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ROAD TEST

Go big or go home

The VW Atlas will launch in June as an AWD model with a 3.6-litre V-6 engine, with a smaller front-drive version to follow.

The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas makes Volkswagen a contender in four of the five largest segments of the North American market

Don’t ever tell this to a Texan, but the Lone Star state really isn’t that big. Ontario has more land area. So do Quebec, British Columbia and two of Canada’s three territories.

Still, the Atlas is the biggest Volkswagen in history, and it’s built in the United States, so we’ll cut VW some slack for staging the launch for its “really big” new mid-size SUV in the biggest state by area in the contiguous United States.

The Atlas is a logical next step in VW’s strategy to become a “full-line, family-focused” maker of cars and light trucks created specifically for the needs and tastes of Americans (with their northern neighbours along for the ride). The Atlas won’t even be sold in Europe, where instead a redo of the smaller Touareg is expected later this year.

The Atlas measures a shade more than 5.04 metres from stem to stern.

Along with the Mexico-built Jetta compact sedan and wagon, the U.S.-built Passat mid-size sedan and a forthcoming Tiguan compact SUV also to be built in Mexico, the Atlas makes Volkswagen a contender in four of the five largest segments of the North American market.

The new seven-seater will share a production facility with the Passat in Chattanooga, Tenn., but it’s not based on a shared architecture with the sedan, which dates back to 2012. The Atlas is yet another spinoff from VW’s newer, and almost psychotically versatile, MQB platform (so versatile that it will also underpin the next-generation Polo, a subcompact not sold in North America; it’s a safe bet the next-generation Passat will be MQB based, too).

Measuring a shade more than 5.04 metres from stem to stern, the Atlas occupies the bigger end of a segment that ranges from the Kia Sorento’s 4.7 metres to the Chevrolet Traverse’s 5.2. That sizing translates into passenger-volume, legroom and cargo-room numbers that all rank in the top three for the segment. “Quite cavernous” is how Mark Gillies, VW’s U.S. public relations chief, described it.

The Atlas will launch in June as an all-wheel-drive model with a 3.6-litre V-6 worth 276 horsepower. A couple of months later, a front-drive version will follow, powered by a 2.0-litre, 235-hp turbo-four. Both are bolted to an eight-speed automatic transmission and a stop/start system is standard. The all-wheel drive is a reactive, as-needed system that can direct up to 50 per cent of torque to the rear wheels.

No hybrid for now and, of course, no diesel.

The base Trendline or one-up Comfortline trims can be ordered with either powertrain, while Highline and flagship Execline trims will be V-6/AWD only.

The ascetic-but-functional dashboard design doesn’t overrely on the touch screen for basic functions.

Standard amenities include LED headlamps, a back-up camera, 18-inch alloy wheels,Bluetooth, App-Connect (Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink) and automatic post-collision braking. A 6.4-inch touch-screen radio is standard on Trendline, an eight-inch upgrade optional; the eight-inch is standard on other trims while the Execline adds a 12.3-inch configurable digital-gauge cluster.

Working up through the grades also gets you progressively more alert-and-assist safety technologies, including – on Comfortline and up – adaptive cruise with stop and go, autonomous emergency braking and blind-spot/rear cross-traffic alert. The top trim adds active lane assist and automated parking assist.

Pricing ranges from $35,690 to $52,540, with captain’s chairs a stand-alone option on the top two trims. That makes the top-trim Atlas barely more expensive than the base version of VW’s long-serving mid-sized SUV, the premium-priced Touareg.

Surprisingly, the older two-row SUV will remain available for the remainder of the 2017 model year. It’s hard to see VW selling many, though, once the roomier and less-expensive Atlas arrives in June. The newer vehicle isn’t perfect (engine refinement, so-so fuel economy), but it’s a well-executed, full-frontal assault on the heart of a market segment that grew 10 per cent last year.

To leave it off your mid-size SUV shopping short list would be a mistake.

TECH SPECS

  • Base price: $35,690
  • Engines: 2.0-litre turbo L4, 3.6-litre V-6
  • Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic/front-wheel drive (2.0 L) or all-wheel drive (3.6 L)
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 2.0 L: N/A; 3.6 L: 13.7 city, 10.1 highway
  • Alternatives: Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe XL, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander

The distinct body-side character line of the Atlas helps it stand out from the herd.

RATINGS

  • Looks: Nothing radical, but rugged attitude, LED headlamps and a distinct body-side character line help it stand out from the herd.
  • Interior: It’s not just a token seven-seater, it’s a seven-seater for grown-ups – and they needn’t be gymnasts to access the third row, either. The ascetic-but-functional dashboard design, typical of VW, doesn’t overrely on the touch screen for basic functions and there’s loads of bits-and-bobs stash space. But the driving position and bluff dashboard compromise the high-and-mighty posture and commanding visibility that many people seek in an SUV.
  • Performance: Engaged drivers will like the steering’s light-and-lively on-centre feel and the taut, sure-footed handling. Straight-line speed of the V-6 feels competitive but no more than that – some rivals promise more power and/or weigh less. The Atlas cruises peacefully, though the engine voices an odd raspy snarl when working hard. Fuel consumption numbers are also undistinguished.
  • Technology: Depending on the trim, all contemporary connectivity and driver-assist technologies are available, up to and including WLAN ( Highline and up) and park assist that can perform parallel and forward or reverse perpendicular parking (Execline). The available virtual-gauge cluster is a segment first.
  • Cargo: There’s meaningful cargo space even behind the third-row seat, and the extended deck you get by folding the seats is exceptionally flat and user-friendly.

THE VERDICT

7.5

Volkswagen goes mainstream in a big way.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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