The VW Atlas: The Family Car We Didn’t See Coming

The name says it all, people: Volkswagen, or “wagon for folks.” And folks, what a wagon this is: After decades of focusing on smaller sedans and finely tuned performance cars, VW is back with a three-row SUV that’s just as much fun for passengers as it is for drivers. I recently took one for a spin, and here’s everything you need to know if you’re considering one.

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vw atlas car
Scotty Reiss

The Backstory

VW introduced the Atlas as a strategy to stanch the bleeding from the company’s diesel scandal. The Atlas started rolling out in mid-2017 and American families took notice. Finally, all the important details were in place: seats for everyone, space for child car seats, room for gear like strollers, book bags and sports bags, all-wheel drive, high ground clearance and top technology. In short: It was designed with real life in mind.

vw atlas dashboard
Scotty Reiss

The Design

Seeing the Atlas in my driveway was a pure pleasure. Seeing it in a parking lot or on the street was nice, too. It’s boxy in the classic SUV sense, with gently rounded edges that keep it from feeling too severe or looking dated. Alongside a Land Rover, Ford Explorer or Honda Pilot, the Atlas’s tall and muscular stance fits right in.

Inside, the Atlas has an open and airy cabin. There’s a lot of headroom and the interior elements are minimal and streamlined, not overly plush. Think: Leatherette upholstery, wood accents and soft-touch plastic panels.

There’s also a panoramic sunroof, which spans nearly the entire roofline. This is great for keeping third row passengers feeling happy and abating car sickness, since folks in the back-back won’t feel like they’re stuck in a moving cave.

a seat moved up in the vw atlas
Scotty Reiss

Seating And Configuration

If you want to fit seven, you’ll need to go for the three-person center row bench seat, but you can also opt for captain’s chairs if you only need to seat six.

But even with the center row bench, getting in and out is easy, since the center row seats slide and tilt forward to allow access—and even slide and tilt with child car seats installed via the LATCH system in the second row.

Don’t actually need a third row? It folds down for extra cargo space. (We easily stowed several suitcases and hockey bags back there.)

three car seats in the vw atlas
Scotty Reiss

But What About Car Seats?

Here’s the rub: Child car seats have to be LATCH-installed if you want to access the third row. (If they’re installed via seatbelt, the center row seats will not tilt forward.) So, like anything with kids, it’s a dance. LATCH can only be used until a child is about 40 pounds; after that, the seatbelt must be used, and you’re out of luck on the tilting front.

In other words, families with children in forward-facing car seats or booster seats who need regular access to the third row may want to consider center row captains’ chairs.

vw atlas radio
Scotty Reiss

The Tech And Features

This might be my favorite thing about the Atlas: It has lots of great stuff, but not everything. All of which means that VW was able to keep the price under—in some cases, significantly under–$50,000.

Among the tech features I found most helpful:

  • A full suite of active safety features including adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitors, lane departure assist, parking sensors and emergency braking
  • 4 USB ports (1 in a cubby at the bottom of the center console, one in the front seat center arm rest and two in the second row) and a household plug (in the second row)
  • Upgraded infotainment system with VW’s app suite
  • Hands-free motion-activated lift gate
  • Park Pilot auto parking (keep reading)
vw atlas rearview camera
Scotty Reiss

The Driving Experience

Yes, it’s a big car, but still, it was easy to drive and park. The model I tested had the larger V6 engine, which I found comfortable on both city streets and on the highway. It had plenty of power and I had plenty of confidence.

I was also a huge fan of the Atlas’s unique parking feature called Park Pilot, a semi-autonomous system that parks the car for you: You control braking and shifting gears and the Atlas does the rest. What I loved best is that it pulls the car forward into a parking spot rather than backing in. Ever try getting the Costco cart around to the back of your car in a packed parking lot? Or opening the lift gate when the car behind you has pulled up too close? This is a brilliant detail.

vw atlas front
Scotty Reiss

Bottom Line: Here’s What I Loved

  • Super roomy
  • Slide and tilt center row seats that accommodate child car seats
  • The upgraded infotainment system—super easy to use
  • Park Pilot
  • The warranty: 6 years bumper to bumper!
  • Apple Car Play/Android Auto
  • That panoramic sunroof!!!

What You Need To Know

  • Seats 7 with a center row bench; 6 with center row captain’s chairs
  • Built in Chattanooga, TN
  • 17 MPG city/23 MPG city
  • Uses regular gas
  • Center row bench is standard; captain’s chairs are an upgrade
  • Center seats don’t slide and tilt if a car seat is installed with the car’s seatbelt
  • Front-wheel and all-wheel drive options (4Motion, in VW speak)
  • 4Motion all-wheel drive is an $1,800 upgrade
  • No rear seat entertainment option
vw atlas review
courtesy of Volkswagen

What It Costs

  • S (base) model, 2.0 L turbo engine with 235 horsepower: $30,895
  • S V6 with AWD, 3.6 L engine with 276 horsepower: $34,095
  • SE V6 AWD model adds rain sensing wipers, auto start/stop, leatherette upholstery, upgraded touch screen and center row captain’s chair option: $37,295
  • SEL V6 AWD model adds panoramic sunroof, motion-activated lift gate, household power outlet, Park Pilot auto self parking and adaptive cruise control: $43,195
  • SEL Premium V6 AWD adds digital cockpit electronic driver cluster, surround view/rear view camera, premium Fender sound system and leather seating: $48,395
  • Price of the SEL V6 AWD model we drove, which includes delivery: $43,615

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Freelance PureWow Editor