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A Year of Trials and Tribulations in Our 2018 Volkswagen Atlas SE

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 1/23/2020 Motor Trend Staff

If there was a way to measure a vehicle's overall utility, our long-term 2018 Volkswagen Atlas SE would score very highly. Whether it be a weekend camping trip with friends, moving day to a new apartment, or hauling around a load of videographers and their many cases of equipment, the Atlas was the go-to vehicle to borrow from the MotorTrend fleet. I now know what it's like to be that friend with a truck!

Research the Volkswagen Atlas on MSN Autos

In previous updates, I've talked at great length about the Atlas' 96.8 cubic feet of cargo room. When cross-shopping the Atlas against its long list of competitors, this abundance of space is probably its biggest selling point. I will say it again: That's 2.1 cubic feet more cargo room than the much larger, truck-based Chevrolet Tahoe! Just take a look at this list of three-row SUVs with less space.

So much cargo room in a vehicle that's not much larger than its competitors makes the Atlas an interesting proposition, and one of the few options consumers have without jumping up to a full-size, truck-based SUV or swallowing their pride and buying a minivan. With the exception of the Chevrolet Traverse, with its vast 98.2 cubic feet of cargo space, it's hard to find a vehicle that can outdo the cavernous Atlas.

All of that space equates to ample room for passengers to stretch out and relax. All three rows of seating are comfortable, with the front passenger getting heated, 10-way adjustable seats. The black V-Tex leatherette that covered our seats was very wear resistant and still looked pretty much new when the vehicle left us. If 14 months and 26,680 miles of near daily use by myself and other staff members didn't wreck the interior, I think it would probably do pretty well resisting the destructive force of children, as well. The large rear doors offer great accessibility, and the sliding, reclining, 60/40 split second-row bench and 50/50 split third-row seats allow you to configure the Atlas however you need to carry people and their stuff.

a car parked on the side of a road: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas SE V6 front three quarter 1 © Motor Trend Staff 2018 Volkswagen Atlas SE V6 front three quarter 1

Now, if the most important thing to your next buying decision is that newly created "overall utility" score, go ahead and stop reading, and head to your nearest VW dealer. My sixth update delves into how I would spec my dream Atlas, and it's a pretty good starting point for anyone in the market.

Before I discuss some of the Atlas' shortcomings, there's a caveat, and it's kind of a big one. Throughout much of my year with the Atlas, I suspected there was something wrong with the steering. About halfway through my year chaperoning our long-term Atlas, I had the opportunity to drive a 4Motion all-wheel-drive-equipped Atlas, and the difference in the turning radius and overall steering feel led me to believe that not all was copacetic with our long-termer. My belief was reinforced after test guru Kim Reynolds tested the difference in turning radius between our long-termer and the 4Motion-equipped Atlas. Once Reynolds crunched the numbers, it clearly proved that there was a fairly dramatic discrepancy between the two. You can read the particulars in my fourth update.

After multiple visits to my local VW dealer didn't remedy the issue, Volkswagen brought the Atlas back to the mothership, and it turns out there was a software issue related to a replacement steering rack that was causing it to perform so poorly. It took about 30 seconds behind the wheel to feel the difference the software fix made.

So, what can I tell you? For most the year I spent with the Atlas, the turning radius was atrocious, making even the simple act of parking in a lot an annoying, multiple-step maneuver. I can tell you from experience that yelling obscenities while parking doesn't help the turning circle, no matter how loud you scream. The steering feel was also compromised—our long-termer's steering had a dulled-down feeling all the time. The best way I can describe it is that it felt like the power steering was only working at 75 percent of its capability.

Once we got the steering fixed, my opinion of the Atlas did grow sunnier, though it's still not perfect. Maybe it's not fair to compare the driving experience to my previous long-term vehicle, the slightly smaller Mazda CX-9, but in my opinion the Mazda still sets the ride and handling bar for the competitive set. Setting the Mazda aside, if you hop behind the wheel of one of the newer competitors like the Kia Telluride, there's a noticeable disparity in the refinement in ride quality and body control in the Atlas. Swinging back to a point that I made early on in my time with the Atlas, Volkswagen should have made the GTI of three-row SUVs, not just another minivan alternative.

a car parked on the side of a mountain © Motor Trend Staff

As far as efficiency, the Atlas averaged 20.3 mpg over our 14 months with it. That number was probably helped by some long road trips; my day-to-day mileage fell short of that number. Most of my fill-ups happened in the 250-mile range, which made me a regular at the local gas station. Comparatively, the 20.3 mpg puts the Atlas within spitting distance of our long-term Subaru Ascent and my long-term Mazda CX-9, which both averaged 20.6 mpg. The purple-coat-wearing wizards over at RealMPG managed a combined fuel economy of 22.7 mpg and an impressive highway rating of 27.5 mpg.

Maintenance costs for our Atlas were fairly low: We only spent $167.69 on two oil changes and accompanying inspections. We got off pretty cheap compared to my long-term CX-9, which cost us $322.35 over the year. And our long-term 2016 Honda Pilot Elite three-row SUV's maintenance costs of $378.62 make the Atlas look like a bargain.

At the end of the day, did I enjoy my time in the Atlas? No. Unlike my previous eight long-term vehicles, there is little about the Atlas that I will reminisce about in the future. Some consumers will prioritize this vehicle's number of seats and cavernous interior, and that's OK. For me, though, even a three-row family hauler needs to be a more complete package. Mazda did it with the CX-9, Kia did it with the Telluride, and Volkswagen has done it the past. No one ever made a great car by simply checking off the boxes of what the consumer expects. Instead of just checking the boxes, Volkswagen needs to make Volkswagens again.

Research the Volkswagen Atlas on MSN Autos

Read more about our long-term 2018 Volkswagen Atlas SE:

Our Car
SERVICE LIFE 14 mo / 26,680 mi
BASE PRICE $36,165
OPTIONS None
PRICE AS TESTED $38,265
AVG ECON/CO2 20.3 mpg / 0.96 lb/mi
PROBLEM AREAS Steering column and turning radius
MAINTENANCE COST $167.69 (2 x oil change, inspection)
NORMAL-WEAR COST $0
3-YEAR RESIDUAL VALUE* $24,600 (64%)
RECALLS None
*IntelliChoice data; assumes 42,000 miles at the end of 3-years
2018 Volkswagen Atlas SE V6
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD
ENGINE TYPE 10.6-deg V-6 iron block/alum head
VALVETRAIN DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
DISPLACEMENT 219.5 cu in/3,597 cc
COMPRESSION RATIO 12.0:1
POWER (SAE NET) 276 hp @ 6,200 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 266 lb-ft @ 2,750 rpm
REDLINE 6,500 rpm
WEIGHT TO POWER 15.7 lb/hp
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO 3.60:1/2.41:1
SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs
STEERING RATIO 16.3:1
TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK 2.3
BRAKES, F; R 13.2-in vented disc; 12.2-in disc, ABS
WHEELS 8.0 x 18-in cast aluminum
TIRES 245/60R18 105T (M+S) Continental CrossContact LX Sport
DIMENSIONS
WHEELBASE 117.3 in
TRACK, F/R 67.2/67.8 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 198.3 x 78.3 x 70.0 in
GROUND CLEARANCE 8.0 in
APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE 20.4/22.4 deg
TURNING CIRCLE 38.1 ft
CURB WEIGHT 4,344 lb
WEIGHT DIST, F/R 57/43%
TOWING CAPACITY 5,000 lb
SEATING CAPACITY 7
HEADROOM, F/M/R 41.3/40.4/38.3 in
LEGROOM, F/M/R 41.5/37.6/33.7 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/M/R 61.5/60.8/54.9 in
CARGO VOLUME BEH F/M/R 96.8/55.5/20.6 cu ft
TEST DATA
ACCELERATION TO MPH
0-30 2.6 sec
0-40 3.9
0-50 5.4
0-60 7.3
0-70 9.5
0-80 12.0
0-90 15.3
0-100 18.9
PASSING, 45-65 MPH 3.9
QUARTER MILE 15.6 sec @ 90.8 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 130 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.81 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.6 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)
TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH 1,700 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
BASE PRICE $36,165
PRICE AS TESTED $38,265
STABILITY/TRACTION CONTROL Yes/Yes
AIRBAGS 6: Dual front, front-side, F/R - curtain
BASIC WARRANTY 6 yrs/72,000 miles
POWERTRAIN WARRANTY 6 yrs/72,000 miles
ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE 3 yrs/36,000 miles
FUEL CAPACITY 8.0 gal
REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB 19.9/27.5/22.7 mpg
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON 18/25/20 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 187/135 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.94 lb/mile
RECOMMENDED FUEL Unleaded regular
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