The Atlas is the Volkswagen most clearly designed for the American market. For starters, it is the company's largest and most family-oriented vehicle — a midsize three-row crossover SUV with the softest ride ever offered by the German manufacturer best known for making affordable driver-oriented cars.
But that doesn't mean Volkswagen has compromised its standards by trying to expand its appeal. To the contrary, the Atlas and the newer two-row Atlas Cross Sport are as well designed, as well engineered and as well built as any of the company's products.
Since it was first introduced as a 2018 model, the Atlas has been offered in the wide range of versions that once charactered the offering from Detriot's Big Three. Choices include two engines, front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, and seven trim levels ranging from the base S to the sportiest V6 SEL R-Line. The shorter two-row Cross Sport version was released last year, and the new 2021 Atlas gets a face lift and interior upgrades that include a new steering wheel and additional driver aids.
As confusing as this may sound, all of these choices are necessary to stay competitive in the rapidly changing crossover SUV market where new and revised models are introduced every year. Although Volkswagen was actually late getting into the game, the Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport have been praised as among the best of the affordable offerings. The base three-row S starts at around $32,000 and our heavily-optioned SEL Premium was priced at around $50,000, including the more powerful 3.6-liter V6 engine, 4Motion all-wheel-drive, and a lengthy list of comfort, convenience, infotainment and safety features.
In case you're not following the market, that's a good price for such a substantial and well-equipped crossover SUV.
During a week of testing, I found the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL Premium to be constently satisfying drive. For starters, while many crossover SUVs look generic, the Atlas is handsome, with strong fender lines and a distinctive front end enhanced by this year's tweaks. The interior design is total Volkswagen, which means simple and clean, with easy to find and use controls. Unlike some of its competitors, the Atlas does not try to trick you into thinking it's a low-priced luxury vehicle by topping the dash and door sills with leather. That does mean it looks cheap, however. Volkswagen's internal soft and hard plastics are high quality, and also clean up easily.
Engine choices in both versions of the Atlas include a turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-liter inline-4 that produces 235 horsepower and a normally-aspirated 3.6-liter V6 that pumps out 276, or 41 more. I've tested both now and, although the 2.0 is good for a small turbo engine, I prefer the additional power of the 3.6. It is bigger than most V6 engines available these day and is punchy off the line, which improves drivability. Neither Although neither Atlas can be considered sporty, the V6 gives them reasonable performance for a midsize crossovers.
My test Atlas was also came with Volkswagen's excellent 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, which is ideally suited for the Pacific Northwest. A dial on the center console allows the driver to adjust it for different terrains, ranging from dry and wet pavement to snow and mountain trails. Although not designed for hardcore off-road driving, a 4Motion-equipped Atlas should get most families to and from their recreation destinations. Properly equipped, the Atlas can also tow up to 5,000 pounds.
There are a lot of affordable midsize three-row crossover SUVs on the market now and more are arriving every year. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, but few are as well balanced as the 2020 Volkwagen Atlas, which is available in enough versions to meet every family's needs.
2021 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL Premium
Base price: $48,995
Price as tested: $50,015
Type: Midsize three-row crossover SUV
Engine: 3.6-liter V6 (276 hp, 266 lb-ft)
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
EPA estimated mileage: 16/22
Overall length: 200.7 inches
Curb weight: 4,253 to 4,614 pounds
Final assembly: Chattanooga, Tennessee
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