If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. For much of the last 20 years, Volkswagen was on an upmarket trajectory, proffering luxurious products that were more Audi competitors than Ford. But those models – the CC, the Touareg, the infamous Phaeton – never brought big success to the brand.
The 2021 Volkswagen Atlas, then, is a return to form. It goes after the hearts and wallets of the American people with the most American of sales pitches: size and value. It's big, roomy, and affordable. Just don't expect it to be as special as some of the VWs of recent memory.
New style, same size. The 2021 VW Atlas gets a mild redesign that softens some of the harder angles and smooths out the front end. The look doesn't reinvent the Atlas, but refines it and brings it in line with the recently-released VW Atlas Cross Sport (covered separately).
With so much styling overlap, it might be hard at first glance to differentiate the Atlas from the Atlas Cross Sport, other than the latter's sportier roofline. But spend some time in the cabin of each and the difference is clear: the Atlas remains as cavernous as ever, with seating for up to eight passengers, while the Atlas Cross Sport makes do with five-passenger seating and wears a more rakish look.
It's hard to overstate just how roomy the Atlas is. On the outside, it stretches 198.3 inches long, 78.3 inches wide, and 70 inches tall. These dimensions allow for an interior that, at 153 cubic feet of total passenger volume, feels bigger than a Greyhound bus.
The third row is particularly impressive, offering 33.7 inches of leg room and 38 inches of head room – that's more than many second-row vehicles offer. Even the Chevrolet Tahoe can't match the Atlas for third-row space. Second-row leg room in the Atlas is an equally-impressive 37.6 inches.
Behind that third row, the Atlas will hold a full 20.6 cubic feet of stuff. Fold it down, and 55.5 cubic feet of cargo space is available – and that's still with the second row in place. Drop both back rows and 96.8 cubic feet opens up. These numbers handily outdo most of its large crossover competition; only the 98 cubic feet of cargo space found in the Chevy Traverse outdoes the VW.
More choice under the hood. The big news under the hood for 2021 is that the base 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine gets expanded availability. For the first time, it's available with all-wheel drive as well as the top trim levels.
Unfortunately, that'll probably goad more people into opting for this motor, and their disappointment with it won't wear off with the new car smell. The heft of the Atlas is substantial (4,300 pounds at its lighest), and the engine's 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque isn't enough. Simply put, this motor struggles in any scenario that isn't serene highway cruising.
Luckily, the 3.6-liter V6 remains available. It makes 276 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque; these numbers aren't huge a jump over the turbo-four, but they're enough to make the Atlas not feel quite so asthmatic on steep grades. It's the better engine, especially for shoppers who want the optional all-wheel drive.
Both engines pair up to an eight-speed automatic transmission. This gearbox is a competent one, and does a good job of timing both upshifts and downshifts.
All Atlas models ride well regardless of the engine specified. It'll smother bumps and soak up potholes like the best of its competition. Don't expect this heavyweight to be athletic, though, as cornering remains a necessary drudgery rather than anything to relish. Other crossovers, like the Mazda CX-9, are better choices for the sport-minded buyer.
As for gas mileage, it's not great. The four-cylinder manages just 21 miles per gallon city (20 with all-wheel drive), 24 mpg highway, and 22 combined, according to the EPA. V6 models are worse yet with 17/23/19 mpg (city/highway/combined) with front-wheel drive, or 16/22/18 mpg with AWD. Many other crossovers of this size will go much further on a gallon of gas.
Plenty of amenities. Lots of well-equipped trims and a cheap base price allow the Atlas to position itself as good value among a crowded and cutthroat segment.
Even the base Atlas S gets a 6.5 inch touchscreen, 18-inch wheels, full LED lighting, and rain-sensing wipers. The only thing that suggests its base status is the cloth upholstery and manually-adjustable seats. Standard active safety features include automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert.
Higher trims bring more goodies. The SE has leather seating, a power driver's seat, and three-zone climate control. The SEL has wireless charging, a Fender audio system, and more active safety technologies. R-Line versions of both trims bring sporty accents and interior touches.
An 8-inch touchscreen comes standard on SE models and higher, which is reason enough for upgrading. Its faster processing speeds, crisp graphics, and bigger size all make it worthwhile. The system also performs well relative to the competition, thanks to its simple, straightforward layout that's intuitive even for tech-averse users.
Final thoughts. The 2021 VW Atlas is a spacious crossover available with the bells and whistles that buyers want most. It isn't the most luxurious three-row out there, and it certainly won't knock your socks off with its acceleration or gas mileage. But this big VW gets the job done as a capable family hauler.
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