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VW thinks big with Atlas SUV

Charles Fleming, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Automotive News

Volkswagen's Atlas was one of the darlings of last year's Los Angeles Auto Show. The German company was then in the midst of a scandal involving falsified emissions claims on its diesel engines. The Atlas seemed like a bright spot on the horizon.

Perhaps that was because it was so big. The Atlas, built to compete with mid-size crossovers such as the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer, is the largest Volkswagen ever assembled in the United States. With the exception of the discontinued Routan seven-seater, it's the biggest VW ever sold here.

The Atlas is finally available. The good news? It's still big! The bad news: See previous.

The new VW is a four-door, three-row sport utility vehicle that seats seven. Driven by a 3.6-liter V-6 engine mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, it sits high and wide and rolls down the road like a boss.

It's no Rabbit. The Atlas is 16.5 feet long and weighs more than 2 tons. Riding on 20-inch wheels, the Atlas feels more like a Navigator than an Explorer -- comfortable and confident on the freeway, restful for long-distance drives, and quiet as a bank vault even at high speeds.

Parallel parking is a challenge.

But all that size means it carries a lot. The rear cargo area is big enough to carry a mountain bike before you fold down the third-row seats, offering 55 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats up and 96.8 cubic feet with the seats down. At that point, it's big enough to house a bike shop.

The second-row seats are roomy and wide, with loads of legroom and headroom. The rear passenger compartment contains device plug-in ports and its own climate control.

Those second-row seats, which tilt forward to allow access to the third row, lean back, too -- an uncommon but welcome feature for anyone planning a long road trip.

Ditto the heated and ventilated front seats.

I lost count of the cup holders, but VW says there are 17. And although I couldn't find this many on the one I drove, some Atlas models offer 10 plug-in ports.

Overhead, a sunroof that runs almost the length of the Atlas brings lots of light into the back seats, and increases the sense of roominess. The rear windows also have individual sun screens, for a little extra privacy.

The Atlas drives big, too. The V-6 on the SEL Premium trim line -- the car can also be had with a 2-liter turbo engine -- pumps out 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque, which is said to enable a 5,000-pound towing capacity.

The higher-end models are equipped with VW's 4Motion, a four-wheel-drive system that spreads the power around nicely.

On some models, such as the one I drove, the Atlas offers driving modes specializing in snow, rain, off-road and more.

The SEL Premium trim offers a very impressive suite of safety applications. I was happy I didn't have occasion to use them all, but was reassured to know that they included forward collision warning, pedestrian warning, autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning and blind spot monitoring.

I did have the opportunity to experiment a little with the Parking Steering Assistant, which, since I am a poor parallel parker, did a better job than I usually do.

Despite the powerful engine and four-wheel drive, the Atlas cannot be described as nimble. The steering felt too twitchy, and the suspension too soft and spongy, to inspire real driver confidence.

And it's still an SUV. Even when the Atlas was free of any cargo or passengers, it seemed top heavy and tippy in the turns.

And because of that powerful engine and the full-time four-wheel drive, the fuel economy suffers. VW claims the best you can hope for, driving judiciously, is 23 miles per gallon on the freeway. (Front-wheel drive models, fitted with the 2-liter turbo, get as much as 26 mpg.)

Like a lot of automakers, Volkswagen is betting big on SUVs, especially in the American consumer market, where utility vehicles now far outsell sedans.

The company invested a reported $900 million in its Chattanooga, Tenn., plant to build Atlases, mostly for the U.S. market. (The SUVs will be exported to the Middle East, Russia, Canada and Mexico, and are also being built in China.)

The Tennessee factory is said to be capable of producing 250,000 Atlas and Passat vehicles a year.

A Volkswagen spokesperson said it was too soon to make any predictions about Atlas sales. But VW moved 4,000 of the big SUVs in the U.S. last month.

VW divides its SUVs into classes. Tiguan Limited is its "compact SUV," Tiguan its "stylish SUV," Atlas its "family SUV" and Touareg its "luxury SUV."

The company divides its Atlases into classes as well. VW offers 12 different trim levels, starting with the basic S model at $31,425 and rising to the loaded V-6 SEL Premium with 4Motion at $49,415.

That puts the Atlas well in line with its Japanese, Korean and American competition, and rather below similar vehicles offered by other European automakers.

If U.S. car shoppers have forgotten or forgiven VW's diesel transgressions, this big bug could be a popular people mover.

2018 VOLKSWAGEN ATLAS

Times' take: VW's first full-size SUV is a functional family wagon

Highs: Big cargo, with creature comforts, at a fair price

Lows: Poor fuel economy, clumsy handling

Vehicle type: Four-door, seven-seat SUV

Base price: $31,425

Price as tested: $49,415

Powertrain: 3.6-liter V-6 gasoline engine

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with all-wheel drive

Horsepower: 276

Torque: 266 pound-feet

EPA fuel economy rating: 17 miles per gallon city / 23 highway / 19 combined

(c)2017 Los Angeles Times

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