The Santa Monica Pier was a curious place for Volkswagen to debut its all-new Atlas SUV. On the one hand, the pier is a landmark: the proverbial paradise at the end of historic Route 66. On the other, it’s a plank over the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and the way off is a 2,451 mile long road that winds through some of the most inhospitable terrain in North America. The Atlas’s debut was supposed to be symbolic, but we’d be surprised if Volkswagen knew just how apt it was.
Unveiled amid a number of classic Beetles and Microbuses, Volkswagen says the Atlas marks “a new chapter in the company’s American history.” Indeed, it’s positioned to be the model Volkswagen needs to get back on track after the disastrous Dieselgate scandal, and a big people-mover certainly looks like the right way to do it. Americans have bought over 5 million SUVs in 2016 alone, a 7.1% increase over last year, but Volkswagen has long been on the outside looking in. Its current lineup, the Touareg and Tiguan, has accounted for fewer than 35,000 of those sales. Both models are attractive, have solid off-road credentials, and offer near-Audi levels of luxury. But their high price, electronic complexity, and fallout from the scandal have made them a tough sell.
Designed to excel where its current models fall short, Volkswagen has desperately needed something new in the crossover/SUV segment, and the Atlas is it. It’s a handsome, American-built, three-row seven-seater that Volkswagen’s North American CEO Hinrich Woebcken says will be priced “for the heart of the competitive SUV market.” The heart of that market, however, means the Ford Explorer, Mazda CX-9, Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia, and Dodge Durango, among others. So the Atlas name is an appropriate one: Between the pressure of needing to be Volkswagen’s next big thing and the cut-throat competition, this big crossover has a lot on its shoulders.
From a design standpoint, the Atlas should hit the sweet spot for many SUV buyers. It’s the spitting image of the 2013 CrossBlue GTE concept, which is by no means a bad thing. While that design looked cutting-edge nearly four years ago, today it’s a handsome variation on a theme that should appeal to a wide audience. There are echoes of the Ford Explorer up front, and there’s more than a little Jeep Grand Cherokee out back, but it’s wrapped in a clean, Teutonic package that makes it look more upscale than either of those models.
Built on the Volkswagen group’s MQB platform (which underpins over a dozen global models) and stretched to 198.3 inches, the Atlas is the same length as the Explorer. But it differs from much of its competition inside by being designed to comfortably — key word here — fit two adults in the third-row. Entry and exit is helped by second-row seats that give a wide birth even with child seats installed in them. And while headroom back there is a little tight for people over 6 feet tall, legroom is surprisingly spacious, and overall, it delivers as promised. Up front, the dash and first two rows of seats will look and feel familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a Passat. They’re not exactly the same, but there’s a strong family resemblance. Like the exterior, however, it’s good looking, and you won’t hear us griping about the Atlas’s tasteful accommodations.
Tech-wise, the SUV comes standard with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and MirrorLink integration. Options include a 12 speaker, 480 watt Fender Premium Audio System (Volkswagen’s most advanced stereo ever), the new customizable Volkswagen Digital Cockpit system, and a suite of safety sensors that the company says “had been previously been reserved for premium SUVs,” and will be available “at an affordable level.”
Power comes from either a 238 horsepower, 2.0 liter turbocharged inline-four, or 280 horse 3.6 liter VR6. Both are mated to an eight-speed automatic, and will power both front-wheel drive and 4Motion all-wheel drive models. Volkswagen says that five trim levels will be available, and judging from the competition, they’ll likely fall somewhere within the low-$30 to mid-$40K range, though we’ll get more details on that before its launch next spring.
Expect the Atlas to be the star of the Volkswagen show as the brand continues to evolve. Luckily, it won’t do it completely alone: We were impressed with the 2017 Golf Alltrack, and combined with a new 4Motion-equipped Golf Sportwagen, the pair should be able to tempt buyers looking for affordable all-wheel drive cars away from the red-hot Subaru. What’s more, at least another four models are due before decade’s end, and by then Volkswagen should be ready to launch its new lineup of EVs.
Volkswagen’s current stable may appeal to a niche market in the U.S., and it’s still struggling with the aftereffects of Dieselgate, but if the price is right and rollout goes as planned, the Atlas could change a lot of that very quickly. It’s positioned to be the biggest seller the brand has had stateside since those vintage Beetles and Microbuses it had on hand for the Santa Monica launch, and the brand knows acutely that those are some big (at least metaphorically) shoes to fill. From here, Volkswagen still has a long, rough road back from the brink; luckily, it looks like the Atlas is up for the job.