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Review: 2021 Volkswagen Atlas

Chris Kaiser

The 3-row SUV segment is a hotly contested one. Will the updates to the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas keep it competitive? Let’s find out.

Minimally Refreshed

Mid-cycle refreshes are a lot like repainting an old shed. The goal is to make the thing look decent while buying yourself some time before addressing the real changes you know are needed. And so it is with the newly refreshed 2021 Volkswagen Atlas. The Atlas receives some updates to the front facia (and adds three inches in length to accommodate) and expands the availability of its all-wheel drive. These changes are indeed welcome, especially the updated headlight and taillights which actually look quite sharp.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas - vw.com

2021 Volkswagen Atlas – vw.com  |  Shop new Volkswagen Atlas on Carsforsale.com

But generally, the Atlas continues with what brought it to the dance in 2017, a spacious interior, a comfortable ride, and a good array of standard features. The three-row SUV segment was already competitive before the debut of Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade, with titans like the Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander having firmly supplanted the minivan and sedan as American’s go-to family vehicles. The question for Volkswagen’s Atlas is whether doing the important stuff right is enough to win over buyers. We find out below.

Specs – Four by Four

New for the 2021 Atlas is the availability of all-wheel drive in combination with the smaller four-cylinder engine. The mill is a 2.0L turbocharged engine making 235hp and 258lb.-ft. of torque. The second engine option is a 3.6L V6 putting down 276hp and 266lb.-ft. (it also comes with either FWD or AWD varieties). Both engines are paired with a smooth shifting eight-speed automatic transmission.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas 3.6L V6 engine - carsforsale.com
2021 Volkswagen Atlas 3.6L V6 engine - carsforsale.com

Power is ample, if not pronounced, from either engine. It’s the 3.6L V6 that allows the Atlas to reach its max towing capacity of 5,00lbs. Fuel efficiency lags behind most of the competition. It breaks down as follows: the 2.0L FWD gets 21 city/ 24 highway mpg and the AWD version at 20/24, the 3.6L FWD gets 17/23 with AWD 16/22. For reference, the Kia Telluride gets 20 city and 26 highway mpg, the Honda Pilot 20/27, and the Ford Explorer 21/28.

Driving & Performance – Inconspicuousness at Its Best

2021 Volkswagen Atlas - vw.com
2021 Volkswagen Atlas - vw.com

Though the Atlas is the biggest (and most expensive) Volkswagen you can buy, it’s fairly well-mannered on the road. Lean is muted around corners and acceleration, while not explosive, gets the Atlas up to cruising speed easily. The eight-speed transmission smoothly transitions between gears and proved to be the all-star of the powertrain. Steering felt distant however and lighter than we would have liked.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas - vw.com
2021 Volkswagen Atlas - vw.com

The Atlas’s strong suit is keeping the driving experience in the background. As a big family hauler, the Atlas’s quiet cabin and well damped ride will be most appreciated on long stretches of highway. The Mazda CX-9 may be more athletically inclined, and the Ford Explorer might pack more ponies under the hood, but the Atlas still gets the job done just fine. Though this German SUV is actually built in Tennessee, its modest, workmanlike driving experience feels very Volkswagen indeed.

Comfort & Interior – Echo Comes Free of Charge

2021 Volkswagen Atlas cargo room - vw.com
2021 Volkswagen Atlas cargo room - vw.com

Volkswagen took a similar approach when designing the Atlas’s interior space, and of space there is aplenty. Front and second row passengers are afforded copious leg and elbow room and it’s not until you get to the third row before things start to get cramped. Cargo in the Atlas is excellent with 20.6 cu. ft. behind the third row, a very generous 55.5 cu. ft. with the third row folded down, and a full 96.8 cu. ft. in total. Those numbers, especially the second one, put the Atlas near the top of its class. For comparison, the Telluride offers a split of 22/46/87 cu. ft., the Explorer 18.2/47.9/87.8, and the class leading Traverse at 23/57.8/98.2 cu. ft. The Atlas compliments all this space with a serene cabin and, as we noted above, an exceedingly smooth ride.

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The only major detraction to the Atlas’s interior is a general lack of inspiration. Design is clearly behind the likes of Hyundai/Kia, Mazda and even Toyota. The use of hard plastics and cheaper materials might have been more excusable if the aesthetics could compensate, but they don’t.

Yet the Atlas does keep up when it comes to tech features. The maxed out 8.0-inch touchscreen might be on the small side of current market standards, but the resolution and responsiveness are better than average (especially the rearview camera). Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as Bluetooth, HD and satellite radio, and navigation are all available. The optional 12-speaker Fender audio system is a significant jump in quality from the base stereo.

Trims & Features – A Good Standard

AWD – Add to any trim for $1,900.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SEL - vw.com
2021 Volkswagen Atlas SEL - vw.com

S – $30,545 ($31,545 for third row)

6.5-inch touchscreen, 18-inch alloy wheels, remote keyless entry, cloth seats, LED headlights, blind spot monitoring, auto emergency braking, forward collision warning, rearview camera.

SE – $33,945

Push-button start, heated front seats, power adjustable driver’s seat, 8.0-inch touchscreen, adaptive cruise control, parking sensors.

SE with Tech Package – $38,295

Proximity keyless entry, hands-free lift gate, Car-Net 2.0 phone connectivity (remote start, lock and unlock from your phone), lane keep assist, traffic jam assist.

SEL – $42,295

10-inch digital gauge cluster, panoramic sunroof, automatic high beams, navigation, towing package, heated steering wheel.

SEL Premium – $47,195 (AWD version $48,995)

Ambient lighting, 12-speaker Fender stereo system, power folding side mirrors, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, surround view camera, park assist.

Conclusions – A Third-Row Wallflower

The biggest knock against the Atlas is that there’s little that makes it stand out from the third-row crowd. The value is there, there are the requisite tech amenities and decent towing, but aside from the cargo room and interior spaciousness, there’s not a lot you won’t find in more refined competitors like the segment leading siblings of the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas - vw.com

2021 Volkswagen Atlas – vw.com  |  Shop new Volkswagen Atlas on Carsforsale.com

But we don’t make our car purchases based solely on the brass tacks. I, you, the car buying public, we follow our gut. The little things like cup holders, paint colors, or just the basic look of the vehicle carry as much weight (and often more) than horsepower or handling. So, if spaciousness and overall value are your top priorities, the Atlas should jump up to the top of your list of possible three-row SUV purchases.

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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