Volkswagen will introduce its all-new 2018 Atlas large SUV to the U.S. market this May with a chiseled design, family-friendly features and superb seating space.
The question is whether that’s enough to bring buyers into the Atlas’ orbit and reverse VW’s fortunes.
The 2018 Atlas is a three-row crossover with eight seats. When it reaches dealer lots, the SUV will be powered by a 3.6-liter V6 engine with 276 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. A smooth eight-speed automatic transmission is included.
Stuffed with standard equipment like a color touchscreen and rearview camera, the Atlas enters one of the hottest segments in the market. It’s the largest vehicle Volkswagen has ever offered in the U.S.
But the Atlas may be late to the party.
“It’s long-awaited, and arguably long overdue,” said Jeff Schuster, vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive.
The SUV and crossovers segment grew by 7.4 percent to sales of more than 6.7 million vehicles in 2016, according to Autodata Corp., an industry research firm. Established three-row entries like the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Equinox enjoy strong name recognition, and each racked up hundreds of thousands of sales last year.
As that market grew, Volkswagen failed to capitalize on buyers’ shifting preference for large vehicles, said Michael Ramsey, automotive analyst for Gartner, Inc.
VW offers far more small hatchbacks and sedans than SUVs and crossovers. And last year, the brand’s total sales dropped 7.6 percent as consumer preference shifted toward large vehicles.
“The SUV is a subject that they have just struggled to hit right,” Ramsey said. He said that in the past, Volkswagen’s SUV strategy was handcuffed by the unreliable Touareg mid-size SUV and the cramped Tiguan crossover. Both were too expensive.
With the Atlas, Volkswagen has taken efforts to ease consumer fears.
The Atlas is built on a version of Volkswagen’s Modular Transverse Matrix architecture, or MQB, a strong yet lightweight structure that also underpins the Golf hatchback. In the Atlas, the wheelbase has been stretched more than a foot, from 103.8 to 117.3 inches.
On a recent drive through the rolling Texas countryside, the large crossover provided a comfortable and composed ride.
Electric power steering helps the long vehicle change direction well, and available 4Motion all-wheel drive can send torque to the wheel that needs it most. Optional leather seats are plenty comfortable for long drives, and 18-inch aluminum wheels are smooth and quiet. (Larger 20-inch wheels create more road noise, but admittedly look great.)
The Environmental Protection Agency rates the V6 engine at 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway for front-wheel drive Atlas models, and 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway for all-wheel drive – about average in the class. An engine start-stop system comes standard to conserve fuel when idle. A couple of hours on Texas backroads returned 20.3 mpg from a fully-loaded Atlas with all-wheel drive.
In short, the Atlas provides ample space without being hindered by its mass.
“It provides a solid package in the segment,” Schuster said. “There's no question Volkswagen knew they had to hit it.”
Trims and Pricing
All Atlas models include standard features such as stainless steel roof rails and LED headlights. These features sweeten its price point, according to Ramsey.
The 2018 Atlas will reach dealerships in May from $34,990 before destination for the V6-powered Atlas SE, which is mid-pack among available trims. The SE comes with Blind Spot Monitor, heated front seats and an upgraded 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen.
For a limited time, Volkswagen will also offer an Atlas Launch Edition from $33,500 with a panoramic sunroof and the 8.0-inch system.
Later this year, a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque will be available. It will cost $1,800 less than V6 models. Fuel economy figures are not yet available.
A more basic Atlas S trim, an aggressive design package called the R-Line and optional second-row captain’s seats will also become available by the end of 2017.
Volkswagen expects the bulk of sales to come from elevated trims such as the $35,690 Atlas SE with Technology, and the $39,160 Atlas SEL, said James Burch, Atlas product manager for VW. “We call it the sweet spot.”
Both the pricier SE with Technology and the SEL include safety systems such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and assist and forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking.
The fully-loaded Atlas SEL Premium tops the lineup with a 12.3-inch digital instrument display and improved Fender audio system for $48,490.
Turning a New Corner
In this competitive landscape, crossovers need every advantage they can find.
The Honda Pilot has cavernous cargo space; the Mazda CX-9 excels in performance; and the Toyota Highlander comes with class-leading standard safety features as well as a hybrid version.
The stately Atlas lacks such signature taglines, but its overall consistency could draw customers, Ramsey said.
“The pricing is sensible and it includes a lot of standard safety equipment,” he said. He pointed out the Atlas comes with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and other standard features that competitors lack.
Inside, passenger space is generous. Riders over six feet tall will brush their heads against the ceiling in the third row, but it’s a minor inconvenience in a well-designed cabin. Climbing in and out is eased with a sliding second-row track.
The rear hatch opens to reveal 20.6 cubic feet of cargo space, and the third row folds completely flat to create 55.5 cubic feet. Both are strong numbers in the crossover segment.
The 2018 Atlas can tow up to 2,000 pounds, though some V6 models come with a factory hitch that increases the rating to 5,000 pounds.
“All those things are the driving areas when you look at that subset of the mid-size segment,” Schuster said. “By getting everything else right, I think that combination can work.”
Ramsey said that Volkswagen will benefit simply by having an entry in the crossover segment at all. He said that it will encourage growing families to stay in the brand as they trade up in size. Until now, they’ve had to turn elsewhere.
“Volkswagen didn’t have that before and that’s huge,” he said. “They want to have small, medium and large and keep you in the brand at all costs.”
Volkswagen also needs the Atlas to heal deep wounds in the U.S. market.
The 2015 discovery of an emissions-cheating device and subsequent “Dieselgate” investigation into thousands of vehicles slammed Volkswagen with fines and damaged its reputation. Volkswagen agreed to pay $14.7 billion to settle with the U.S. government and several billion more in other penalties and restitution.
“Obviously coming off the diesel scandal, the brand is really trying to reinvent itself,” Schuster said.