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Short Report: With the 2018 Atlas, Volkswagen builds a big crossover unlike all the rest

Many people see Volkswagen’s sparse, square styling as boring. I disagree. Like Audis, Volkswagens look grown-up, distinguished, and classy.

In the case of the 2018 Atlas, VW’s new entry in the family-sized crossover segment, the sober aesthetic works. It’s big, square grille and horizontal lines look as if they were drawn specifically to attract the attention of people who buy pickup trucks, but need an SUV instead. Y’know, Americans.

That may or may not be the case, but among other large crossovers, the Atlas faces stiff competition against popular alternatives like the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, and Toyota Highlander. And Subaru is about to jump into the deep end of the pool with the 2019 Ascent.

In terms of space and capability, the Atlas is larger inside than most of those models. It sets itself further apart with its unique look, which features sharp hood creases, angular bodywork, and well-balanced proportions.

The Atlas is essentially the production version of the CrossBlue concept VW introduced at the Detroit auto show in 2013. It looks to me like a less-pretentious, but still very attractive version of a Range Rover (although I don’t think Queen Elizabeth II will have an Atlas purchased on her behalf anytime soon).

Volkswagen didn’t feel the need to follow the current trend that has designers stretching the faces of their vehicles into grotesque mechanical grimaces, as seen on the more minivan-esque Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. The LED headlamps are dignified; it’s refreshing not to see angry-eye headlamps on a new vehicle. The back end is tastefully spare.

The symmetry and understatement that characterize the Atlas’s exterior carries over into its cabin. The seats are firm, but comfortable. You won’t find the airy swoops other automakers’ designers are drawing into dashboards and seats. Inside the Atlas, the lines are ruler-straight and intersect at hard angles. The aesthetic is pleasing, and has a Teutonic discipline to it.

Interior materials have a quality feel. I didn’t get the impression that bumping into a plastic panel while throwing a piece of sports equipment (or some other bulky item) into the car was going to break anything.

There was one small exception. Given the overall merit of the Atlas’s interior materials and design, the flimsiness of its sunroof shade came as a bit of a surprise. A panoramic sunroof is an expensive option, but I wouldn’t want one if the only protection I had from the sun’s glare was a gauzy cloth shade. On the first warm day of spring, I could feel solar heat through it. That’s a big flaw.

With the third-row seats in use, cargo volume is close to 21 cubic feet—enough space to carry a stroller and a load of grocery bags, or several small suitcases, or one large suitcase. Folding the third-row seats down bumps cargo volume to a generous 55.5 cubic feet, while folding down the second row brings the total up to nearly 97 cubic feet.

While I realize some people might take issue with a second row if it doesn’t feature luxurious captains chairs, I’m a firm believer in the second-row bench as a concept. If you’re going to shell out for a vehicle this large, you may as well max out your seating capacity so you don’t end up in one of those, “Oh we’ll have to take two cars because I only have six seats and there are seven of us” situations. Otherwise, what’s the point of having all this extra iron to shoehorn into parking spaces?

The base Atlas comes standard with a full-color 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment display. The 8-inch upgrade on the top-of-the-line SEL Premium model I tested looked really good. At this point in the game, I think auto shoppers—most of whom own very capable smartphones—expect a vehicle’s display to look polished. Volkswagen nailed it in that regard.

Menu flow—which was a little difficult to master—was another story. For example, some people like lane keep assist technology. I, personally, find it creepy to feel the steering wheel resist my will when I’m trying to glide smoothly over into the next lane. I shouldn’t have to stop the car and hunt through menus to find the drop-down that turns off the lane-keeping function. Besides, controls related to driving should all have easy-to-find buttons that can be pushed on the fly without distracting attention away from the task at hand.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard features in the Atlas. The audio controls are easy to use, too. I give VW an “A+” for including control knobs for the stereo.

It took a minute to realize that you need to depress the tuning knob in order to lock a station in, but that turned out to be a blessing. It is annoying to accidentally tune past the station you were looking for only to be bombarded by something you didn’t want to hear. If you’re driving along listening to Debussy, a sudden switch to Slipknot—or Howard Stern, for that matter—might harsh your mellow.

The Fender-branded 12-speaker system sounded good, but seemed less a real benefit than a weak ploy to use branding to entice the many aging Gen Xers who have Fender Stratocasters gathering dust in the backs of closets all over the country. Is it worth the extra money? Probably not.

The base Atlas comes standard with a post-collision automatic braking system designed to reduce the potential for secondary collisions after an initial impact. Features like forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic assist, lane departure warning with lane keeping assist, automatic high-beam headlight control, and an overhead-view camera system are reserved for higher-end trims.

Volkswagen also offers a ParkPilot system for people who probably should never have earned a check mark in the parallel parking component of the driver licensing exam.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety placed the 2018 Atlas on its “Top Safety Pick” list. The Atlas got dinged for accessibility of its LATCH child safety seat anchors and its headlights (the good ones are only available on higher trim levels like the model I tested). The federal government awarded the Atlas a 5-star safety rating, giving it top marks in all categories except rollover resistance, in which it received four stars.

The base engine for the Atlas is a 235-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that is only available with front-wheel drive. The model I tested—a V6 SEL Premium with 4Motion all-wheel drive—came equipped with a 276-horsepower 3.6-liter V6.

It felt torquey at the low end of the power band, and had enough grunt to get the 4,500-pound vehicle moving. The 8-speed automatic transmission shifted with smooth resolution, and I liked the easily located selector knob for drive modes. There are choices for wet, snowy or rough road conditions, as well as a “normal” mode that splits into three sub-modes—“normal,” “sport” and “eco.” Choosing between the “normal” sub-modes is easy. All I had to do was press a button to cycle through them.

For the first half of my loop, I had the mode selector knob set to “normal-sport.” The engine dynamic in that setting was amusing, but the Atlas isn’t a sports car, so it seemed pointless after a while. When I had grown bored with “sport” mode (read: grew up), I put the Atlas in “eco” mode for the return trip. The real-time fuel economy numbers reported by the vehicle’s trip computer improved over the first half of the journey, giving me an 18.5-mpg average.

Volkswagen got the Atlas’s suspension sorted out just right for a vehicle its size. The ride is smooth and pleasant. It handled rough city roads with aplomb and cruised like a dream on the highway. Body roll—particularly for something this tall and heavy—was minimal, and the Atlas didn’t dive into bumps the way vehicles of its bulk often do. It’s big, but it’s agile.

With the exception of the Ford Explorer, the Atlas trails behind competitors like the Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, and Toyota Highlander in terms of fuel economy.

But it’s comfortable, drives well and with the right trim, even feels a little luxurious. It also comes loaded with safety features, although that does add quite a bit of cost to the Atlas’s $30,750 base price. The SEL Premium I tested listed at more than $50,000, a price that fell between a top-of-the-line Explorer ($53,000) and a top-of-the-line Highlander ($47,000).

As I was driving the Atlas through Manhattan one day, a guy in a Range Rover flagged me down to compliment it. “That’s gowahgeous!” he bellowed.

When I got out to step back and regard it, the bright mustard-yellow color and black wheels did a lot to tease out the best qualities of its conservative design. The grille is big, but not too big, like on a pickup truck. The body creases are horizontal, not raked. The look appears grounded and best of all, regardless of color, it looks a little different from all the other large crossovers on the road.

Styling is one of the main reasons people choose a vehicle. Volkswagen’s new family-sized SUV is appealing in that respect, and in all of the other ways that are important to people who shop for something like it.

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