"Man, that's a big SUV."
If I heard that statement once, this week, I heard it 10 times. Driving around the city in the Chattanooga-made VW Atlas, people were buzzing about the seven-passenger SUV's sheer mass.
Funny, I've never gotten that reaction driving a Chevy Traverse or a Ford Explorer. Maybe it's just that seeing a big, broad-shouldered SUV with a Volkswagen badge is still a novelty to most folks.
VW recently reported sales of the midsize Atlas hit 5,154 units in November, representing the best sales month for the vehicle since it debuted last spring.
"Interest is still high [in the Atlas] and inventory is improving every day," says Jeremy Holsomback, general manager of Village Volkswagen here. "We aren't having any problems getting customers into the Atlas they want."
-Model: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL Premium 4Motion
-Exterior color: Deep Black Pearl
-Interior color: Titan Black
-Engine: 3.6-liter, V-6
-Transmission: eight-speed automatic
-Fuel economy: 23 mpg highway, 17 mpg city
-Local Dealer: Village Volkswagen Chattanooga
-Price (as tested): $49,415
The uptick in Atlas sales, combined with strong monthly sales for the newly-redesigned VW Tiguan compact SUV, are making VW stores must-visit destination points for the growing number of Americans who will only consider buying sports utility vehicles.
That's what VW had in mind when it conceptualized the Atlas to be built at its assembly plant here. The automaker wanted to build a seven-passenger SUV for the masses with enough German engineering baked-in to appeal to traditional import buyers, too. Hats off to our friends at VW's Chattanooga assembly plant. When it comes to fit and finish, our tester is a world-class vehicle.
The five-passenger VW Touareg (pronounced tour-EGG) was previously VW's largest SUV. It's a fantastic vehicle but proved too small for a wide swath of buyers with bigger families and lots of cargo to haul — not to mention boats and trailers to pull. The Atlas, on the other hand, can transport seven adults in comfort and pull up to 5,000 pounds.
Pricing for the Atlas is competitive. Our top-of-the-line Atlas V6 SEL Premium with all-wheel-drive has an MRSP of $49,415. A base, front-wheel-drive S-trim model starts at $30,500.
STYLING AND FEATURES
Dimensionally, the Atlas is more than 16 feet long and more than six feet wide. A person of average height cannot see over the top of the SUV; in fact, most would have to use a step ladder just to load cargo onto the roof rails.
The exterior design is accented by sharp creases in the hood and side panels. The SUV's squarish shape also optimizes interior volume. With the second- and third-row seats folded flat, the Atlas has almost 97 cubic feet of cargo area.
Unlike some modern SUVs which embrace swoopy lines and ornate grilles, the Atlas' design is much more restrained. Its most distinguishing exterior features are flared wheel arches and handsome, 20-inch alloy wheels shod with Continental, all-season tires. Chrome strips over the rocker panels add visual interest. The black-on-black color scheme of our tester gives the vehicle a hint of menace.
Inside, the Atlas features functional and uncluttered design. The dash has a handy, built-in tray for your mobile phone and wallet. A center-mounted, 8-inch touch-screen is the hub for the audio and navigation functions. Razor-sharp graphics and excellent camera clarity are pluses. We are especially fond of the digital cockpit display (available on Premium models) with gauges that can be configured to a driver's preferences.
Volkswagen claims there are 17 cup-holders in the Atlas, which works out to about 2.5 per person. Our tester features three-zone automatic climate controls, another nice touch when trying to dial in temps for up to seven passengers. Meanwhile, access to the third-row seats can be accomplished by sliding a second-row seat forward with one hand. Real adults, not just contortionists, can sit in the way-back.
The only things that gave us pause about the interior of the Atlas were an unnaturally heavy center-stack storage compartment lid and sun visors that seem a bit flimsy for a vehicle approaching $50,000.
All in all, the Atlas is a comfortable commuter vehicle that charms us with its simple elegance and great functionality. Some of our favorite interior touches were a flat-bottom steering wheel and an abundance of storage cubbies.
Our tester has a 3.6-liter, six-cylinder engine that makes 276 horsepower. Car and Driver clocked a 0-60 mph time of 7.9 seconds in the Atlas. The engine is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission that goes about its business with quiet aplomb. Our tester comes with VW's excellent 4Motion all-wheel-drive system for snowy days like we experienced this week in the Chattanooga area.
As a daily driver, the Atlas is composed and compliant. Steering is pleasantly light for a vehicle this big, and the V-6 never seems overtaxed by our mountain roads.
The black leather seats in our tester were well bolstered and supportive. Hip room, especially in the front seats, is generous. Carpooling to soccer practice, our boys raved about the abundance of rear-seat leg room.
Parking such a big SUV is often a concern, but our Atlas came equipped with a overhead view camera that makes mall parking a snap. If you swap paint at Hamilton Place, it's on you.
Customers who have waited decades for VW to produce a three-row SUV designed for the American market will not be disappointed. Top safety scores and an industry leading new-vehicle warranty (six years or 72,000 miles) help seal the deal.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.