2021 Volkswagen Atlas: The Good German SUV You Somehow Missed
The big VW covers plenty of bases in a packed segment.
In America, there is big demand for SUVs for toting around the whole family, a couple of the kids' friends, and all the gear anyone will ever want to pack for. Volkswagen's Atlas hit the market with a tidy styling package, German driving qualities, and decent value a couple years ago. For 2021 VW gave it a welcome update, including new fascia, reshaped front and rear bumpers, more connectivity, and added driver assistance packages while essentially keeping the price the same.
Competing with a plethora of three-row SUVs in the sub-$50,000 range, the Atlas has to offer something to appeal to families who have previously stuck a Chevrolet Tahoe, Honda Pilot, or Ford Explorer in their driveway. Rather than a boring minivan sensation or truck-like ride quality, the Atlas has to get the parenting duties done, keep the kids occupied, and be more enjoyable to drive.
The Quick Details
VW's Atlas is a seven-seat SUV, powered by a turbo inline-four or V6, with front-wheel-drive standard, and all-wheel-drive available. Atlas is built on the VW MQB platform that underpins all sorts of models including the Audi Q3, Volkswagen Jetta, and the new Golf Mk8. My Tourmaline Blue Metallic SEL Premium was equipped with all-wheel-drive and the V6 that delivers 276 horsepower @ 6,200 RPM and 266 lb-ft (360 Nm) of torque at 2,750 RPM. With EPA fuel estimates at 16/22/18 (city/highway/combined), paired with an 18-gallon tank, Atlas owners will be hitting the pump often if the kids are busy with extracurricular activities.
In a crowded segment that includes the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, and several others, snagging a piece of the seven-seater class pie isn't easy. Thankfully Volkswagen has plenty of engine and trim level options to meet any family's budget. Pricing for the four-cylinder FWD Atlas starts at just over $31,000, AWD models at a tick over $33,000, and V6 trims (which only come with all-wheel-drive) begin at a hint under $40,000, with my top-end V6 SEL Premium tester having an MSRP of $50,015.
The Competent Errand Runner
Buzzing from the shops, soccer practice, and recitals the Atlas is nimble for its size, is stable in turns, and the V6 is definitely the powerplant option you want. Engine output isn't fantastic, and I wish the upper tier Atlas was given much more horsepower. It's definitely underpowered in the mid-range, and I can't imagine the four-cylinder engine is up to the task of moving the Atlas around, when it's base model in FWD trim still weighs over 4,200 pounds. In V6 AWD trim, the Atlas is carrying a curb weight of over 4,600 pounds. VW should have borrowed the V6 3.0T engine from the Audi parts bin, and given the Atlas more potent performance.
With good space for four adults in the front two rows, VW's Atlas has standard seating for seven (if you're sticking two adults up front and five kids in the rear two rows), with an option for second row captain's chairs. Don't attempt sticking anyone over the age of 10 in the third row, as legroom is cramped. Headroom and shoulder room are nicely accommodating, and the seats are comfortable. With ample storage space in the rear hatch, VW has a massive center armrest storage bin up front and pockets in each door for water bottles and whatever little accessories your kids are stashing away.
V6 SE Atlas models have a factory-installed towing package as an option (standard on V6 SEL), with 5,000 pounds of towing capacity to pull around some reasonably large items, and if you don't get that option, you can have a dealer- or port-installed accessory hitch that offers just 2,000 pounds of towing capacity. If you get the proper towing package, you'll have plenty of flexibility if you're pulling anything smaller than a massive powerboat or travel trailer.
Stacked With Features In A Basic Looking Package
While not flashy on the outside, the Volkswagen Atlas has a tidy styling package that is more attractive than most of it's American SUV competition. 2021 models benefit from updated headlights, taillights, grille treatments, and bumpers, and inside VW added more tech, connectivity, and safety features. Similar to its Audi cousin's virtual cockpit, VW now incorporates the Digital Cockpit, with a new instrument cluster offering various views and info, with a huge navigation view available. If you've been inside any VW model over the past decade, every control and surface will look familiar, as the company hasn't done a lot to update the cabin, but that's not a bad thing when it's easy to use, and every control is placed right where you'd expect it. Front seats have heating an ventilation, and the V6 models benefit from three-zone climate control.
VW also added in a ton of new safety tech features to make sure all angles are covered, should drivers be swamped with junior pulling his sister's hair, and the youngest child tossing Cheerios at every occupant. There's also a new traffic jam assist, to help you quickly make that next practice session, and a traffic sign monitoring system to give you a quick display of the current speed limit next to your speedometer. Handy for times when you may have missed a sign entering a school or construction zone.
Keeping your tunes jamming up front, VW's infotainment system is intuitive and loaded with satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto through a Fender audio system that has 480 watts pumping through a dozen speakers. Entertaining the kids is easy in the Atlas, with new wifi connectivity available as a subscription service. VW hasn't made the jump to USB-C ports yet, but there are five legacy USB ports in the Atlas, with two up front, two in the second row, and a charge-only port in the front center console. Kids in the third row are out of luck if their devices' batteries die, sadly.
Outdoorsy Enough For Family Treks?
Family outings to a state or national park are easy in the Atlas, with all-wheel-drive and four of VW's Active Control modes on tap. A quick twist of the center console-mounted knob will engage the default off-road or individually customized off-road modes to give you your best traction. With electronic differentials, the seven-seat Atlas can lock either the center or each axle to maximize stability on rougher terrain.
While not as hardcore as a Range Rover, the Atlas has good ground clearance and 20-inch Goodyear all-season tires. Drive modes will give you more confidence in managing any surfaces that aren't perfectly smooth. Just don't try to take it on the Dakar Rally. VW was smart to give the Atlas hill start and hill descent assist systems, with the latter automatically activating on gradients of more than 10 percent, and operating between 1 and 19 MPH.
Solid Value Doesn't Require An Exciting Appearance
Many drivers loathe conceding to stuffing large vehicles in their driveway as the family grows, but the Volkswagen Atlas is a good choice. It's not flashy, and performance doesn't stand out on paper, but what it keeps you comfortable in a better looking package that's more enjoyable to drive than its competition.
If you want more style, power, and agility from VW, your choices are going to involve jumping up to the Audi family, but your checkbook is going to take a hit. The Atlas may seem a bit beige as a total package, but it's also a refreshing alternative to a class flooded with several boxy, boring SUVs that are easy to overlook in a crowd. You'll be a slightly cooler parent when you roll up to soccer practice in the VW Atlas, and you'll have enjoyed the drive there a little more too.
"I'm not a regular mom. I'm a cool mom."