“This is our most profitable vehicle” a Volkswagen product planner bragged during the brief morning introduction to the 2024 VW Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport and, frankly, that nicely sums up the pair of big crossovers. It’s a pragmatic exercise in late capitalism and, properly spec’d, the exact right car for the person who isn’t exactly sure what they want.
[Full Disclosure: Volkswagen of America was nice enough to throw an event within driving distance of my house, but I did avail myself of a night in an Airstream camper (more on that later) and a couple of meals. I also took a bag of s’mores ingredients to eat in my Airstream, but I got distracted by a different Airstream and left them in there. When I went back for the s’mores bag someone had eaten them. Fair play.]
Volkswagen’s popularity in this country stems originally from the Beetle, which was a peculiar and lovable product, well-timed and especially well-marketed to a generation of young people. As those kids grew up, Volkswagen grew with them, adding the sporty Golf, pleasing Jetta, and yuppie Passat. Even as the company grew it mostly maintained its Volkswageness. The New Beetle wasn’t rear-wheel drive, rear-engined, but it was cute and reasonably affordable. Plus, it had a little flower pot built into the interior!
At some point, roughly around the de-contented B7 Passat or neue Rabbit, Volkswagen decided it wanted to become another Toyota and lost some of that charm. It tried to become a world-tackling company with a vehicle for everyone; things became a little bit cheaper, with the company trading on its past to cover up the creeping beigeness. Sure, the company made some great cars, like the Golf R, but that was the exception, not the rule.
This gambit of making cheaper and duller Volkswagens almost worked. Marketshare increased a little. Sales went up, for a while, before crashing down. Some of this was the inevitable outcome of Dieselgate in 2015, but something way worse happened to Volkswagen: Kia and Hyundai figured out how to make better cars, right around the time VW was cratering its own brand value.
To the company’s credit, it seems to have figured this out rather quickly. Even before Dieselgate and VW’s road to EV Damascus moment, the products started to get better while retaining some of the company’s heritage. Plus, they started to get more logical.
One of the best ideas to come out of Wolfsburg was the 2017 introduction of the Volkswagen Atlas. Neither the best, nor worst, vehicle in its segment, Volkswagen realized a key selling point of big crossovers would be a third-row; the company figured it could build a reasonably nice and reasonably affordable SUV-like thing with enough room for seven passengers. This was before the Kia Telluride, Grand Cherokee L, and way ahead of the Grand Highlander.
Prior to that, Volkswagen offered only the completely fine Tiguan (also a smart play, and big seller) and kinda cool Touareg–a vehicle with a name as hard to pronounce as its price tag was difficult to justify. The Atlas was bigger than a Tiguan but cheaper than a Touareg. It just made sense. That the company added on the five-seat-only Atlas Cross Sport was more a reflection of consumer sentiment than practicality, but it’s a car company. That’s what they’re supposed to do.
Now, for 2024, the Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport have become simplified and more feature-rich to compete with the sudden crowded world of three-row crossovers.
What’s New For The 2024 Atlas
There may be no ethical consumption in capitalism, but you still gotta buy a car sometimes. If you want the truckiest thing you can buy with three rows, try a Tahoe or Expedition. If you want the most luxurious and probably best three-row SUV, a BMW dealer will happily help you locate and vacate your wallet in exchange for an X7. A Kia Telluride is better, sure, but do you really want to wait for one?
Maybe you don’t want to wait. Maybe the small little details that are so important to car reviewers and enthusiasts are not, in fact, important to you. What might be important to you is that it looks good, it’s as big inside as the Superdome, and you can afford it.
Not all mid-cycle refreshes are created equal. Sometimes a company updates a car just to update it. This is Subaru Forester Syndrome. The pre-facelift Atlas is a little too slab-sided for my tastes. A touch too one-note. The whole thing looks like it was generated in the background of a Playstation One first-person shooter if you catch my drift.
Credit Volkswagen for taking the hint and craft what is, essentially, the same vehicle into a slightly more modern-looking package. The grille has been pleasingly reshaped, the headlights are now connected by a small LED lighting element, and VW even added a heckblende out back! If you’re not familiar, a heckblende is that little strip of plastic or light meant to create the appearance of one big taillight that stretches around the rear of a car. Heckblendes are hecking cool in my book.
The interior is changed, though I’m not sure I’d say improved. I drove two SEL Premium R-Line cars and they were nice enough places to be. In order to keep these cars profitable some corners were cut and dash elements that looked texture were actually just printed and smooth. How expensive is it to just texture something? Do we need these little Potemkin trim panels? Some accountant at VW will know better than I do. I’m a fan of VW’s Digital Cockpit Gauge Cluster and it’s cool that what was once a premium Audi feature is now something everyone can enjoy.
It’s a modern car, so this is the point in the review wherein I kvetch that you can’t access the fan speed controls on anything but a screen. There should absolutely be fan buttons. There are not. This is silly.
The whole layout of the controls is like a plot to a Christopher Nolan movie in that it only makes sense if you’re determined not to think about it too much. For instance, you can access the I.Q. Drive driver assistance features via a touch capacitive button below the main screen, but then you have to touch photos on the screen to adjust these features for some reason. I don’t love it. But, hey, you get a 12-inch infotainment display on every car!
So what’s the actual important change here? You get one engine. The 3.6-liter six-cylinder VR6 engine is gone, in its place is a new 2.0-liter turbo. While I appreciate that Mercedes loves the VR6, it’s not extremely missed here. Paired with an eight-speed automatic, the new TSI 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder motor has seven less horsepower (269 hp vs. 276 hp), but also has a bit more torque at 273 foot-pounds. In both FWD and AWD spec the new turbo motor, VW proudly brags, offers 28% more torque at 1,550 RPM, though overall torque is just up 7 lb-ft. That’s enough to boost the all-wheel-drive Atlas to 60 mph in a respectable 7.5 seconds, compared to 8.3 for the outgoing VR6-equipped car.
The new engine also returns better fuel economy, offering 20 city/27 highway/23 combined mpg for the FWD models (the old VR6 offered 18/24/20 MPG city/highway/combined) and 19/26/22 for the AWD SE models (outgoing AWD VR6 models offered 18/23/20 MPG city/highway/combined. The new Wilderness-y Atlas Peak Edition gets 18/24/20 mpg. All models can still tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Other than choosing between AWD and FWD, or Atlas (three-row) or Atlas Cross Sport (two-row), all variations of the Atlas are basically the same car with different toppings. This makes logical sense. Volkswagen is shifting to electric cars but knows that most buyers ain’t making that jump anytime soon. Developing multiple engines is silly. Just make one car and let someone choose if they want to pay the $36,715 (plus $1,350 destination) for the SE Cross Sport or $52,455 (plus $1,350 destination) for the fancier R-line regular Atlas.
I will not enumerate all the differences, so here they are, from a VW presentation:
What The Atlas And Cross Sport Are Like To Drive
I drove a 4motion (that’s the AWD one) Atlas with the R-Line Premium trim and a similarly spec’d Cross Coupe with the Storm Trooper black-over-white interior. The drive route was a moderately twisty path between Catskills towns with some longer stretches of smooth highway.
You ever spend a few hours of your day working in an almost fugue state? A lacuna that so entirely envelopes you that you look up at the clock only to realize it’s 3:00 PM and you haven’t had lunch or even moved. That’s what it is like to drive the Atlas.
Volkswagen made no suspension changes, so it’s the same strut-type front and multilink rear. Sure, you can shift between ECO an SPORT and other modes, which will adjust pedal feel, transmission mapping, and adjust the steering slightly.
What I do remember is finding an open and empty stretch of road to shift the Aurora Red Atlas into SPORT mode and try to launch. True to the promise of the new engine, the low-end grunt was there and to 30 mph it felt almost quick. Still, after about 50 mph the turbo sort of quiet quits on the motor. It’s still there, but it’s not interested in doing its job. If you plan to execute a lane change I’d suggest using one of the steering wheel-mounted paddles to kick it down a few gears to give the turbo a reason to work.
In the battle between suppleness and sharpness, the suspension is clearly tilted towards the former at the expense of the latter.
Still, a real test of a three-row SUVs suspension is not in the front seat. It’s all the way in the back, where kids sit. My driving partner was Stephen Rivers from Carscoops, who actually got his start on OppositeLock (the guy with the sweet rallycross Bugeye WRX). I totally lucked out there because Stephen is not only a great person to chat with, he was also fine with tossing the Atlas around to see if I’d start to feel like I wanted to barf.
It took about 10 minutes. I was fine and was able to eat shrimp-and-grits maybe an hour later, but the bounciness over the rear axle was not something an adult is going to want to endure on backroads. The good news for anyone back there, though, is that it’s quite roomy. Even as a taller-than-average guy I could shift the middle row of seats up enough to be comfortable. And with 98 square-feet of storage with all the seats down, you could move an entire college dorm room easily with this thing.
Actually, the best thing about the third row of seats is that someone designed this little child-friendly cupholder system with three much smaller-than-Big-Gulp sizes that seem absolutely perfect for children. Plus, it’s open in between so easy to clean or, maybe, store a small tablet. That’s some good ass design, right there.
Volkswagen boasts that the Atlas now gets IQ.DRIVE standard on all trims, which means lane assist, adaptive cruise control and rear traffic alert. The cruise control on the first Atlas didn’t want to work for some reason, but on the Cross Sport (which was completely identical to drive) it did function and worked as designed. It’s important to remind people that lane assist is not the same as some of the Level 2 driver systems on other vehicles and will, if you’re not paying attention, stop steering for you if the lines in the road disappear, as happened twice while I was testing the system. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with IQ.DRIVE, I just don’t want people to get confused.
Why You Should Buy A Volkswagen Atlas
The ID.4 and ID.Buzz may be the most important future products for Volkswagen, but the Atlas is the most important one in the present. The good news is that VW made it better. It looks better. The new engine makes more sense than the VR6. Someone read their Malcom Gladwell and decided it was cheaper and easier to make a lot of flavors of the same thing rather than reinvent the vehicle altogether.
It’s easy to view this as a perfectly callous exercise in product development. It’s possible to argue that the Atlas is the worst Volkswagen product, as one journalist on the trip mused. Maybe, but I’d argue that goodness or badness are abstractions.
You ever eat Kraft Mac & Cheese? Of course you have. You’re a human being. Kraft Mac & Cheese seems as fake and foreign a product as can be developed in a lab. It is non-food that comes with an almost neon powder and tiny ersatz noodles. It’s also cheap and fucking delicious. Is your own homemade version better? Probably. Fettuccine Alfredo is better. Even the Annie’s sharp cheddar version is better. But none of those things are Kraft Mac & Cheese.
And to be mad at Kraft Mac & Cheese is to kinda miss the point. It’s like getting mad at the moon for creating tides, or Jack Antonoff for trying to make every song sound like “Venice Bitch.” It’s what they do and it’s what works. Is a Kia Telluride EX X-Line a better deal at $47,250 MSRP better than a $48,445 Atlas SEL? Yeah, 100%. Is a dealer going to sell you a Telluride EX X-Line for $47k? Probably not anytime soon.
My whole premise here is that the Atlas is a cleverly designed ploy to offer a lot of stuff in a big package at a fair price. It’s a volume seller. But don’t get mad, get a deal. Volkswagen makes these things in Chattanooga and it’s good at making a lot of them. It also needs to sell them.
The VW guy gave it away at the top. They’re the most profitable thing the company makes here in the United States. That means there are probably going to be deals to be had. Without driving a Telluride, a Grand Cherokee L, a Pilot, and all the rest back-to-back I cannot give an accurate sense of which one is truly better to drive, but my gut tells me its not this. It’s probably the CX-90.
Most people are not buying a three-row crossover for the driving dynamics. They want a big thing with stuff, and this has stuff. A lot of stuff. Nice stuff. A decent sound system. Wireless charging pads. A lot of USB-C ports. Stuff.
If stuff is what you want you should try out the Atlas. It is great at stuff.
All photos Matt Hardigree unless otherwise noted
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