Finally, a Solidly Great Family Car That Will Change How You See VW
A year and a half ago VW was in a pickle: The world’s top selling car company faced a scandal for cheating on diesel emissions, plummeting sales and a model lineup loved by critics but not so much by car buyers. And, the company was missing the mark in the world’s largest and most lucrative auto market: The US.
We weren’t surprised that VW was struggling, and we knew what it would take to gain favor of US customers and overcome the scandal: Build cars for the way we live.
A Dad Finally Understands What Moms Always Knew: Room For Car Seats is a Deciding Factor
When Mike Lovati, VP of mid and full size products for VW moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee to run the division, he had to buy a car that fit his three kids in car seats. He quickly learned that his own brand couldn’t accommodate him—VW didn’t make a car that could fit three car seats in the second row or a car with a third row (he finally found a VW Routan minivan, which was in its last year of production).
His frustration turned to opportunity when VW began planning the Atlas SUV. It was what Lovati and his family needed—and he knew millions of other families across the country needed the same things, too.
Charged with building the Atlas in Tennessee, Lovati and his team lobbied the company’s HQ in Wolfsburg, Germany to decentralize functions that would ensure that the SUV would meet the demands of American buyers.
HQ agreed and under this new autonomy, Lovati’s team was able to take their own unique approach, customizing quality, cost, features, marketing and image of the Atlas. Engineers were able to test it against the Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot and the Nissan Pathfinder on the roads of East Tennessee to ensure the handling, comfort and features were a fit for American families.
The result? The Atlas is a handsome, broad-shouldered, cleanly designed SUV filled with solutions, luxuries, innovations and conveniences, all designed to fit the needs of American families.
What It Costs
Front wheel drive, 4-cylinder turbo (235 horsepower):
- S edition with features such as manual cloth seats, smaller touch screen, manual liftgate, crash response system, tire pressure monitors, roof rails, voice control and Bluetooth standard: $30,500
- Fully loaded SEL: $39,160
Front wheel drive V6 3.6 liter engine (276 horsepower)
- S edition: $31,900
- SE with Tech package (includes leatherette seating and most safety and convenience technology): $37,090
- Fully loaded SEL: $40,890
All Wheel Drive V6 3.6 liter engine (276 horsepower)
- S model: $33,700
- SE with Tech model: $38,890
- SEL: $42,690
- SEL Premium, which has exclusive features including: navigation, “Discover” touch screen, digital driver gauge cluster, Fender premium sound system, heated rear seats, leather seats, surround view camera and autonomous park assist: $48,490
First Things First: Accommodating Passengers
Probably the biggest issue for large SUVs is getting into the third row and being comfortable back there. Atlas’s designers gave the SUV a bit more room and accessibility by placing the rear wheels closer to the rear bumper, creating a wider space for climbing into the back. The Atlas’s roof line is long and square, giving everyone in the third row breathing room.
And, the second row seats slide forward and latch into one of several positions, so taller third row occupants won’t be squeezed for foot and leg room. I sat in the back and found it comfortable, both in the leather seats in the Premium edition and the leatherette in the SEL edition. It’s really hard to tell the difference between leather and leatherette and I applaud that these seating options are standard in all but the bias model; leather or leatherette are more comfortable and easier to clean, especially with kids in car seats.
What I really liked, though, is that third row passengers are in control of the second row position: a tab on the seat’s shoulder lets you put the seat back or push it forward, and a foot pad under each seat allows you to brace the seat and set a comfortable position. It’s nice not to have the seat slam into your knees when you put the seat back into place!
A More Convenient Second Row—Even With Car Seats Installed
This might be my favorite feature: slide and tilt center row seats allow access to the third row. Just lift a tab on the seat’s shoulder and it slides the seat forward and tilts, even with a car seat installed. This works in the captains chairs and the bench seat, which can accommodate three child car seats. The center seats also recline a bit so you can adjust it to accommodate a child car seat.
This is a trend you’ll see a lot more of, and one that is a deal-maker for families with two or three kids still in car seats (and with some states mandating car seats up to age 12, our car seats will be with us for a lot longer).
Second Row Comforts: Plenty of Charging and Captains Chairs That Make Third Row Access Easy
If your family is like mine, center row captains chairs are ideal: Everyone gets their own seat, their own space and anyone who needs to access the third row can walk between the center row seats. The Atlas offers this option for $625; a center row bench is standard and with this the Atlas seats seven (it seats 6 with center row captains chairs).
I found the second row to be comfortable and I loved that there’s a household plug (in the SEL and SEL Premium) so I could plug in my phone or laptop. There are also two charge-only USB ports. If I wanted to share my iPod I’d have to connect via the front USB or Bluetooth.
A Smart Touchscreen That Knows What You Want
This one blew me away. The “Discover” (available only on the SEL Premium) touch screen responds as you wave your hand near the screen. Without touching it, it comes alive, illuminating what’s on the screen, offering options and anticipating what you might need. This is brilliant. I could more quickly see key information on the screen, find a option or select new information without stabbing at the screen blindly before fading what I wanted. I hope this feature makes its way into lower priced models.
Also available via the touch screen are driver’s settings including off road settings that give the all wheel drive mode a little more muscle, active safety feature settings (so you can turn off lane departure warning if you don’t want it) and a customizable driver mode for up to four drivers. You can set your radio stations, drive modes, safety modes and more, and the car even greets you by name when you take the driver’s seat.
Navigation and the “Digital Cockpit:” Available On the Premium Model Only, But Pretty Nice
VW has been thrilling drivers for a while with its “Digital Cockpit,” a flat screen that assembles driver feedback gauges with Hollywood-esque digital animation. The system lets you customize your settings and keep key information squarely in the driver’s view. It was fun to play with, but I didn’t miss it all that much when we took a drive in a standard SEL model with more traditional dial gauges.
Navigation is only offered on the SEL Premium trim (keep reading; at first I thought this was a miss but now, I wonder if you really need it). After setting the navigation directions on the touch screen, if I selected something else—satellite radio, for instance—that item took over the touch screen and navigation popped up on the driver’s information cluster between the tachometer and speedometer. It appeared in only one place or the other, and gave nice, clear instructions for our trip.
Bring Your Own Tech: Apple Car Play, Android Auto and Tablet Entertainment
The Atlas has Apple Car Play or Android Auto: plug in your phone and it pops up on your phone and the touch screen. This was great for playing a Spotify playlist and using Apple Maps for navigation (though if you are a fan of Google Maps this might be a reason to switch to an Android phone!).
Apple Maps navigation was clear and easy to follow; that’s the upside. The downside is if you’re a passenger using your phone for navigation, you can’t use it for anything else, such as checking email. And, when you get a text a notification pops up on the screen. Another limitation is that Apple Maps does not display the speed limit of the road the way many navigation systems do (as does Google Maps). Hopefully Apple will address this soon—knowing the speed limit is a great thing.
Another ‘bring your own tech’ decision that VW made was not including an entertainment system option. Understanding that many consumers opt for iPads, tablets or other entertainment options, the company developed tablet holders for the front seat head rests.
Smart Cargo and Storage Spaces, Including a Spot for the Cargo Cover (Yay)
Another detail I LOVED: There’s a built in storage space for the cargo cover. You know, that long, difficult to wrangle retractable piece of equipment that only single people with no kids and no stuff leave in the back of an SUV. The rest of us? It collects spider webs, mildew and stray leaves in a corner of the garage. In the Atlas, though, when not in use it tucks into a space under the cargo floor designed just for this.
In the front seat there are two small storage nooks: one under the center console and one on top of it. Each fit my iPhone 6+ as well as the keys, a second phone and sunglasses. The space inside the center arm rest, while not huge, provided enough space for storage of small items such as sun screen, change or sunglasses.
Two Different Engines and Your Choice: All Wheel Drive, or Not, and a Smart Towing Option
The Atlas gives buyers the choice between front wheel drive and all wheel drive; the company estimates about half of buyers will choose the front wheel drive option, which is less pricey and gets better fuel economy. For those who need All Wheel Drive, though, the system can be customized and has a snow setting. We took the Atlas up a rocky hill to see how it handled; it was predictably bumpy (as off road should be) but handled the rocks, gravel and uneven hillside with confidence.
For customers who need a tow option, Atlas has a built in system on the V6 models that is much more than just a tow hitch: the tow package optimizes other functions such as suspension and braking to allow up to 5,000 lbs. of tow power. A tow hitch can be installed after purchase, too, but it will only accommodate 2,000 lbs. of towing.
As VW Re-Enters the Family Car Category, Atlas Might Just Be the Muscle They Need
When VW executives introduced the Atlas to the media, they declared the company’s intention to be a major player in the family car category. And Atlas is a great start. It’s a solidly appointed, well priced, pleasant to ride in, nice to drive SUV. I was only able to drive the 3.6 liter V6 model, not the 2 liter turbo; I found the V6 to be quite capable on and off road, and either model has the interior space and function to handle all the cargo and passengers you might need.
What We Listened to in the Atlas
VW’s sound engineers put together this playlist to showcase the car’s premium Fender sound system. Not only did it nicely show off the range of the system and turn the SUV into a mobile rock venue, but it’s a pretty great list. We added the last two songs, though: they are two of our favorite German bands.
Disclosure: I was Volkswagen’s guest for this test drive. Travel and accommodations were provided, but all opinions are my own.