VW goes conventional. In Greek mythology, Atlas holds up the world; in VW's corporate offices, the Atlas holds up hope that the brand can win over consumers enamored by three-row crossovers.
Compared to its predecessor, the expensive and complex Touareg, the 2020 Volkswagen Atlas takes a more consumerist approach: there's no fancy powertrains or Audi-esque pricing to dampen its appeal. The Atlas is instead about as conventional as a Toyota Highlander in the hopes it can steal some sales from that bestseller.
Refined but unhurried. Power comes to the Atlas by way of a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine or a 3.6-liter V6. Neither engine is notably fast, but the standard 235-horsepower four-cylinder feels particularly slow. Because VW only pairs it with front-wheel drive, it likely won't be common north of Florida and Texas, and we're thankful for that – something this big needs more than 235 hp.
The 276-hp V6 attempts to rectify the power deficit of the smaller engine. There's no doubt the extra 41 horses help, but we found this hulking VW was still happiest trundling along on flat grades. The extra two cylinders struggle to motive the 4,500-pound Atlas up hills, and with a full load of passengers, even acceleration on level ground leaves a lot to be desired. This would not be our first choice to tackle the Rockies – heck, even Denver would likely leave the weak-chested Atlas out of breath.
Whichever engine you get, you'll need to budget for fuel. V6 models with all-wheel drive are EPA rated 16 miles per gallon city, 22 mpg highway, and 19 combined. This is about on par with a V8-powered Chevrolet Tahoe. Front-wheel-drive models with the four-cylinder get 20/24/22 mpg (city/highway/combined), which still lags behind many competing crossovers.
AWD models also include different drive modes for snow and mud, but this is no trail beater. Poorly graded dirt roads are about the extent of this VW's off-road capabilities.
A long 117-inch wheelbase offers a composed ride over most road surfaces. That long wheelbase works in tandem with the heavy curb weight to ensure that the Atlas won't be disturbed by crosswinds, grooved pavement, potholes, or anything else of the sort. It feels like it could drive unperturbed through a tornado.
Despite the dearth of power, the Atlas can still tow up to 5,000 pounds when properly equipped.
Cavernous interior. Clamber into any of the three rows and you'll find ample space in every dimension. Deserts feel more cramped than the Atlas.
The abundance of room is particularly notable in the third row. There's 38.3 inches of headroom, for starters. Legroom is also seriously impressive at nearly 34 inches – some crossovers hardly offer that much space in their second row. Getting in and out of the back is also an easy task, with the second row easily sliding or tilting forward at the pull of a latch. You won't even have to take out the car seat to open up access to the third row.
If you don't need the third row, fold it down and enjoy the 55.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row of seats. Fold those down and total cargo space expands to 96.8 cubic feet. With all the seats in place, there's still 20.6 cubic feet of cargo area to play with, much of it below the window line. To put these numbers in perspective, a Chevrolet Tahoe doesn't have that much room.
Though the space is first-rate, the materials are not. It's a far cry from the Touareg, which was luxury SUV masquerading as a VW. This is a VW that feels like a Kia from before their recent product renaissance. At least all the hard plastics and tough synthetics will be easy to clean and will hopefully be durable.
Safe and well-equipped. This big crossover has quite the sales pitch when it comes to occupant protection: a five-star NHTSA overall safety rating, top marks from the IIHS for all their collision simulations, and a full roster of active safety equipment.
The list of standard equipment isn't the most enticing, but with a few options, the Atlas offers all the features buyers in this class could want. Base models are upholstered in cloth and use a small 6.5-inch touchscreen for infotainment. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard and there's a single USB port to connect to. Manual climate control takes care of heating and air conditioning.
That doesn't scratch our itch for creature comforts the way the SE trim does. Costing another $1,500 over a base model, it includes an 8.0-inch touchscreen, dual-zone automatic climate control, four USB ports, and synthetic leather. If you want the most popular features of the moment without breaking the bank, this is the way to go.
Beyond that, the Atlas quickly erodes any sense of value it might offer. Top models retail at about $50,000, and for that kind of cash there's plenty of other choices out there worth considering that do a better job of emanating luxury.
Final thoughts. The 2020 VW Atlas is intent on stealing a bigger slice of the three-row crossover pie than its predecessor ever managed. It aims to achieve this by offering value and practicality in the way of safety, spaciousness, and comfort. A starting price of just over $32,000 also helps.
However, the Atlas doesn't particularly impress us beyond the hugeness of the interior. Nicer interiors can be found in the new Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade, and they have more standard equipment to boot. The Highlander and Honda Pilot have their reputation for longevity and use higher quality materials. The Ford Explorer covers the performance side of things pretty darn well with its ST model, and even its lower-spec EcoBoost engine offerings aren't as lethargic as the Atlas.
It's not that the Atlas is a bad vehicle – it just competes in an incredibly contested market segment, where even small demerits can put a product a few places back in consumer's minds. To be a class leader, this VW needs to be polished up and perfected, starting with more power and some nicer materials. Then, this Atlas might be able to victoriously hoist up the crossover segment.