Often times, car enthusiasts render a verdict on the nature of an automobile based on how well it can fulfill their more visceral motoring desires. Does it accelerate quickly? Brake hard and stop forcefully, but progressively? Take turns at high speed? Reward the driver with feedback from the steering, the suspension, the exhaust note?
But for most vehicles, that's not what matters all that much. Sure, it's nice to go fast, and it's good to be involved in the drive — but having more than enough space and capability to haul people and cargo wherever, whenever will beat that nine times out of ten for the average driver. (If that weren't the case, full-size pickups wouldn't outsell everything else in America by a comfortable margin.)
By those less-exacting-but-no-less-important standards, the rise and, now, ubiquity of crossover make a ton of sense. Roomy interiors mean ample space for ever-expanding lives, four-wheel grip means weather is no longer something to be feared (as much, at least), and car-like unibody platforms enable (slightly) lighter construction, which in turn means less money spent building an SUV and less money spent filling it up at the pump.
And as it turns out, even a few years after it debuted, the Volkswagen Atlas is still a good example of the importance of those traits.
I took the Atlas north to upstate New York for a long weekend at Getaway's Eastern Catskills resort — a bucolic array of tiny house cabins (which are technically camping trailers by virtue of their wheels and tow hitch, but hey, why get hung up on labels?) nestled in a patch of verdant woods that's just a few miles from the New York State Thruway but feels a good deal further from civilization. While there are plenty of ways to drive from Manhattan to the Catskills that will test a car and reward a driver, our desire to maximize our time there meant taking said thruway
The Atlas was fine with that. It is, admittedly, not fun to drive in the traditional sense. (Hell, it seems determined to make even the simple pleasure of driving with the windows down seem wrong; the instrument panel constantly flashed at me to roll up the windows for the sake of fuel economy, which has to be the most annoying nanny feature on a car since the "shift up" light.)
The 3.6-liter V6 in my test car makes a reasonable amount of power, but in all honesty, it's not with the $1,650 upcharge over the 2.0-liter turbo four that comes standard on the Atlas. Either motor is enough to rush this VW from a stop to highway speed in reasonable haste, which is realistically all you need from a big family SUV.
Each of the Getaway cabins comes with an adorable mini-fridge, a small stove top and, of course, a delightful fire pit with a built-in grilling area — which meant we had to make sure we had plenty of food and drinks for a long weekend spent relaxing around the campsite and avoiding human contact. (Not because of COVID worries or anything; we just wanted to, well, get away from everyone.)
The Atlas was more than happy to accommodate. The total passenger volume of the interior reaches 154 cubic feet — only 14 cubes shy of a Chevy Tahoe. With all three rows of seats in use, you can still cram 20.6 cubic feet worth of gear into the back — more than you can find behind the second row of a new GTI. And if can fold the third row down — as I did for my trip — there's room for four adults to sit in comfort and 55.5 cubic feet of their gear in the stern.
As you can see in the picture above, the cargo bay makes even my pair of larger Yeti coolers — enough to keep dozens upon dozens of seltzers and beers cold for nearly two days — seem tiny in that expanse. Indeed, even with another half a dozen big bags of groceries and clothes, two bundles of firewood and a few other accoutrements, the Atlas still had plenty of room left inside.
Every so often, you'll come across some old VW Vortex forum member who grumbles and groans about missing the days when Volkswagens were built with near-luxury car levels of fit and finish and materials. Well, guess what: the Atlas may not manage to live quite up to the lock-tight fit-and-finish or high-quality interior materials of those premium Vee-Dubs of the Nineties. But what the Atlas does manage to be is affordable.
The base model, the SE, comes with such niceties as heated front seats, a digital instrument panel and blind spot warning, and starts at just $35,630 — $1,900 more if you want all-wheel-drive. My tester, an SEL 4Motion, rang up the register at $47,845; if you feel like spending that much, feel free, but just know that you're dropping a lot of extra coin just for the likes of a panoramic sunroof and a remote starter.
At comfortably under $40K, the Atlas makes a compelling argument for itself as both a conveyance for the daily grind and a means of escape from it. And hey, if you really want adventure, you can even throw some hiking boots on it in the form of dealer-accessory Fifteen52 wheels and off-road tires.
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four / 3.6-liter V6; eight-speed automatic; front- or all-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 235 / 276
Torque: 258 lb-ft / 266
EPA Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway / 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway
Teslas lead the way. But other manufacturers are catching up.