Atlas, sans the shrug

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(May 17, 2018) Years ago, I was interviewing Karl Ludvigsen for a story about the supercars set to arrive in the early 1990s. After discussing the technology, performance, and handling one might expect from this batch, Ludvigsen synopsized the deep-seated reason behind why most people would buy one of these machines. He said: “The message the driver is sending is, ‘I have the money and power to pass you any time I want.’ It’s all ego and intimidation.”

There is a very similar thought process behind the rise in SUVs. They have an image associated with escaping from the rat race, exploring the great outdoors, and being able to tackle the toughest trails. But what’s really motivating buyers, other than an adventurous upscale image SUVs possess that cars currently do not, are their visual and physical bulk.

Buyers feel less exposed in these rolling bank vaults. In addition to egotistically telling other road users, “I could go off road if I wanted,” these drivers play an intimidation game of their own. Sitting higher than their sedan and coupe counterparts, they fill the rearview mirrors of cars with bluff, tall grilles and headlights, and communicate to real truck drivers they aren’t intimidated by the size of their vehicle. It’s sort of like, “Mine may not be bigger than yours, but it’s bigger than his and I’m fine with that.” Freud would have a field day.

The father of psychoanalysis would have had a field day with what under the hood of Volkswagen’s jumbo-size Atlas. There you’ll find a surprisingly powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged four so far below the hood line that you could place Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat on top of the motor, drop the hood, and not have any worry that the hat would be crushed or harmed in any way.

Looking under the hood before driving the Atlas also might give you pause for another reason. This is a big vehicle with a relatively small engine. There are three rows of seats, each capable of carrying full-size adults in comfort. The wheelbase is a substantial 117.3 in. Overall height is two inches short of six feet. It’s 78.3 in. wide, 198.3 in. long and encloses a total of 174 cu.ft. If that’s not enough to make you sigh, the Atlas weighs nearly 4,300 pounds. Pity the poor overworked four-cylinder motor. It doesn’t have a chance!

Actually, it does. You see, the turbocharged four produces — on premium fuel — 235 hp at 4,500 rpm, and 258 lb.-ft. of torque at 1,600. It mates to the same eight-speed automatic used by the optional 3.6-liter narrow-angle V6 (it pumps out 276 hp at 6,200 and 266 lb.-ft. at 2,750), and only drives the front wheels. With a car-like drag coefficient of 0.34, the Atlas slips through the air quite easily, and its low-end torque advantage means it accelerates surprisingly well. You don’t expect a vehicle of this size and shape to sprint from 0-60 in a bit over seven seconds, nor do you expect it to accelerate at around town and highway speeds as well as it does. But it does, and it does so while returning nearly 21 real world mpg in the city, 27 mpg on the highway

The EPA mileage rating for the four-cylinder Atlas is 22 city/27 highway/24 combined, the exact same rating you get from the smaller front-drive VW Tiguan. Another surprise is that, for all its visual bulk, the Atlas is surprisingly easy to place. Part of that may be the extra care that comes with piloting such a tall vehicle, but the combination of a high seating position, generous glass area, and well-defined corners with a short front overhang means you have a pretty good idea of where you are in the world.

However, it still makes sense to pay the extra money to move up to the SE trim level in order to get the blind spot monitoring system with rear traffic alert. The extra $2,990 also adds a number of other features (heated side mirrors, heated washer nozzles, keyless access with pushbutton start, additional USB ports, rain sensing wipers, automatic headlights, leatherette seating surfaces, multi-function steering wheel, a power driver’s seat, heated front seats, rear sunshades, a larger touchscreen, satellite radio, eight speakers instead of six, and VW Car-Net) that make living with the Atlas just that much easier.

The SE with Technology that we tested added $2,100 to the SE’s price, and includes remote start, a three-zone climate control system, power liftgate, adaptive cruise control, Front Assist, Lane Assist, and allows you to order the R-Line trim package for an extra $1,960.

Of that equipment, the most important is the Front Assist/Lane Assist combination. Front Assist warns of potential collisions with vehicles or pedestrians, and — if traveling below 18 mph or if the driver fails to brake — triggers Autonomous Emergency Braking and also adds braking support if the driver doesn’t apply enough pressure. Lane Assist, on the other hand, adds torque to the steering wheel through the electric power steering unit to keep the Atlas centered in its lane.

This is becoming increasingly important as cars and bicycles share the road, especially since the federal government, in its wisdom, has bribed localities with repaving funds if they add bike lanes where the shoulder of the road used to be. This “mixed use” concept places vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians in close proximity, and greatly increases the consequences of a vehicle straying even slightly out of its lane. Lane Assist helps avoid this problem.

One problem it can’t overcome is the Atlas’s lack of personality. We have come to expect structural solidity, interior quality, and varying degrees of sportiness in terms of ride and handling from VW. This last item, unfortunately, is in very short supply in the Atlas. In its zeal to capture more of the mainstream market, VW has made its vehicles more, well, mainstream.

You would be hard pressed to tell this SUV was made by the same company that gave us the GTI. It’s not that we’re asking for stiffer dampers, higher spring rates and bigger anti-roll bars — those are the last things we’d want — just that we would prefer more feel from the nicely weighted steering, more sparkle from the chassis, a less prosaic sound from the surprisingly capable engine, and slightly — slightly — more control over the transmission’s willingness to upshift at part throttle in the lower gears. These small changes would rocket the Atlas to the top of the class, challenging Mazda’s excellent CX-9 for dynamic ability, and the box-like Honda Pilot for its interior room.

As it is, VW’s Atlas is American-built, American-designed, and developed for the American market. Competitively priced and surprisingly fuel efficient (in 2.0 T form), the Atlas aims at the heart of the large SUV market and scores a solid hit. With a little more personality, that easily could become a home run.

The Virtual Driver