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2018 Volkswagen Three-row Atlas SEL With 4MOTION Review By Thom Cannell

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3,000 Miles With Volkswagen’s
2018 Three-row Atlas SEL With 4Motion

By Thom Cannell
Senior Editor
Michigan Bureau
The Auto Channel

Light, Camera, Action!

Nothing will tell you more about a car, truck, or SUV than driving it in pouring rain—at night. Your gut connects to your brain, calmly sharing information about competency and safety, or screaming anxiously. In every way possible, Volkswagen our Volkswagen Atlas delivered stellar safety technology, relaxed driving and exemplary fuel economy. What more could you ask of a family vehicle?

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Volkswagen offers a family of SUVs, and Atlas will, for families needing more passenger space, substitute for the stout Touareg, a four-passenger SUV that we love, having crossed the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and the Andes in Argentina. It was designed and engineered for North American families, and offers standard seating for seven.

Atlas’ appearance is unmistakably Volkswagen, vamping the current Passat and Jetta and future Arteon. It has clear domes over its headlamps and rows of rectangular accents inset beneath the two-bar grille. Highly sculpted character lines run from below the rear taillight to the headlights to strengthen doors and deliver distinctive shadow lines. The hood itself is similarly defined by linear sculpting running front-to-back.

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Driving from Michigan to Florida offered time and miles to understand this new SUV. Endless I-75 freeway miles and a week of city in-fighting gave us ample opportunity to find out if it was comfortable, safe, secure, quiet, stable, and if it handled well, had a powertrain worth a comment, and a glimpse at real-world fuel economy.

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Opening the hatch to stow gear showed—gasp—barely enough room for 4-5 upright roller bags, which might suffice for a family of four vacationers. Oh, the third row seats were up! A quick-and-easy pull at the shoulder-height latches on each side of the 60/40-bench and we now had load space equaling a New York City apartment. Well, the second row was totally out of reach, and every bit of gear went in with space to spare. A plus, the rear hatch lifted and lowered with electrical assist.

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Next observation: the interior is crisply clean. A broad dash features walnut trim outlined by brushed aluminum, and large touch-sensitive telematics hub. The driver has typical gauges, plus a large Driver Information Console that switched easily to everything from oil temperature to telephone, to tire pressures and more. Steering wheel controls were quickly memorized and operated as expected with no fumbling.

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Seats. Comfortable large and supportive bucket-y seats were covered in leather and provided support even for taller shoulders. They could memorize preferences for two drivers. Between the front seats was a large console, likely deep enough for a 12-pack of soda. At its rear was a separate automatic HVAC control for the rear passengers. The second row of seats, split 60/40, slid easily forward for third-row access. They were mid-thigh depth, with plenty of legroom. On long journeys, kids and smaller adults may nap in modest comfort.

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As night fell, we discovered the enormous sunroof, stretching from the second row forward. We didn’t discover Atlas’ built-in sunshade until later. What we did see, really see, were the amazing headlights. Every Atlas uses a full suite of LED lighting including high-and-low beams, turn signals, daytime running lights and side marker lights. LED taillights are standard on SEL and SEL Premium models. Those headlights covered three lanes of highway from side-to-side, far ahead and brightly. Hopefully IIHS testing will give them the same five-star rating we do. Nothing increases nighttime driving safety like great headlights and Atlas has some of the best we’ve ever experienced.

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Another aspect of safety is the powertrain. Volkswagen powers Atlas with either a 2.0-liter, 235 hp. / 258 lb.-ft. turbocharged I-4, or the 3.6-liter 276 horsepower / 266 lb.-ft. V-6 engine we tested. In either case, the engine is mated to an eight-speed transmission. This delivers powerful acceleration off the line and in city driving with good fuel economy on the highway, which we’ll get to in the Bullet Points. Even for horsepower junkies, acceleration is very satisfactory.

Earlier, we said “lights and action”. What about the camera? That’s the smart, radar-based cruise control and its surprisingly good camera-based Lane Keeping system.

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Normally we despise lane-keeping systems and their intrusive beeeeping. We’ve been out of touch. By combining electronic power steering with a camera, lane markings can be detected. If your driving sways to either side, sophisticated electronic controls nudge the you back into the lane. It’s not hands-free, and it will yell at you to put your hands back onto the wheel in about three seconds. However, if you drowsily caress the wheel, the system may assist you back on track, even in robust turns. We do not recommend attempting hands-free driving, however, it may save your sleep-deprived life.

There is a slight downside to lane keeping. You must activate the turn signal to let the system know you’re changing lanes; otherwise it tries, nicely, to keep you in your lane. You’ll rapidly become used to its pushback through the steering wheel. You might even get into the habit of signaling your lane changes—another gasp!

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Along with lane keeping is radar-based Automatic Cruise Control with selectable distance; it will slow you in several or many car-lengths. It will even brake, should you completely mess up. This we did not try, nor would we suggest you try it anywhere other than a special event set up to prove the technology. But, you’ve seen the commercials…

The two, ACC and Lane Keeping, make long-distance freeway driving quite pleasant. Select your speed, your distance, and the Atlas will slow down or speed up, and should you look at the scenery a bit too long, lane keeping might put you back on track without you noticing it.

Lastly, the search for quietness is truly a battleground for carmakers. Every manufacturer delivers quiet cars and SUVs. So quiet that, in fact, we could hear the radio, a bit of tire noise, and the rasp of fingers across the steering wheel. Or, at this moment, the pitter-pat of raindrops and clicking of the keyboard.

Here’s the Bullet Points:

The Good—

  • Excellent powertrain, plenty of acceleration, plenty of braking power (Atlas also comes standard with post-collision automatic braking).
  • Good fuel economy. We routinely beat Atlas’s EPA rating of 17 City, 23 Highway, and 19 Combined.
  • Astonishingly good headlamps. Bright and wide, covering the entire road ahead, as well as far to the sides.
  • Electronics that just work. After getting used to the push-back from lane keeping, we came to accept it, use turn signals more often in lane changes, and use the radar cruise to make our journey more pleasant.
  • Great roominess, sufficient for 5-8 passengers, enough luggage space to accommodate a vacation for a family, even when using all three rows of seats.
  • Pricing starts at $30,750 for the four-cylinder version. SEL with 4MOTION AWD had an MSRP of $43,615 including $925 in destination charges.

Room for improvement—

  • Only one thing was noticed. Our Atlas had VW’s latest-generation touch-screen telematics system. No navigation, no Fender Premium Audio, and still a bright, responsive, intuitive system. It was overly sensitive. For instance, while using the radio, a hand swiped near, not on, the screen, brought up more controls. Your little finger may, like ours, brush the screen while changing volume and have it try to activate a phone call or voice control.
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