have room for life-size adults.

That third row is standard on all versions of the Atlas, which start around $31,500 and climb to nearly $50,000. That’s a wide spread, but it’s on par with rivals. The Atlas makes the most sense under $40,000, where the mid-range SE model includes easy-clean leatherette upholstery, an 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability, and a proximity key that can be left in a purse or pocket.

2018 Volkswagen Atlas, Boerne, Texas

2018 Volkswagen Atlas, Boerne, Texas

The extra-cost Technology Package is worth the $2,100. It adds adaptive cruise control and forward collision warnings with the ability to automatically apply the brakes to prevent a collision—or at least reduce the severity of an impact. The package also includes a power liftgate that can be opened with a kick under the rear bumper if your hands are full.

If you want to go full-boat, an Atlas SEL Premium comes in a bit under $50,000. It's well-equipped with a highly configurable LCD screen in place of conventional instruments, Fender-branded audio, and air conditioned seats. But it doesn't feel as "premium" as its name suggests. 

MORE: Full pricing details for the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas

Likely worth the money is the $1,800 optional 276-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6 engine. We’ve not yet driven the standard turbocharged 2.0-liter, 235-hp 4-cylinder, but that’s not a lot of power to motivate a vehicle that approaches 4,500 pounds—and the 4-cylinder is curiously only available with front-wheel drive. You won’t see one on a dealer lot outside of the sun belt unless someone ticked the wrong boxes when placing their order.

The V-6 delivers reasonable acceleration and mates well to an 8-speed automatic to send power either to the front or all four wheels with the $1,800 all-wheel-drive system. Underneath, the Atlas shares some underpinnings with the VW Golf—but it’s substantially larger. At almost 200 inches from head-to-stern, it’s one of the biggest of its ilk.

That shows inside, but not in the way the Atlas drives. It’s fairly nimble with quick steering and a composed ride. The Atlas is far from sporty, but it maintains its composure better than nearly any other crossover. Aside from too much road noise penetrating the cabin, the Atlas is relaxing and comfortable. It’s the kind of vehicle that drives a lot smaller than its size might suggest.

2018 Volkswagen Atlas, Boerne, Texas

2018 Volkswagen Atlas, Boerne, Texas

The Atlas certainly isn’t without its compromises, though. Its interior feels price appropriate under $40,000; above that, there’s genuine luxury competition within sight and those brands coddle far better. The Acura MDX and Infiniti QX60 aren't as roomy, but you’ll barely notice because of how well-outfitted their cabins are compared to the dour Atlas. Even direct competitors like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander are plusher to the touch. 

And then there’s the Atlas' fuel consumption, something the diesel would have fixed. The all-wheel drive model with its V-6 is estimated by VW to rate at 17 mpg city, 23 highway, 19 combined. Nearly every competitor gets a higher rating.

It's an unfortunate mark on a family hauler that gets nearly everything else about right.

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