There was a time, boys and girls, when this nation was awash in swarming herds of minivans. They were roomy and practical with three rows of seating, and while unstylishly nerdish, they provided family transportation for millions.
But like the buffalo, their numbers have been greatly diminished. They have been replaced by a new breed of three-row people movers: full-size crossovers that convey the image of brawny SUVs while still providing family transportation for millions.
Now there are more three-row crossovers than there were ever buffalo. I mean, minivans. Just about every major automaker has one or two of them, struggling to set themselves apart from the others. Even some one-time bona fide SUVs, such as Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder, have transformed into minivan replacements.
Into the fray comes Volkswagen with yet another extra-large, SUV-looking, three-row crossover designed for roomy comfort, while trying to look cool in the process. It also has the excellent name of Atlas, which must have other manufacturers’ brand managers slapping their foreheads.
Atlas is something different for Volkswagen, bigger than any consumer vehicle ever produced by the German automaker. Even the minivan that VW marketed briefly was actually a Chrysler product with VW badging. No, there’s still no sign of a reborn minibus, except in concept form.
This new kind of Volkswagen looks to be akin to all the other full-size crossovers on the market in size and styling, but being a VW, it held out the promise of being brighter and tighter than the common run.
My basic impression of modern VW cars and SUVs is that they might feel overly soft at first blush (aside from GTI sport models), but when you push them a bit, they respond with firm and predictable handling, and decent acceleration.
So it is with Atlas, which is indeed softly accommodating, with light steering and suspension that’s just this side of mushy. But its underpinnings are based on Volkswagen’s solid, all-purpose MDQ platform that provides the basis for just about all VWs these days, and which gives the big crossover a very stable highway ride and good control in the corners.
Atlas turned out to be a great vehicle for a lengthy road trip, high on comfort and cruising ability. The fuel mileage could have been better, but it was about on par for this class of hefty crossover. The suspension is soft enough to soak up the bumps and rough surfaces while being firm enough to track well.
The steering I found to be over-boosted, too light to the touch and with essentially no feel or feedback. Although, most drivers likely will find the steering acceptable.
Atlas surprised me with its brisk acceleration, zooming up the onramps like a performance car. The test Atlas SE was fitted with the 3.6-liter narrow-angle VR6 that delivers 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque, rather than the base 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 with 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet. The VR6 was plenty strong, but the turbo four-banger would likely provide enough pull, plus better mileage. With the VR6, Atlas is rated with a towing capacity of up to 5,000 pounds.
The eight-speed automatic transmission works seamlessly, essentially unnoticeable as it works it way up and down the multiple gear ratios. Very smooth, in keeping with the general nature of the Atlas.
The test crossover was well-equipped with features, including Tech 4Motion all-wheel drive as well as such driver aids as adaptive cruise control and active lane-departure sensing that pushes the vehicle back into its lane if it senses you wandering out.
During the road trip, I turned off the lane-departure feature because I found it to be overly aggressive, sometimes delivering a too-hard shove back, which was jarring.
The adaptive cruise control was excellent, however, and I used it quite a bit to navigate Los Angeles area’s busy freeways. Speaking of navigation, I was surprised that this upscale ride did not come with GPS.
The SE interior was very nice, with seats that are wide and supportive and a large, truck-like center console up front. In typical VW fashion, the dashboard was highly functional and not too showy.
The Atlas is a very good rendition of a large crossover, with a bit more character than most, but it doesn’t break any new ground in what has become crowded segment. A prospective Atlas buyer likely would be a solid VW fan, and there are plenty of those.
Volkswagen recently announced that it would produce a shorter and sportier two-row version of Atlas, which would be added to a lineup that also includes the midsize Touareg and compact Tiguan. With the Atlas, VW has all the crossover bases covered, although in stiff competition with midrange offerings from a number of U.S. and Asian brands.
2018 Volkswagen Atlas SE w/Tech
Vehicle type: Seven-passenger, five-door crossover, all-wheel drive
Base price: $39,140 Price as tested: $40,065
Engine: 3.6-liter VR6, 276 horsepower at 6,200 rpm, 266 pound-feet of torque at 2,750 rpm Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 1173.3 inches Overall length/width: 198.3 inches / 78.3 inches
Curb weight: 4,502 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 17 city / 23 highway / 19 combined
Assembled in: Chattanooga, Tennessee