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A Volkswagen employee checks out an Atlas SUV on the assembly line at the automaker's Chattanooga plant.
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Cars reach the end of the assembly line before they are driven the next area of the Volkswagen Assembly Plant Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Volkswagen's Chattanooga-made Atlas was named Wednesday as the best vehicle in 2018 by an industry group that called the SUV designed for Americans "a pretty easy choice."

The Cars.com ranking comes as officials for the German automaker say they're going on offense in America, trying to put the diesel emission scandal behind it, boosting sales with new product and aiming to break even as a business in the U.S. by 2020.

Also, VW on Wednesday reported record global sales of 10.74 million vehicles in 2017 as the company leverages gains in the U.S., China and elsewhere in an effort to keep its perch as the world's No. 1 car producer.

Joe Wiesenfelder, Cars.com's executive editor, said the Atlas posted top honors against five other 2018 finalists — Honda Accord, Honda Civic Type R, Kia Stinger, Volkswagen Tiguan and Volvo XC60.

Best in 2018

The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas SUV earned top honors from Cars.com in a ranking of new vehicles. The finalists were:

› Honda Accord

 Honda Civic Type R

 Kia Stinger

› Volkswagen Atlas

 Volkswagen Tiguan

› Volvo XC60

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He said the Atlas was "ultimately No. 1 by a really big margin. They seemed to have gotten it right."

Wiesenfelder said Cars.com looked at areas such as quality, innovation and value.

"We did multi-car tests," he said. "We test them for a week. We do them back to back."

The Cars.com official said the three-row, seven- seat Atlas is "a little roomier [than others in its class], accommodating and drivability is good."

He said the group even installed a variety of child safety seats in the vehicles and the midsize Atlas SUV posted "a straight 'A'" in that test.

Brad Cobb, president of Village Volkswagen of Chattanooga owner Bowers Automotive Group, said that sales of the Atlas are "doing well" since it went on sale last spring.

"It's really getting traction," he said about the biggest VW ever made in America.

Cobb said it was a challenge obtaining enough inventory early on, but that Village Volkswagen has "a pretty decent supply."

According to VW, sales of the Atlas continue to build. It sold 27,119 units in 2017, with 6,070 sales in December marking the vehicle's best month to date.

Wiesenfelder said he expects to see "pretty dramatic growth" in sales of both Atlas and the newly redesigned Tiguan compact SUV.

"They've both been well designed for U.S. tastes," he said. "It might take a while for American shoppers to figure that out."

The website's executive editor said bolstering SUV sales should help VW reach its goal of breaking even in terms of operating profit by 2020.

"Larger vehicles tend to be more profitable," he said. "Providing high volumes, it should help a lot."

Hinrich J. Woebcken, the Volkswagen brand's CEO in North America, said at the Detroit auto show this week that the company set on a journey last year to expand its U.S. presence.

"In order to grow, we needed to reach the heart of the market and offer a fresh lineup of SUVs," he said, citing the Atlas and Tiguan.

Woebcken said he's confident the sales momentum will carry over to 2018 with new SUVs leading the way.

VW is expected to offer a five-seat version of the Atlas and possibly others as well.

Wiesenfelder mentioned the 2018 Passat GT, a sportier version of the midsize sedan also assembled at VW's Chattanooga plant that was unveiled at the auto show, as what could be in store for another Atlas version.

"They have room to grow," he said, noting VW could provide an Atlas with more power or added levels of luxury. "They've got a lot of options."

In terms of global sales, the automaker that employs 3,450 people in Chattanooga said it delivered 4.3 percent more vehicles last year than the 10.3 million in 2016. Last year, the company passed Japan's Toyota to become the globe's largest auto producer for that year.

Carlos Ghosn, chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, told a committee of the French National Assembly that his group was the world's biggest with 10.6 million vehicles last year, the French business publication Les Echos reported. Ghosn said that 200,000 of Volkswagen's vehicles were trucks that should not count, according to The Associated Press.

Toyota estimated in December that it sold 10.35 million vehicles last year. Final figures are expected around the end of January or the beginning of February.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

This story was updated Jan. 17, 2018, at 11:03 p.m. with more information.

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