2021 VW Atlas SEL — A formidable family friendly 3-row SUV

By Jim Prueter

(September 28, 2020) The Atlas, Volkswagen’s first large, three-row seven-passenger SUV was first introduced for the 2018 model year. It’s big — very big — and was designed for the needs of the modern American market, competing with popular SUVs like Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse, Kia Telluride, and Hyundai Palisade, among others in the mid-sized SUV class of vehicles.

Atlas has the most interior room in its class, and comes in two body styles: the seven passenger three-row Atlas and the five passenger two-row Atlas Cross Sport, both providing generous seating and cargo space. For the 2021 model year, Atlas is offered in a choice of five distinct trim levels: S, SE, SE w/technology, SEL and SEL Premium. There’s no hybrid or plug-in hybrid, but VW says it’s always a possibility. However, there’s nothing to announce now.

We especially like the seating arrangements and features. The second row — with your choice of a sliding bench or captain’s chairs — offers passenger room that is nothing short of astonishing. The seats also tilt forward, with a single lever pull. Even with a child-safety seat installed, entry and exit from the very roomy third-row of seats is easy. Most average sized adults will find it comfortable back there. Large rear doors with a low sill only add to the ease of ingress and egress.

There are two engine choices for the Atlas. The base engine is a 2.0-liter TSI turbocharged four-cylinder that delivers 235 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft of torque. The other is a larger 3.6-liter V-6 borrowed from its Passat sibling that’s good for 276 horsepower and 266 lb.-ft of torque. An eight-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive are standard with both engines; all-wheel drive is available.

For the purposes of this review, we drove the 2021 Atlas V6 SEL Premium R-Line with 4MOTION (VW speak for all-wheel drive), loaded with standard equipment including a panoramic sunroof, 21-inch wheels, overhead-view camera, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian monitoring, lane-keeping assistance which will nudge you back in to your lane, self-parking assist that takes over steering to guide you into parallel and perpendicular spaces, and a host of other advanced technology features. All this goodness came in at a price of $51,715, including destination charges.

For the 2021 model year Volkswagen has updated the exterior styling, including redesigned headlight and bumper designs to mimic the looks of the two-row Cross Sport model. Additionally, the 2021 Atlas’ four-cylinder engine can now be optioned with all-wheel drive; it was previously limited to front-wheel-drive only.

Standard features include 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, full LED lighting, rain-sensing windshield wipers, Front Assist, Blind Spot Monitor, Rear Traffic Alert, and next-generation Car-Net with Wi-Fi capability.
Available features include Volkswagen Digital Cockpit, 20- and 21-inch wheels, heated rear seats, leather seating surfaces, Fender® Premium Audio System, ACC, Lane Assist, Park Assist, Traffic Jam Assist, Dynamic Road Sign Display, remote start, and Easy Open rear hatch.

If you’ve ever been in Volkswagen Passat, Golf, Touareg or, for that matter, any German vehicle, you’ll be more than impressed with the design, look, feel and quality materials. Thankfully, Atlas is devoid of the ugly shiny-reflective chrome trim, high-gloss wood, and the overused “piano black” plastic trim used by most auto manufacturers. Rather, finishes are brushed metal, and matte-finished faux wood veneers. We weren’t impressed with all the hard plastic on the lower dashboard and lower door trim.

All operating controls are supremely intuitive and easy to use. Seat comfort is above average, visibility fore and aft is excellent thanks to thin A, B and C pillars. Our top-spec SEL Premium uses a Digital Cockpit, replacing the analog speedometer and tachometer with a full, 12.3-inch screen, similar to Audi’s Virtual Cockpit. The layout is a bit different than the Audi system but the adjustable digital dial, large map previews, and other graphics are the same. It all handles the various multimedia settings, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s responsive and straightforward.

Our test SEL Premium also came equipped with a Fender Premium Audio system with 12 speakers and 480W of sound. There are ample cubby bins for phones and sunglasses, cupholders galore, and even a 12-liter bin located between the front seats, under the center armrest.

On the road, the Atlas’s acceleration, handling, ride and comfort were perfectly acceptable and will more than satisfy most drivers and occupants. The suspension absorbs bumps and suppresses road noise. Handling is surprisingly agile given its large size. All operating controls are in an easy-to-use infotainment system. One of our major disappointments, however, was its overall fuel economy; Atlas returned an average of just 17 mpg on mixed city and highway driving.

Also, for the first time in 2021, is Volkswagen’s 4Motion with Active Control all-wheel-drive system is available with both V-6 and turbocharged four-cylinder powertrain options. The 4Motion system is designed to activate before wheelspin occurs, helping eliminate traction losses. The system achieves this by using an advanced control function based on specific driving conditions. While we didn’t take our SEL Atlas off-road, know that it isn’t intended for any serious off-road duties. It’s best suited to snow and icy road situations with a choice of four specific driving condition settings: Onroad, Snow, Offroad, and Custom Offroad.

Within the Onroad setting, additional options are offered: Normal, Sport, Comfort and Individual. These alter operating parameters for drive systems like the engine, transmission, steering, and Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), as well as traction-assistance systems like Hill Descent Assist and Hill Start Assist. The singular user interface is highly intuitive, comprising both a rotary knob and a push-button. Turning the knob engages the various drive modes, while pushing the button triggers a pop-up menu on the screen of the infotainment system, allowing the driver to fine tune the Onroad mode.

Overall, Atlas is an extremely competent SUV but does lack some of the upscale feeling found in many of its rivals. However, it’s extremely easy to live with and more than adequately handles a large family, their dogs and gear with ease. We strongly suggest it makes the “must test drive” list of anyone shopping for family friendly, larger three-row SUVs. It offers excellent value, loads of standard features, particularly for safety and driver assistance.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $51,715
Price as Tested: $51,715
Engine/Transmission: 276-horsepower 3.6-liter V6, connected to an eight-speed automatic transmission and 4Motion all-wheel drive
Fuel Economy: 16/22/18 mpg – City/Highway/Combined
Seating: Up to seven

Crash Test Results: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 5-star side crash rating and 4-star rollover rating and overall Good rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Competes With:
Chevrolet Traverse
Dodge Durango
Ford Explorer
Honda Pilot
Hyundai Palisade
Kia Telluride
Mazda CX-9
Nissan Pathfinder
Toyota Highlander

Fab Features
Intuitive touch screen and operating controls
Extra-large interior – even in the third row and cargo area
Composed ride and handling