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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The 2018 Atlas Is Exactly What We Expected, And That’s Good For VW

That sound you heard late Thursday night came from Santa Monica Pier in California. It was the collective sigh of relief from Volkswagen executives who just showed off the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas three-row crossover.

The Atlas is the vehicle that has the unlovable task of thrusting VW back into contention with American customers. That was supposed to be the job of the Jetta and Passat in the early part of the decade, mind you. But few automakers banked on surging crossover sales and low fuel prices. And even VW wasn't counting on its name being so closely associated with the word "buyback" after the TDI scandal fallout.

The collective sound among the members of the media invited was more of an, “Ehh…”. The Atlas’ core competencies won’t be revealed until we get to drive one closer to when it goes on sale next year. Because as it stood on the stand a few days ago, the Atlas was everything we all expected it to be, and nothing else.

It still rocks roughly the same clothes the Crossblue Concept wore to the 2013 Detroit Auto Show. On top of that, it looks a lot like pretty much every other big three-row crossover you can buy today. The rear three-quarters are particularly evocative of a Jeep Grand Cherokee, another immensely popular SUV that falls in the Atlas’ likely $30,000-$50,000 price range when it finally does go on sale next spring.

But exterior looks are not what cars like the Atlas are about, and its ability to blend in might be an asset among more conservative buyers who aren’t looking to boast about owning a VW these days. For now, and likely always, the Atlas will be geared for the North America and China, called the Teramont there. Russia and the Middle East will also likely get it. You could almost see it doing well in Europe, too, against some versions of the Ford Galaxy and Volvo XC90. I don’t live there, however, so European readers could feel otherwise.

The story for vehicles like the Atlas is on the inside. Again, it’s conservative, but when has a VW interior not been?

The dashboard is reminiscent of the Chattanooga-built U.S. Passat’s, it even smells like a Passat inside. Modernity has thankfully been injected with a center infotainment screen that’s better integrated than in some recent VW models, though still boasting the moderately sized display for features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

More people are likely to gush over the new Volkswagen Digital Cockpit, which looks to be just as slick as the similar Audi Virtual Cockpit – it’s bound to be the Atlas’ biggest selling point among the crowded fleet of crossovers. That’s partly because while cars in the Golf family set the materials quality in their respective classes, the Atlas doesn’t come across as significantly better than the norm. We’ll reserve final judgement until production cars get into our hands, but it’s all reminiscent of what the best-selling Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander offer.

Still, VW deserves credit for cribbing some of the better ideas introduced on other crossovers tasked with cramming seven seats in. The second-row seat tilts forward even when there’s a child seat anchored to it, the cargo cover hides under the floor and the five seats in the second and third-rows fold flat, without the crevices and inclines some rivals impose. Someone was thinking about what aggravates practical people.

Knowing VW, the 2.0-liter turbo four with 238 horsepower will be all that most buyers need. But because three-row crossovers and all-wheel drive always seem to go together, the 3.6-liter V6 with 280 horsepower will inevitably be the engine of choice. It, too, is in the hunt among the major players. Sure, a diesel would have been a selling point here. So would a hybrid, as the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is pretty much the only game in town and gives it lots of cred in upscale coastal communities.

But at least in this first look at the Atlas before its spring 2017 on-sale date, the major bases appear to be covered. Which is what VW needed to do in this, its biggest stab at rehabilitation in the U.S. market.

And think of it this way, the Atlas and the three-row crossover ilk are the people movers of the 2010s. Volkswagen, after all, basically inspired the people mover nearly 60 years ago with the Microbus.

Heritage was not lost on VW the other night with heavy handed Route 66 and scenes showing exuberant Beetle and Microbus owners traveling open highways. This, after all, is the VW aimed at what numerous American families want and use every day. And the company has to strike up some fond memories however it can.

The U.S.-built Atlas isn’t quite apple pie yet. But it could be apple strudel, and Americans like that, too.

Photos: Zac Estrada/Carscoops


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