Volkswagen’s North American comeback starts with a seven-seat SUV. Will size, practicality and a six-year warranty be enough to rebuild buyers’ faith in the brand?

What is it?

Volkswagen’s latest bid to be a bigger player in North America begins with the Atlas, a three-row SUV to take the fight to established competition such as the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot.

Volkswagen hasn’t sold a seven-seater in the US since the unloved Routan – a thinly disguised Dodge Grand Caravan – was dropped in 2014.

The Atlas grew out of the CrossBlue concept shown at the 2013 Detroit motor show. Although it’s also on sale in China, this huge SUV was conceived specifically for American families and is built alongside the North American Passat at Volkswagen's newly expanded plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The Atlas is the largest model to be built on the familiar flexible MQB architecture that underpins so many Volkswagen Group models sold around the world.

It’s hard to miss the irony of hopes for a post-Dieselgate recovery being pinned on a huge, four-wheel-drive model powered by a thirsty petrol V6, at least until Volkswagen's electrification offensive gathers pace.

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What's it like?

Volkswagen has done its homework this time. Firstly, the Atlas is big enough for the American ‘mid-sized’ SUV segment; at 5,036mm in length, it’s 241mm longer and 49mm wider than the Volkswagen Touareg as well as being 49mm wider.

A long wheelbase translates that size into lots of usable space. The middle-row seats flip forward to ease access to a third row that can seat two adults in comfort - although you’ll struggle to fit all seven passengers’ luggage in, too.

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The Execline model that we're testing here tops the range in Canada, and it's roughly the equivalent of SEL Pemium in the US.

Its fake-wood door trims do nothing to establish a premium feel, but the interior is well equipped. There’s an excellent 12-speaker Fender/Panasonic stereo, a clear, fully reconfigurable digital instrument cluster and an 8.0in infotainment touchscreen with high-resolution sat-nav graphics and Apple/Android smartphone mirroring.

The seats could be a little wider and ‘bucket’ is an inappropriate description for the two second-row ‘captain’s chairs’ fitted as an option in place of the standard bench in our test car. The lack of height adjustment for the middle-row seatbelts isn't ideal, either.

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The more powerful of the Atlas's two engine options, as driven here, is Volkswagen's long-serving, narrow-angle V6, sending drive to all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Numerous drive modes help to keep you out of trouble on and off-road.

The 276bhp 3.6-litre engine is smooth, quiet and has enough in reserve for a quick merge onto a crowded highway, but a fuel economy figure of 23mpg combined is short of the 26mpg claimed for the Pilot's newer motor. For life in the suburbs, the Atlas's front-wheel-drive-only, 235bhp, 2.0-litre TSI option might make more sense.

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However, the heavy-duty drivetrain provides the Atlas with another prerequisite for Stateside success: a decent towing capacity. Its figure of 2,270kg is on a par with what the Pilot and Explorer have to offer, and a tow hitch is standard.

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Ride comfort is a mixed bag. In true North American style, the Atlas feels softly sprung and less aggressively damped than would be the case for a European model, and it takes a couple of bounces to settle after big primary inputs such as undulations in the road.

However, it also thumps over sharper, secondary stuff like potholes or exposed manhole covers with less sophistication than you’d hope. The extra mass and shorter sidewalls of the Execline’s 20in alloys (18ins are standard elsewhere) likely does the Atlas no favours here.

Body roll and pitch are well suppressed, though, as is road noise. The electric steering is light (less so in Sport mode) and devoid of feel, but still precise.

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Should I buy one?

The Atlas has what it takes to impress North American buyers: generous proportions, chunky styling, practical features, a top safety rating and a competitive price. On top of that, it’s well built and decent to drive.

Whether that’s enough to attract people away from the Explorer, Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner and the like will depend partly on the extent to which long-term consumer faith in the Volkswagen brand has been damaged by Dieselgate.

A standard 6-year/72,000-mile warranty for US buyers (4 years/49,710-miles for Canadians) is designed to help rebuild that trust.

Graham Heeps

Volkswagen Atlas 3.6 V6 Execline

Location Calgary, Canada; On sale Now; Price £31,865; Engine 3597cc V6, petrol; Power 276bhp @ 6200rpm; Torque 266lb ft @ 2750rpm; Gearbox 8-spd auto, all-wheel drive; Kerbweight 2042kg; 0-62mph 7.9sec (est); Top speed na; Economy 23mpg; CO2 282g/km; Rivals Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot

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Join the debate

Add a comment…
kmurna 11 August 2017


Closest design to a Canyonero I´ve yet seen

Wheelnut 11 August 2017

American view

As a European who's been to the US only once, I have limited idea of how the Atlas fits in the market, or the VW brand for that matter. If we ignore Dieselgate for a moment, how is VW viewed? As premium European, or as a no-nonsense Toyota competitor? Does it vary per model? Is the Mexican Jetta slightly more premium compared to the US Passat?

Is the ambience of the Atlas comparable to that of its competitors, or is it a bit dark and stark? I would love to hear the American point of view on this. I am always struck by the way how Toyota makes it cars seem premium in Asia in even the most mainstream models, even if this is just the slightest veneer. Many Asians seem to be very happy with it, this cut-price glitz.

Conte Candoli 8 August 2017


" Wood " in a VW is like watching a western dubbed in German: unacceptable for man or beast.

jamesf1 9 August 2017

Conte Candoli wrote:

Conte Candoli wrote:

" Wood " in a VW is like watching a western dubbed in German: unacceptable for man or beast.