Country Squire for the Modern Era
Coming off my second consecutive Buick Enclave lease, I decided it was time to add a smidgen of efficiency to the primary goal simply being roomy enough for the family. This is a car for my wife and her driving is skewed heavily toward city driving in congested traffic situations. I have three children who are all involved in year-round sporting activities and these days the miles are piling up fast.
The family hauler is used quite extensively, racking up about 20k miles per year. So, 15 mpg and 250 miles per fill-up just weren’t cutting it anymore. Interior space for my family of five, which includes giant offspring, is of course job one. My 14-year-old son is 6’2″ and my 11-year-old daughter is already 5’6″. They aren’t going to be shoehorned into the jump seats that some popular three-row vehicles pass off as being fit for human occupants … especially on multi-hour trips for travel sports, vacations, etc.
My youngest typically occupies the third row but even she is approaching grown human status. So, naturally, we avoided the most obvious and practical choice, driving straight past those minivan dealerships right to the waiting arms of a large crossover. We tried the minivan thing in the past with a 2011 Honda Odyssey, and despite its sliding door sports car per se greatness in the eyes of some pundits on the interwebs, it was a happy day when the lease expired. Unfortunately, that vehicle probably ruined us as future minivan buyers for life.
We shopped a few other models but kept coming back to the Atlas. We both liked it very much, inside and out. It is extremely spacious, coming in less than a single cube behind the segment interior volume leader, the Chevy Traverse. Most other three-row contenders are at least 10 cubic feet tighter than the Atlas’ 97.8 cubic feet of total volume behind the first row (i.e. Explorer, Pilot, Ascent). For those keeping track, that is still lagging significantly behind most minivans by over 40 cubic feet. So, while America’s largest crossovers are relatively roomy, they will still set you back a whole Honda Civic hatchback worth of cargo room if you decide you just can’t handle the optics of piloting a vehicle with sliding doors.
As you know, another area where large crossovers lag behind the sliding door set is fuel economy, which is the unfortunate price of faux ruggedness. Regrettably, after researching the Atlas, I came to learn that the Atlas’ narrow-angle V6, in this particular application, and especially paired with AWD, is not particularly efficient. With legendary thirst rivaling that of Captain Morgan, fuel economy is a frequent complaint documented rather extensively on owner forums and media reviews. But wait for it … there is a better option. A faster, more efficient, less expensive option … and of course dealers don’t stock it and consumers rarely buy it.
When the Atlas launched in 2018, a 2.0T FWD was offered across several trims in the Atlas’ lineup. By 2019, that option was cut on all but the base S trim, which is rather feature-deprived, as you might expect. Quietly though, VW brought the option back midyear in 2019 on the SE and SE with Tech trims. So quiet in fact that for most of the year, you couldn’t even configure one on VW’s own website. Even more unfortunate, they were simply not on the ground anywhere in the Mitten State.
None of my local dealers had them and most salespeople were surprised to find that the option even existed when they checked regional inventory. After a bit of searching, I managed to locate a single dealership in Michigan that had a 2.0T SE with Tech. The story I heard was that Michigan dealers weren’t allotted any and this dealership actually swapped several V6 AWD’s for 2.0T’s with a dealership a few states away. In fact, several of the sales staff found those 2.0’s permanent homes in their own driveways.
Luckily, this dealership had the exact color and options configuration I wanted. I don’t think there was another like it for 500 miles in any direction. For the record, VW widens the 2.0T offering even to AWD models for 2021.
I signed the dotted line on a 5-year note at 0.9 percent financing with VW credit. The MSRP on the vehicle was $38,600 and change, which included second-row captain’s chairs and a 20-inch wheel upgrade, among other things.
After negotiations that price came down by roughly $5K without too much haggling, based mostly on current advertised promotions … a price that I think is much more befitting the tall, FWD 4-cyl turbo station wagon that it is. Mind you, 2019 also happened to be the last year VW will offer the post-Dieselgate 72K/6-year mea culpa bumper-to-bumper warranty, which was a big selling point, to be honest. I believe it’s 4-year/50K going forward.
The outside of the vehicle is a familiar shape. In my opinion, it is derivative of both the Jeep Grand Cherokee and last-generation Ford Explorer in its overall design execution, both of which have pleasing but conservative lines. The squared rear and the sheetmetal kink that runs the length of the vehicle’s slabbed sides following the contour of the massive wheel arches give the Atlas just enough personality to keep it visually distinctive and somewhat interesting to my eye. The 20-inch tri-5-spoke wheel upgrade helps the overall look vs the base 18-inch wheels but are probably good for literally nothing else, and as such are the tragically hip option for those who care about aesthetics.
Driving the 2.0T back-to-back with the V6 AWD, you will notice a few key differences very quickly. The VR6 has a familiar and admittedly more pleasing sound and visceral feeling from the driver’s seat. Coupled with AWD, it immediately feels more substantial overall. The 2.0T, by comparison, sounds like a 4-cyl when you apply the throttle and maxes out at 235 horsepower compared to 276 hp in the VR6.
There is a slight turbo whine at low speeds and the 2.0-liter can sound coarse under hard acceleration, but I wouldn’t say it feels like it’s not up to the task of motivating 4,300 lbs. The 2.0 under the hood is the same unit as found in the GTI. I’d be kidding myself if I got vanity plates that read “XXL GTI” (I obviously thought about it for a moment), but with 263 lb-ft of torque at 1,500 rpm, the 2.0T out-torques the VR6 at lower speeds and RPMs, giving it a lot of real-world usefulness, especially for around-town driving, and it has surprising punch when you call on it.
The 2.0T with FWD feels noticeably lighter and easier to motivate than the VR6, whose additional heft relating to a larger engine and AWD, are readily apparent. Indeed, reviews of the two models reveal that the 2.0T is capable of beating the VR6 in a sprint to 60mph by up to 0.7 seconds. The roughly 500-pound weight difference between the two models is readily noticeable from the driver’s seat. The 2.0 feels downright sprightly in comparison at lower speeds. I hate to use the familiar cliché but it truly drives smaller than it is in both drivetrain configurations, but especially in 2.0T.
With an overall length of 198.3 inches, it is decidedly not small and comes in at about 6 inches shorter than the Chevy Traverse and Chrysler Pacifica. Neither Atlas drivetrain configuration has the motivation or handling that makes you want to seek its limits or even push it hard.
In a family hauler … that’s just fine. It is very comfortable and remarkably quiet when up to speed, and to my ears, quieter even than the Buick Enclave it replaced. The steering is light and heavily boosted but also direct and easy to point and shoot, adding to the overall ease of operation. Throttle tip-in for the 2.0T is slightly aggressive and if the wheels aren’t pointed straight, you will get the dreaded one-wheel peel from a stop if you are too eager with your right foot. The Atlas is a comfortable cruiser and manages to be a pretty good urban runabout at the same time. The Aisin 8-speed automatic transmission is quite well paired with this vehicle, at least in my experience with the 2.0T. Shifts are never harsh, it selects the right gear quickly when your right foot asks and just works seamlessly in the background.
It is not all rainbows and sunshine, though. I generally feel the suspension is well sorted in most situations, but whenever the front tires are hitting road imperfections in tandem, the impact can feel somewhat harsh. Things like a raised edge of road slab, pavement heaves, and parking-lot entrances definitely upset the front suspension. I’m not sure how much the 20-inch rims contribute to that, but it is a strange result in a vehicle that otherwise has a compliant and restrained setup. Another suspension surprise is the propensity for a strong rebound over deep dips in the road. The springboard effect can really catch you off guard and doesn’t seem proportional to how the Atlas handles overall.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the auto start/stop feature. It is defeatable with a dedicated button located under the climate controls. I usually leave it operating, unless I am in stop-and-go traffic, where it becomes unbearable. But when pulling up a traffic light, it works seamlessly. Take your foot off the brake and the car is already started and inching forward before you can hit the accelerator. Despite it being a pretty good system, I still consider it an annoyance and put it in the “gripe” category.
Inside the cabin is a comfortable environment. The perforated leatherette is a convincing substitute for an actual dead-animal seating surface and it’s available on the higher SEL trim. Minimalism and restraint are the design themes, and they work fairly well in my opinion.
The controls are pretty intuitive, easy to operate and reach. The dash is set back, leaving an open feeling upfront. Only the driver seat is power operated in the SE. The seats are generally easy on your back and rear end. Finding a comfortable seating position is no problem and my wife and I use the same seating position despite our 6-inch height difference.
The second row is very roomy with plenty of legroom. The captain’s chairs have about 6 inches of travel that can further accommodate the third-row passengers when necessary. The third row itself is suitable for normal-sized adults, even on longer trips, and without having to eat your knees in the process. The third-row headrests, when extended, eat into what is otherwise excellent visibility all around.
The SE trim adds a few chargers, some USB and some 12-volt, spattered about vs just two upfront in the base model, I believe. It also gets you a larger 8-inch touchscreen vs the base model, in addition to three-zone climate control.
The tech package adds an auto-dimming mirror, remote start, and adaptive cruise control with emergency braking. The car comes standard with LED headlights, LED running/accent lights, LED turn signals, LED high beams, rain-sensing wipers, blind-spot monitor, and rear cross-traffic alert. It also has turning lamps when you reverse or rotate the wheel, which is a great feature on any car.
The tech package also has lane-keep assist. It works provided both sides of the lane are marked by lines. It doesn’t center though, so keeping your hands off the wheel will send you back and forth bouncing off lane markers until you regain consciousness. It doesn’t apply enough torque to the steering wheel to take a corner, though, so better play on your phone later and drive now. It will, however, make you a believer in turn signals lest you enjoy fighting the wheel on unsignaled lane changes. The adaptive cruise can come to a complete stop and take off again. I haven’t personally tested that, but again, another great feature for those who are prone to doze off behind the wheel.
The base sound system is only adequate, you aren’t going to get rich sound at high volume and I consider the speaker system as nearing the letdown column in terms of quality. The Atlas has keyless ignition, with SE models getting keyless entry and a rear power liftgate. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard.
Though the interior looks nice enough and is put together well, the material quality is not great. There are a few strategically placed soft-touch materials but otherwise, hard plastics abound. Plastic trim meant to mimic other materials fails to deceive the eye and simply looks like … more plastic.
The overall interior package is executed well. It is confounding, though, that maybe only one or two hundred dollars of extra cost to VW could propel the interior to an entirely different level. I suppose us mere mortals cannot hope to comprehend the ways of the bean counter.
The interior’s shortcomings are easily overlooked, as this is a vehicle with a mission after all, and I have recovered from my intemperate dash-fondling youth to focus on more important matters like charging ports for everyone’s device and cupholders numbering in the teens. But if you enjoy picking nits, the interior material quality will surely be one of the nits that get picked.
One area where Atlas fails at its key mission is the third row. Though it has plenty of comfort for passengers of all sizes, it only holds two passengers. A large sacrifice to bear at the hands of styling, as the massive wheel arches, which couldn’t all possibly be needed for suspension travel, intrude into the passenger space, thus preventing the Atlas from schlepping one additional passenger, where a minivan or Chevy Traverse (and other competitors) manage the three-across feat.
Nevertheless, the Atlas is a fairly viable minivan alternative for up to seven passengers, or six if you get the second-row captain’s chairs. In FWD 2.0T guise, it has proven to be fairly efficient, averaging 24 mpg in primarily city driving. The EPA estimate is 22/26. This past summer I took the family on vacation to Northern Michigan for a 600-mile or so round trip. Packed to the ceiling with gear, a 16-cubic-foot cargo box on the roof, running the A/C at 80 mph highway speeds. I averaged 25 mpg with what I would estimate to be 1,100 lbs of people and stuff. My wife more recently took the Atlas from Detroit to Chicago with just one kid for a soccer tournament, where the cooler weather and lighter load helped bring the mpgs up to 27.
I’m very pleased with the Atlas so far and don’t feel I had to give up space or amenities to achieve decent efficiency. I used some of the money I saved by opting for the FWD 2.0T model to buy some Blizzaks this winter. I am now a pretty big believer in winter tires after just one winter. Overall, I would say that it was better than AWD with standard all-season tires as I have done in the past, but you do lose some of that AWD pull from a stop. We only got one real heavy snow this year and front wheels with Blizzaks managed, without much drama, to pull the Atlas around in 7-8 inches of snow on unplowed neighborhood streets, even up moderate inclines.
The Atlas has had one warranty repair in about 40,000 miles, to address noise from the steering rack.
Both the minivan and station wagon are alive and well. They now just have hinged doors and a little more ground clearance, respectively. In fact, I refer to my Atlas as “minivan spec”. Calling them crossovers is somehow more palatable in these times where function has given way to lifestyle image through clever marketing and packaging. In the end, I think we got the minivan we actually needed regardless of what you call it.
[Images provided by the author]
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