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2018 Volkswagen Atlas: in the Rain, not on Ice

When Volkswagen invited us to test out its new SUV, they set up a circuit on a frozen lake and gave us access to four all-wheel-drive vehicles—and two experts in driving on slippery surfaces.

When Volkswagen invited us to test out its new SUV, they set up a circuit on a frozen lake and gave us access to four all-wheel-drive vehicles—and two experts in driving on slippery surfaces. We had everything we needed, with one notable exception: a little help from Mother Nature. It rained cats and dogs!

Fortunately, the Volkswagen team had a Plan B. A tad less fun but more rational, the circuit was a hodgepodge of wet asphalt and muddy dirt roads with patches of snow. Perfect for putting our test vehicles through their paces.

MQB: A truly universal platform
We had two 2018 Volkswagen Atlases hot off the Chattanooga assembly line and two 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltracks. These would demonstrate the versatility of the MQB platform, which serves as the base for both vehicles.

The Atlas is the biggest VW vehicle built in North America. It’s 24 cm longer and almost 4 cm higher and wider than the Touareg, yet it’s still considered a midsize SUV. With a nearly flat, Passat-like front end and the profile of an elongated Touareg, this vehicle is more practical than cutting-edge in its design.

Hop on board and you’ll notice a nice touch: the front door bottoms form a part of the sill that facilitates access while helping keep your pant legs clean. Once seated in the high, comfortable chairs that are power adjustable (mid-lineup and up) and heated (all versions), you’ll like the clear, readable dashboard that Volkswagen is known for. The controls, buttons and switches draw in large part on the other vehicles built on the MQB platform and are easy to use, even while driving.

The middle row offers three real seats with lots of legroom. They tip forward easily to allow access to the third row. Speaking of which, the third row can accommodate two adults. It’s not exactly like travelling in first class, but it’s relatively comfortable nonetheless.

Behind the third row there’s a good-sized trunk, but you’ll really be impressed when you fold down the seats, which is a particularly easy operation. We don’t have the official cargo capacity numbers, but it’s perfectly flat. Add to that a maximum towing capacity of 2268 kg (5000 lbs.) with the VR6 engine, and the Atlas just may have what it takes to become very popular.

As for practicality, there are numerous storage spaces, cupholders, and 12V and USB jacks for the whole family. Plus, there’s the requisite Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections.

The overall finish of our first-series vehicles seemed to suggest quality and meticulous assembly.

VR6 and 4MOTION: A good combination for our climate
Both Atlas test vehicles were equipped with the 276-horsepower VR6, an eight-speed automatic (the lineup's only available gearbox) and the 4MOTION system that comes with the VR6. The VW reps indicated that this combination weighs 2182 kg (4800 lbs.). We’re guessing that the members of the Atlas family will be in the perfectly respectable 1900 to 2300 kg (4200 to 5060 lbs.) range.

On the road, you get a real feeling of invincibility, as though you were driving a full-size SUV, but without the sense that you’re navigating an ocean liner. The steering wheel is comfortable, light and precise, but strangely small in diameter. A heated steering wheel is offered on the mid-lineup versions and upward.

Initial acceleration was very satisfactory with a near-instant response, though we didn’t test the Eco mode. However, the 3.6-litre six-cylinder VR6 got winded at higher speeds and on steep inclines. The Atlas’ 0-100 km/h time should be competitive, but the 80-120 km/h…not so much. That’s the price you pay for all that weight. Note that we weren’t able to do time trials. Meanwhile, braking is powerful and easy to control.

Snow and mud: Keep it coming
On the snowy and muddy courses, the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas surprised us with its off-road capabilities. The combination of snow, ice and torrential rain made some of the roads particularly interesting—and helped us appreciate the 4MOTION system. Despite my best efforts to catch the vehicle off guard on climbs by placing two wheels in snow and two in mud, the system got down to business and climbed without any complaints. When we put the pedal to the metal, the Atlas picked up the pace, skidding slightly, but never getting stuck.

The Hill Descent mode is equally impressive. It slows the vehicle down without any driver intervention. The system is well calibrated and engages when the slope is about 10%, but then it makes itself scarce as soon as the slope becomes less pronounced.

With 245/60R18 size snow tires, a reasonably high ground clearance and the 4MOTION system, the Atlas appears unstoppable.

VW has yet to release the official fuel consumption figures, but during our test drive, the onboard computer displayed an average of 13.5 L/100 km. That’s not bad considering that we didn’t pay the slightest amount of attention to driving efficiently.

And where does the Alltrack fit in all this?
The 2017 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack wasn’t named AJAC’s Canadian Car of the Year for nothing. It had no problem keeping pace with the Atlas, proving the impressive efficiency of the 4MOTION system. However, the Atlas was a tad more comfortable in certain extreme situations, demonstrating the advantage of taller tires and higher ground clearance.

Which one to choose?
If you like to take on more adventurous roads, both will take you a long way. On the other hand, if you need room and want to tow snowmobiles, jet skis, boats or pop-up trailers, the Atlas is the better choice. It will take you far off the beaten track in total comfort.

The Atlas will hit the market this spring. The front-wheel drive version with the four-cylinder engine will start at $35,690 while a VR6 4MOTION variant will come in under the $50,000 mark.