Atlas V6 4Motion — Amazing space, surprising economy

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(August 19, 2018) It was time to load up the vehicle and head to Virginia to see the better half’s sister, a trip we've made before. Unlike that first trip, there would be no metaphoric transformation of coal into diamonds. I had learned my lesson the first time. We would not sacrifice ultimate comfort for usable cargo room, though we came close.

VW kindly lent us an all-wheel drive (4Motion in VW speak) 2018 Atlas SE with Technology, whose only option was the R-Line Package. It added a splash of style and $1,960 to the bottom line, bringing the as-tested price (including the $925 destination charge) to $41,775. This was $4,840 more than the 2.0-liter front-drive SE with Technology tested a few months ago. That vehicle impressed with its interior room, fuel economy and gutsy four-cylinder engine, but lacked a bit of personality and dynamic sparkle.

It didn’t take long to load the Atlas, using all of the available space and leaving a small patch for our luggage. Boxes were placed in the rear footwells, and the second and third row seats were folded flat.

Small, flat items were placed beneath the cargo area floor panel, while slightly larger items filled the cubbies on either side. The rear doors, which open wide, accommodated two seven-foot tall Christmas trees, one stuffed back into its original box, the other wrapped in clear wrap, with its top section placed like a cherry on the top of the rest of the cargo. They were joined by four smaller Christmas trees, and all fit sideways behind the front seats.

The rest of the room was taken up with boxes full of ornaments, pinecones and decorative trim, with enough room left to see clearly to the center right when looking in the rearview mirror.

I know what you’re thinking: This isn’t a fair test of the relative fuel economy of the V6 compared to the four as the smaller-engine version was driven mostly around town and with light loads. This Atlas would make the 1,100-mile roundtrip from suburban Detroit to the outskirts of the Beltway while lugging copious cargo across toll roads and highways, and carrying a built-in 322-pound weight deficit with its 4Motion all-wheel drive. Even with the same 0.34 drag coefficient as the four-cylinder it would struggle to meet the EPA mileage ratings. Hold that thought.

We started our journey at 5:30 am, and arrived in Clifton, Va., just before 4 pm, our only problem being a traffic jam that slowed our progress as we neared our destination. Speeds were kept below 75 mph out of necessity (I like my insurance rates as they are, thank you), and the toll roads were surprisingly clear, with few construction delays.

My biggest complaint concerned not only the Atlas but every VW Group vehicle that uses this flat-bottom steering wheel. In order to make it look sportier and less bulky, the design team has given the rim an oval cross section with a well-defined ridge that digs into your hand over time. After a few hours behind the wheel, you find yourself clenching and unclenching your hands; removing them from the rim one at a time to get some relief.

This is a major distraction in a vehicle that can gobble highway miles effortlessly. Though the V6 has a 1.6 liter displacement advantage over the 2.0-liter four, the difference in output isn’t massive. The smaller motor produces 235 hp at 4,500 rpm, and 258 lb.-ft. of torque from 1,600. Output for the V6 is 276 hp at 6,200 rpm, and 266 lb.-ft. at 2,750. You have to spin the V6 higher to reach its peaks than is necessary with the turbocharged four.

Numbers, however, tell only part of the story. Though the 2.0-liter is by no means agricultural, the V6 is smoother, quieter, and feels more refined. The V6 is surprisingly quick when asked to transition from a slow roll to highway speeds on the seriously short entrance lanes found at some rest stops, and it was easy to fill the mirrors of the vehicle in ahead with the bluff front end of the Atlas. Also, in-gear acceleration was better, and there were no fears of having to pull out from behind slower traffic to accelerate around them. But is this enough to erase the fuel economy benefit of the four?

About that. Our lowest fuel economy exceeded the Atlas V6’s EPA rating by one mile per gallon at 24 mpg, while our best was a stunning 29 mpg. Most of the rest were 26-27 mpg, and the average for the trip was just over 26 mpg. (We brought home almost as much stuff as we took to Virginia, eliminating weight as a variable.) With an 18.6-gallon tank, that means we could have run about 420 miles while holding 2.5 gallons in reserve. That’s impressive, and totally unexpected.

One problem shared with the Atlas tested earlier, however, is the need for rear dampers with wheel-speed dependent valving. Though the Atlas has a comfortable ride under most conditions, sharp bumps cause the rear to “sit
down” abruptly and send the impact harshness (and sound) through the cabin. It’s a fine line between damping that is too harsh when unladen and fine when carrying a full load, but in the right circumstances the rear suspension’s response is jarring.

Also, the Lane Assist can be a bit annoying as it steers you back toward the center of your lane when there’s little danger of “coloring outside the lines.” Especially when the lane markings on one side of the lane disappear (as when passing an entrance ramp) or the road has a multiplicity of tar strips filling cracks.

In the first example, Lane Assist nudges you toward the right as the lane seemingly widens. In the second, if the tar strips are located inside the lane marking on one side, it nudges you away from them as it assumes the lane has narrowed. To its credit, however, the system’s cameras and algorithms did an exceptional job of estimating where the lane lines were during a massive downpour on the way back home through Ohio. And the steering, which can feel a bit lifeless at times, clearly communicated the loss of grip at the front wheels as the rain increased and aquaplaning became a greater concern.

We knew going in that the Atlas had the cargo capacity (96.8 ft. cubic feet behind the front seats), comfort, and capability we’d need to haul our load east. The question was how many times we’d have to stop along the way to fill the tank, and how much of a penalty the larger engine and all-wheel drive system would exact.

The answer was: very little, if any. If you are in the market for a roomy, easy to live with SUV, you have to add the Atlas to your list.

The Virtual Driver