2018 Volkswagen Atlas First Drive | Edmunds

2018 Volkswagen Atlas First Drive

An American Volkswagen That Doesn't Forget Its Roots


The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas is the most American model the company has ever produced. That's because, unlike previous Volkswagen SUVs, the Atlas isn't a European vehicle modified to suit American tastes. Instead, the Atlas was conceived, designed and engineered from the start as a family vehicle for American buyers.

That means it's big, bigger than most of its peers in fact, with three rows of seating and a sizable cargo area. The Atlas is also right at home on the open highway thanks to supple suspension tuning and precise steering. And like every good family vehicle these days, the Atlas offers plenty of technology to keep every passenger entertained and safe. As Volkswagens go, it's better suited for success than any model before it, but its competitors were developed with similar goals. After a few hours behind the wheel, this is our take on how the Atlas stacks up.

2018 Volkswagen Atlas

Properly Sized From Nose to Tail
To get an idea how the Atlas compares to the competition, consider its overall size. It's exactly the same length (198.3 inches) as the Ford Explorer and slightly longer than the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. More importantly, the Atlas has more room between the front and rear wheels than all three of those competitors, so passenger room inside is generous.

Much of that space goes toward giving third-row passengers some decent legroom, a factor that can vary since the second-row seats adjust forward and back. To test out the comfort of all the rows, we adjusted the front passenger seat to fit a 6-foot adult comfortably and then did the same with the second row behind it. That same 6-footer then sat in the third row, and there were no knees touching the back of the middle-row seat, a notable feat in any three-row vehicle.

2018 Volkswagen Atlas

From the driver's seat, the Atlas feels as big as its dimensions suggest. The wide, flat dashboard doesn't intrude into either the driver's or front passenger's space, and the broad center console is out of the way until you need a soft spot to rest your elbow. The view over the hood isn't as expansive as we would like, though. You'll probably feel as if you're sitting low and looking over the hood instead of sitting up high and seeing it slope away from you.

Regardless of how the seats are adjusted, the second row is spacious. Like many other big crossover SUVs, the Atlas offers both captain's chairs or a 60/40-split folding bench seat. Cargo room behind the third row is also generous at 20.6 cubic feet, a number that handily tops both the Pilot (18.5 cubes) and the Highlander (13.8) but comes up short of the Ford Explorer (21.0). The cargo area itself has a low liftover height for easy loading, and there are open storage wells located on each side that are big enough to hold small bags of groceries.

2018 Volkswagen Atlas

Refined on the Road, but Slow
On the road, the Atlas is easy to maneuver. You'll have confidence driving it around turns. It has a more solid feel than the soft-riding Toyota Highlander, for example. The steering is light and precise while the brakes feel powerful and easy to modulate. It eats up highway miles effortlessly with very little wandering or need for constant corrections. We consider the Mazda CX-9 the handling benchmark for the class, but the Atlas isn't far behind.

The same can't be said about the engine performance of the Atlas, though. Two options are available: the standard 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder rated at 235 horsepower and an optional 3.6-liter V6 with 276 hp. Both come with an eight-speed automatic transmission and send their power to either the front wheels only or to all four wheels with the optional 4Motion all-wheel-drive system.

We only drove V6 models and the acceleration could best be described as leisurely. It's most noticeable at highway speeds, but even from a stop the Atlas does not feel quick. The engine is exceptionally smooth and the transmission shifts are sharp, but they can't make up for the fact that the Atlas struggles to get up to speed. And this was with a driver and front passenger only. Load it up with kids and some cargo, and the Atlas is likely to feel even more labored.

2018 Volkswagen Atlas

Features, Feel and Functionality
Like most midsize crossovers, the Atlas offers a wide array of features and options. There are five trim levels. The base model is the S. It's followed by the SE and the SE with Technology. At the top, there's the SEL and the SEL Premium.

Whatever trim you choose, all of the Atlas models do a great job of packaging the various features in a way that isn't overwhelming or overly busy-looking. Take the instrument panel, for instance. On the first four trim levels, you get a set of analog gauges with an easily readable digital information screen in the middle. It's a classic-looking setup that offers all the information you might need on a daily basis. If you're the type who likes having everything at your fingertips, the SEL Premium trim offers a fully customizable digital instrument panel with a wide array of configurations and designs.

The main dashboard display has a similar combination of ease of use and capability. Most Atlases get a large, easy-to-read display that offers basic functions, and the top trim SEL Premium has a more robust setup with a greater depth of options. All the systems are neatly integrated into the dashboard in a way that's unobtrusive when you're not using them yet still easily accessible. The climate controls sit just below the main display and stick to dials and buttons for most of the main functions. It's a dead simple setup that never requires more than a quick glance to adjust.

2018 Volkswagen Atlas

Most of the materials used throughout the cabin look and feel above average for the class. The top trim SEL Premium models have some less than convincing wood trim, but most pieces you touch are tightly assembled and sturdy. There's a Germanic simplicity to it all that gives it a distinctly different feel compared to its competitors.

It's a good reminder that although every aspect of the Atlas has been finely tailored to American tastes, it hasn't lost the things that make it a Volkswagen. And that's not a bad thing. In a category of vehicles that vary by only the smallest details, the Atlas has a distinctive look and feel that you won't find at a Ford or Toyota dealer.

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