2018 Volkswagen Atlas

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — A new SUV is coming to Volkswagen showrooms in May. And yes, the VW folks say, its an SUV, not one of the growing numbers of “crossovers” that basically put an SUV body over a sedan chassis. (Though Mark Gillies, senior manager for Product Communications, sees them as “interchangeable terms.”)

The 2018 VW Atlas will be a second model to come out of the German automaker’s assembly plant in Chattanooga and will be distributed throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico on this side of the Atlantic and Russia and Middle Eastern countries on the other. It also will be manufactured and sold in China under the name Teramont.

VW chose the San Antonio suburb of Boerne (pronounced “Bernie”) in the heart of Texas Hill Country as the site to preview the new model to automotive media members from around the country and the world, really, with representatives from the Mideast, Russia, Canada, and Mexico included in one of the sessions as well.

Why Texas?

“If you look at it,” Gillies said, “the Atlas is a really big midsize SUV and it looks right at home here on the roads in Texas alongside all the trucks and SUVs here.”

A second reason, he added, is that the company tagline is “Life is as big as you make it,” and there’s no place bigger in the Lower 48 states than Texas. At 198.3 inches long, 78.3 inches wide and 70 inches high, the Atlas is larger than any other VW model on sale in the U.S.

Texas Hill Country also offered the opportunity for journalists to stretch the legs of the new vehicle over a series of curvy Texas roads, including one stretch of two-lane highway that featured a 70 mph speed limit! Yes, a road with driveways coming in at the edges and lots of yellow paint lines down the middle actually legally lets you hit what are usually interstate limits only with no fear of being introduced personally to a Texas lawman.

And the Atlas was easily up to the challenge.

My drive was spent in a top-of-the-line SEL Premium trim which features a 3.5-liter V6 engine (VR6 in VW vernacular) hooked up to an eight-speed automatic transmission and rated at 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque.

With all-wheel drive, this setup allows for up to 5,000 pounds of towing capacity when equipped with a factory-installed trailer hitch (only 2,000 with an aftermarket hitch). It seats up to seven passengers and gives those in the third row a decent amount of legroom for adults and fairly easy access thanks to second-row seats that slide forward even with baby carseats in place.

The Atlas has off-road capability as well — though you wouldn’t want to go challenge the Rubicon Trail with it —  and as evidenced by the number bicycles they loaded up on one of the display vehicles seems targeted not just for families but for active ones as well.  There are numerous driver assistance and safety features, many of them — like the Automatic Post-Collision Braking System that is designed to prevent a secondary collision, a segment first — coming as standard in all Atlas versions.

It comes in five trim levels, starting with the base S, which carries a base MSRP of $34,625 (including $925 destination and delivery) and will be available later. The SE starts at $37,715, the SE w/Tec $39,815, and the SEL $43,615. The SEL Premium tops the lists at $49,405 and that includes the V6 engine and VW’s 4Motion AWD system over the standard FWD.

A 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder engine (235 hp, 258 lb.-ft. of torque) also is offered but wasn’t available at the preview. VW expects the V6 to be the far more popular choice among buyers. If you want AWD, it is available only on the V6. Mileage numbers for the V6 are 18 miles-per-gallon city, 25 highway, and 20 combined with FWD and 17/23/19 for AWD using regular fuel.

The SEL Premium model handled the bumpy Texas roads with assurance, and aside from the slightest bit of wind noise noticeable on the passenger side, was quiet as well. When pushed up grades or when revved up on a short stretch of interstate, the engine did not seem overly strained.

VW also seems to have hit the sweet spot as far as size — big enough to provide up to 96.8 cubic feet of cargo space with all seats folded (and 20.6 with all upright) but not so big it hogs the road. It was at home in both the tighter two-lane stretches for Hill Country roads and stretches of four-lane as well.

It has a nice exterior appearance about it as well with a nicely designed beltline that flows over the wheel wells and hits home at just the right level to keep the side from taking on a flat, bland appearance. The front grille is distinctive as well. Take away the VW logo in the center, however, and it has somewhat the look of a Land Rover Range Rover Sport. That’s not a knock. It’s just the impression I got. Not sure anybody else did, though.

How the Atlas fares in the very competitive midsize SUV market is going to be interesting to keep an eye on. Volkswagen has been working to regain the trust and
confidence of the public since the diesel emissions scandal hit the company less than two years ago, and it seems to be succeeding.

Mike Lovati, vice president of the Midsize/Full-size Produc
t line, said VW sales for the first quarter of this year were at about 76,000 units, compared to less than 70,000 for the same period a year ago, and March numbers were up to 27,635 units, an increase of 2.68 percent over March 2016.

The Tiguan is enjoying its best sales ever, and the Golf sport wagon sales, including the new Alltrack, also are up significantly, Lovatti said.

The 10.3 percent increase in overall sales ranks VW fifth among carmakers in percentage growth, though you have to remember that with smaller overall numbers small increment increases result in bigger percentage jumps.

“Volkswagen becomes a full-line, family-focused auto manufacturer with the vehicles we are now bringing to the market,” Lovati said. “With the addition of the Atlas and the 2018 Tiguan we’ll be competitive in four of the five biggest segments of the U.S. market — compact sedan, midsize sedan, compact SUV, and, of course, the midsize SUV.

“So we’re really going at the core of the market at the sweet spot. The Atlas is helping us and the new Tiguan at the middle of this year is helping us as well."

The Atlas is built in America and designed for the American family alongside the Passat in Chattanooga, and it’s the result of an additional $900 million investment by Volkswagen over the past few years.

“We’re very proud about this,” Lovati said.

It will be surprising if the Atlas doesn’t figure prominently in continuing that momentum.

— Paul Borden