Vying for a spot to test drive the new 2018 Volkswagen Atlas isn't easy. Journalists lined up in droves for a first spin at the recent Texas Auto Roundup at the Circuit of the Americas. Volkswagen's first three-row large crossover was so popular with fellow journalists that I didn’t get to hop behind the wheel until the final hour. The VW rep gives me the heads up. "There’s no taking the Atlas out on the track. It’s only here for testing on the road." Of course, I was curious to see how it launched on an F1. But it’s more reasonable to take a seven seater out on the road for a more authentic test drive.
The Atlas is big, designed with Americans and their large soft drinks in mind. The first thing you notice is its commanding presence on the road. The lines are classic American SUV; big, wide and detailed. The front grille is unmistakably Volkswagen with its horizontal lines connecting to LED headlights and the VW logo front center. Horizontal lines continue down the sides with a line cut from the nose to tail breaking only to arch over the fenders.
The test model was a 2018 SEL Premium with 4Motion drive. So you don't get a nicer Atlas than this one because there is no step up from this top trim. Inside the cabin, the first thing you notice is how huge it is. It seats seven and the high roof is beyond accommodating no matter how tall you are. The seats match the ceiling height in depth and comfort. The sunroof exemplifies the panoramic trend so popular right now with manufacturers and drivers. Cool smooth black accenting continues on to the steering wheel and feels great. There are also 17 cupholders in this thing. Everything also just looks and feels sleeker than past VW models. The center console equals that of a Ford F-150 truck. Meaning it’s a huge square box between the two front seats and it's so big you can store your tablet, wallet, keys, a water bottle and your phone altogether.
The Atlas features an upgraded standard VW infotainment system with an 8-inch touchscreen. When backing up, the Atlas automatically dims the radio. Then the 360-degree view camera system automatically pops up on the screen for a bird's eye real-time view of your surroundings. (I only know this because I got lost and had to back out of a cranny at the track). Not to mention the amazing, totally digital, cockpit that alerts you to safety regarding your surroundings. It also changes over to a really cool GPS system. It's like looking at Google map on your phone. There are labels naming the different locations (Circuit of the Americas) and it shows you where you are on the road. A handy feature when you're learning a new city or looking for a road without using map directions. And again, this is all right in front of you on a 12.3-inch display.
The leather and the fit and finish of the interior live up to the top dog badging. But the wood inlays look weird to me and McDonald's happy meal cheap-looking. But it's a preference thing and some of you might actually like it as it adds to the whole futuristic modern comfort feel of the cabin.
Maybe I'm just spoiled.
But I found myself wishing for my mom's 2006 Sequoia with its V8 engine. Or any Toyota V8 really. The SEL Premium carries a 3.6-liter DOHC V6. That sounds like it should be enough power. But it just doesn't cut it power wise. The model drives along with a light top feeling and lack of stability that's a bit unnerving on curvy downhills. Adding to this, the engine labors when you gun it. And it complains going up hills. VW gives it a 5,000-pound maximum tow rating. However, it would be slow and steady going to maintain any feeling of stability. Hopefully, VW will get the tuning fixed on this model. Right now, for me, it just doesn't cut the mustard in handling, especially in the highly competitive large crossover market.
Feature Credit: Marshall Tidrick Photo, Volkswagen