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Review update: 2021 Volkswagen Atlas shrugged off fuel economy

September 15, 2020

Atlas the Titan was condemned by Zeus to carry the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Atlas the SUV carries the weight of families in its spacious confines, but is condemned by poor fuel economy.  

Updated for 2021 with a rugged Basecamp appearance package, a bolder design, and a turbo-4 now available with all-wheel drive, the Volkswagen Atlas three-row crossover SUV seats up to seven people and plenty of gear.

But when it comes to efficiency, Atlas shrugged. The V-6 with all-wheel drive I tested had an EPA-rated 18 mpg combined. That’s worst in the mid-size three-row SUV class. No wonder the irascible Zeus did what he did. It’s one reason the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas earned a middling TCC Rating of 5.6 out of 10

Putting that rating to the test in the 2021 Atlas V6 SEL Premium, I found that its large, quiet cabin and smooth, gentle ride offset the lack of power and efficiency. The pain at the pump during a long holiday road trip was real, but I appreciated how much the passengers and I were able to stretch our legs and repose. But at $50,410 for the top SEL Premium, the Atlas incurred a significant burden.  

Here’s the good, the bad, and the grossly inefficient. 

Hit: Quiet and comfy road tripper

Launched for 2018, the biggest Volkswagen is also one of its bestselling vehicles because it has several attributes that make it great on the road. Aside from some wind noise coming from the massive side mirrors, the cabin is as quiet as a nap. And yes, there were a couple of those over the course of 800 miles. 

The independent suspension on all four wheels keeps the ride steady, and even on the tester’s attractive 20-inch wheels, the presence of the road was kept at a distance inside. 

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

Miss: Underpowered V-6

The big news for 2021 is the expanded roll out of a 235-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo-4. Standard with front-wheel drive last year, the more efficient engine now comes available with all-wheel drive (for $1,900) across the lineup. 

I did not test it but I struggle to understand how well it can perform based on the anemic power of the carryover 276-hp 3.6-liter V-6 in my tester. The V-6 strained to carry the 4,502-pound weight of the Atlas on its dual-overhead camshaft shoulders. It’s at least 150 pounds heavier than the longer, taller 2021 Chevrolet Traverse, and the four driving modes don’t provide much variation. Passing moves around tractor trailers on single-lane highways require more advance planning than usual, and should only be done on long, flat straightaways. 

The 8-speed automatic can be notched into manual mode in the center console to give the driver a bit more control over the limited power bands. Without manually downshifting a few gears, passing moves can be risky. Certain state troopers might agree. 

Miss: Grossly inefficient

Volkswagen is not the only automaker to drop in a turbo-4 in a three-row crossover for greater efficiency. The Subaru Ascent and Mazda CX-9 use turbo-4s with a good blend of power and efficiency. The smaller engine in the Atlas just about matches the efficiency of those competitors with 22 mpg combined in front- or all-wheel drive. 

That makes it a good option, on paper at least, because the V-6 in the Atlas feels less powerful than the Ascent or CX-9 and it’s terribly inefficient with an EPA-rated 16 mpg city, 22 highway, 18 combined. The larger Traverse with all-wheel drive gets 17/25/20 mpg, and the equally spacious Honda Pilot gets 19/26/22 mpg. Not only is the V-6 Atlas the worst in the mid-size three-row SUV class (even the Durango gets 21 mpg combined), it’s only 1 mpg better than the ginormous truck-based 2021 Chevy Suburban full-size SUV. The 18.6-gallon tank leans to the small side for the class, as well, which leads to more stops at the pump. 

I couldn’t match EPA estimates, however; the trip meter said the Atlas averaged 20.7 mpg at an average speed of 61 mph for more than 500 miles. 

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

Hit: Roomy 

Despite a large center console, the wide Atlas makes for a comfy, roomy road tripper. The refreshed front and rear bumpers seem to broaden the Atlas, and that is reflected inside with a wide horizontal layout of the cockpit. The SEL Premium comes with a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat with a power lumbar limited to front and back adjustments, so it won’t relieve all postures or proportions. The front seats are comfy enough, even if they lack some of the cushier softness of its rivals’ top trims. 

Ample head room and leg room benefit the first two rows, and sliding the second row back and reclining the seat backs makes for some quality napping. The tester had eight seats, with a 60/40 split in the second row and 50/50 split in the third. I had the smaller side of the second row folded down for extra cargo room but it wasn’t necessary; with 55.5 cubic feet of cargo space with the third row folded down, there was plenty of room for coolers, food, and drink for a party of four. The larger Traverse has 57.8 cubic feet, while the Honda Pilot has just 46.0 cubic feet with the third row down. A family of four could travel in comfort without needing a cargo carrier up top or a hitch to lug up to 5,000 pounds. 

The third row is best left to kids, and that comes at the expense of second-row comfort. It’s typical for the class. Three grade schoolers could fit in back, but for anyone older it better be a brief carpool trip. 

Miss: It’s as dull as re-reading Ayn Rand as an adult

The bolder, broader style on the front and rear project a more truck-like confidence, but the subdued styling fails to stand out. This could be a good thing for more conservative tastes. No giant screen dominates the cabin, no fancy flourishes provoke a double take. It’s all very inconspicuous. 

The 2021 Atlas excels at roominess and comfort, but if you don’t need that third row, consider the five-seat Atlas Cross Sport. It’s shorter, lighter, but equally as roomy. It’s also more efficient. 

_______________________________________

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SEL Premium 

Base price: $32,565, including $1,020 destination

Price as tested: $50,410

Drivetrain: 276-hp 3.6-liter V-6 with 8-speed automatic transmission in all-wheel drive

EPA fuel economy: 16/22/18 mpg

The hits: Quiet, comfy, roomy. 

The misses: Underpowered, inefficient, conservative. 


2020
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2020
The Car Connection
 
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