The biggest Volkswagen sold in America and our top pick for a 3-row crossover if you’re a family with kids still in child seats. The only major change for 2020 is a two row Atlas without any engine changes or any major changes of options on the inside.
The Atlas is big, boxy and square and still instantly recognizable as a Volkswagen. A lot of the design cues are shared with Volkswagens passenger car lineup, including the very horizontal design up front with a very tall profile as well. So we have a fairly high hood. I have to say that I am partial to a boxy design like this, so I think that this is one of the most attractive 3-row crossover in America. I think this is better-looking than the new Ford Explorer. I also think it’s a little better-looking than the new Hyundai Palisade as well, and I like this and the new Kia Telluride about equally for different reasons. The Mazda CX-9 is unquestionably beautiful, but I prefer this sort of boxy style in an SUV.
The family friendliness of the Atlas has more to do with the boxy profile, which really helps improve rear seat headroom and child seat practicality. At 198.3 inches long this is not the biggest 3-row crossover in America by far. A Dodge Durango is a few inches longer than this, and even a Mazda CX-9 manages to be a little bit longer than this as well, but this is almost exactly the same length as the brand new Ford Explore. Even though this is bigger than something like a Honda Pilot or the Toyota Highlander, it does not have an eight passenger configuration. This is a seven seat vehicle or a six seat vehicle, depending on the trim level. You get two people up front, three people in the middle and then two people in the back. There’s also optionally, a captain’s chair option in the second row.
Overall, this is not quite as square in the back as something like the new Kia Telluride, but overall it definitely is more square than something like Mazda CX-9 and that’s one of the keys to the practicality of the Atlas. The big and boxy profile, makes wheels look a lot smaller than they really are. However, these are 20-inch wheels and they have 250 width tires on them.
An optional trailer hitch gives us the 5000 pound towing capacity that this is rated for. We have fake exhaust tips on each side and the real exhaust is tucked up under the bumper.
When it comes to active safety, Volkswagen is marching to a slightly different drummer. We get forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring and autonomous braking with pedestrian standard on all trims. But importantly, we don’t get radar adaptive cruise control until we step up to the safety and tech package on one of the trims for about $38,000. So you won’t find that particular safety feature or convenience feature, depending on how you want to look at it until upper end trims, and we do find some of those systems standard in the competition. Most notably the Highlander, the Pilot, the Telluride, the Palisade they’re all going to give you that adaptive cruise control functionality at a lower price than the Atlas.
Under the hood, we find two very familiar Volkswagen engines. Things start out with the 2-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine that gives us the best economy at 24 miles per gallon combined, but you’ll only get 235 horsepower out of that engine when you feed it premium unleaded. 3.6 liter V6 engine, however, is tuned for regular unleaded. So if you don’t want to buy premium, you might want to get the V6. This produces 276 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are mated to 8-speed automatic transmissions, but all-wheel-drive is available only with the V6.
Fuel economy is definitely lower if you choose the V6 at 20 miles per gallon combined for the front-wheel drive model and 19 for the all-wheel drive model.
The V6 engine is a sort of hybrid between an inline engine and a V6 engine, because it has some characteristics of both. The cylinders are not quite perfectly in a line. They’re splayed by about 12 degrees or so and that way it has some characteristics of an inline engine. Safes components on the top makes things a little bit simpler, and it also makes it more compact. Generally speaking, the reason Volkswagen does this is because it allows them to put a V6 engine into the space that’s normally reserved for an inline-four.
If you choose the four-cylinder engine, then towing comes in at 2,000 pounds maximum. If you choose the v6, then it’s either 2,000 or 5,000, depending on whether or not you get the factory installed tow hitch.
I get front seat comfort in the top-end trim 9 out of 10 points. We don’t have an extending thigh cushion like we see in some of the newer entries, but we do have adjustable lumbar support and a decent range of motion for the power driver’s seat.
We also have a tilt telescopic steering column with a large range of motion that should make it easier for shorter and taller drivers to find a good driving position. One thing to keep in mind is that, like many non luxury crossovers, the front passenger seat does not have the same range of motion as the driver’s seat, so it does not have the adjustable lumbar support.
The atlas like the Telluride, the Palisade and the Chevy Traverse, are about a semi-step larger than the Pilot or the Highlander. So if you’re looking for a roomier, second or third row experience, this is where you want to shop.
Although the Atlas may not look like it’s that much larger than a Highlander. One dimension, that is significantly different, is the wheelbase. You can see that the back wheels definitely affect the way that the second row seat fits in the vehicle and the way everything is arranged in there.
The wheelbase in this is about eight inches larger than the Toyota Highlander, and that definitely gives us more room.
The second row seat is the main reason that the Atlas is so family friendly by putting three people across this second row seat instead of three people across the third row seat.
Another thing Volkswagen does is they make the bench seat standard in all trims, including the very top end trim. So if you want all the gadgets and goodies that we see on this interior, and you want the bench seat, you can do that here, but you can’t do that in all of the competition. Many competitors will replace the second row bench seat with captains chairs and you just can’t get a bench seat in those top-end trims.
In Atlas you can keep child seats latched into both sides of this bench seat and still hop into the third row up to three child seats across. This won’t make much of a difference if your kids are in rear-facing child seats, but if they’re in forward-facing child seats or boosters, this is a serious practicality improvement over every other 3-row crossover out there. The Nissan Pathfinder and the Mazda cx-9 will allow you to keep a child seat latched into place in the same fashion. It does require a little bit more effort to move these seats around than some of the competition seats. That may be a bit of a problem if kids are going to be in the third row. Thanks to the tilt and slide mechanism hopping into the third row is definitely easier than in most of the three row competition.
We don’t have as much leg room back here as we find in a Telluride or the Palisade. However, you can move the second row seat forward and make it more comfortable for a taller adult in the back. Remember that we are talking about fairly compact third rows and these are usually reserved for naughty children or mother-in-laws. If you’re looking for the most accommodating third row in this segment, that really would be something along the lines of the Telluride.
This is one of the largest cargo areas you can get in a 3-row crossover in America. This is a little bit behind the Traverse at 23 cubic feet and the Telluride at 21, but it’s right in the same range and we were able to fit several 24-inch roller bags behind this third row because of the generous dimensions total of four.
Most 3-row crossover owners are going to spend most of their time with the third row folded, and if you do that, then the cargo area definitely expands and we were able to fit eight of those 24-inch roller bags. This cargo area seems cavernous, it is not as wide as the Explorer or the Telluride.
This top-end trim has a large panoramic moonroof that goes from the front passengers heads to just over the second passengers heads, but, unlike some of the crossovers out there, we don’t have a separate pane for the third row. The driver and front passenger get height-adjustable shoulder belts and two-way adjustable headrests. The upholstery in this top-end trim is perforated. The front seats are both heated and ventilated, and then we get heated second row seats.
Second row seats don’t offer optional ventilation like we do see in the new Telluride and Palisade. The overall front door styling is very similar to the Passat. We have a little bit more hard plastic going on here than we find in some of the competition. For instance, the bulk of the ivory trim around the door is hard, except for the one insert right above the armrest and then that small armrest panel itself.
The model that we’re driving has the optional fender audio system and imitation wood trim all the way around in this cabin. As far as imitation wood trim goes, this is not quite as believable as some of the newer crossovers out there, but I think overall I like the look.
In the center of the dash there’s a storage area above the infotainment screen. We have two large air vents and then the touch screen system itself. The system features Android Auto and Apple Carplay integration, and this is the same software version that we’ve seen from Volkswagen for a while.
It’s not quite as easy to use as some of the newer systems out there, but I think it’s more visually interesting than what we see in the new Ford Explorer.
Below that, we find a storage area with no lid. This is where we find the USB input for the system, an auxilary input and a 12-volt power port. There’s definitely enough room to put those larger smartphones in there.
Atlas has a pretty traditional console with two large cupholders. The drive mode button allows us to toggle between snow mode, normal mode, off-road, and an off-road custom mode. The center armrest is softly padded and it opens to reveal a pretty large storage compartment. Although it’s not terribly deep, you might be able to fit a gallon of milk on its side, but you wouldn’t be able to stand one up in there.
Volkswagen is one of the few mainstream car companies that’s giving us full LCD instrument clusters in a wide variety of different models, so you can get them here in the Atlas. You can also, interestingly enough, get them in something like a Volkswagen Jetta. This display may look very similar to what we see in current generation Audi products, but it doesn’t have the same kind of wow factor that we find in the Audis. It’s also not quite as snappy, so I think they’re using different processors and different hardware behind there. We do have the ability to get a full screen map view, but we don’t find Google satellite imagery like we find in the Audi lineup. You can’t choose what you see in those different quadrants, you adjust what’s in the right and the left hand dial via the infotainment system. The steering wheel is a pretty familiar Volkswagen design with a split bottom spoke. There are no paddle shifters on the back, but we do have some sport grips.
The Atlas went from 0 to 60 in 7.4 seconds, putting this right in the middle of things for the 3-row crossover segment.
This model takes 124 feet to stop from 60 mph back to zero. That surprised me a little bit because the overall curb weight is not terribly high and we have 255 width tires in this model. I think a lot of that has to do with the level of grip that these tires provide. They’re a little bit focused on overall fuel economy, and that means they’re not quite as grippy. You could definitely improve the overall handling and overall stopping distance of the Atlas if you put grippy or summer tires on this. But of course doing so, would adversely affect the fuel economy, that’s why Volkswagen doesn’t do that from the factory.
When it comes to overall handling, the Atlas does fairly well just as you’d expect out of a Volkswagen. This doesn’t have the same sort of steering feel that we see in the new Ford Explorer or in the Mazda CX-9, but it has definitely more grip than you’d find in something like a Toyota Highlander. You can thank the relatively decent curb weight for that and the wide tires.
Volkswagen also does a really good job at sitting on the fence when it comes to tuning. The suspension giving us a very good balance between overall ride and overall handling ability. Now don’t take that to mean that the Atlas handles like a compact crossover, because it just doesn’t. This is still a big three row vehicle, but as far as large 3-row crossovers go, Atlas is relatively fun to drive, as you’d expect out of a big Volkswagens designed for hauling families. The suspension is relatively compliant, even when we get out on a rougher road like the gravel road.
Overall, the suspension is not quite as soft as a Nissan Pathfinder, but it’s definitely softer than something like a Jetta or even a Volkswagen Tiguan. On the paved road the suspension tune is definitely comfortable, but it doesn’t feel ponderous, like some large SUVs can, even though we have more room on the inside and a little bit more cargo room in the back as well. That’s something like a Chevy Tahoe, despite the fact that we have 255 width tires on the top trim and a very blocky design.
The cabin is pretty quiet, which is very impressive. At 50 mph the noise level is 70 decibels in here, making this one of the quieter 3-row crossover in the mainstream segment. If you want something quieter than this, you’ll have to look at something like a luxury crossover.
The one fly in the ointment for the Atlas appears to be fuel economy. It’s averaging 18.3 miles per gallon in a mix driving and that’s about one mile per gallon below the EPA estimate, but even if this vehicle was getting 19 mpg average, that would still be below some of the newer entries in the segment like the Telluride, the Palisade and, of course, the Ford Explorer. The base engine in the Explorer for 2020 is a 2.3 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, it gives us 300 horsepower and takes that vehicle from zero to 60 one second faster than this and appears to be getting better fuel economy than this in most folks’ real world driving test.
Fuel economy hasn’t exactly been key Atlas. Overall it is very easy to live with crossover. It’s quiet, it’s comfortable, it handles well. Overall acceleration is pretty average for this segment and handling and braking ability could definitely be improved by swapping out some grippier tires. But if you’re looking for a vehicle, that’s going to integrate well in your daily routine, that’s definitely your choice.